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Slow start could prove costly for Mayo, says Kevin McStay

Kevin McStay
Kevin McStay

Slow start could prove costly

Kevin McStay

NOBODY knows what’s going to happen next Saturday. After what happened in the league final, we’re back to the week before the championship and nobody knows. The league final was supposed to be about confirming all that management and supporters knew. We were expecting a good, solid performance and that a few more places would be locked-down for the championship.
Instead, when the final whistle went, nobody knew anything. Except maybe that there were now far more questions than answers.

The Cork Game
It did matter. As a result of the league final performance, we have a new centre-back and possibly a new full-forward. If we performed well against Cork, that probably wouldn’t have happened. At least though we found out where the problems were, what we had to solve.
But don’t be in any doubt, the league final set this squad back. It set everybody back. Mayo had a terrific league campaign, right until they got to Croke Park.
My biggest worry arising from the league final performance was that a Mayo team could allow themselves play so badly and be so flat in a major match. Obviously, it wasn’t the first time with a good few of these guys that a big game in Croke Park was dead by half-time.
Why is it happening? Is it because of all the previous bad experiences? When a lot of the lads look back on their Croke Park experiences, quite a lot of them have been bad ones.
I was sure though, after getting four good wins away from home, that Mayo had solid building blocks in place to ensure a good performance against Cork. The fact they didn’t is of concern.
Lack of leadership was certainly a factor again, possibly because John O’Mahony just can’t get his hands on leaders. I know he’s doing a lot of work with them in that area and there are guys on the teamsheet who have the potential to be leaders. They’re not doing it though when they’re really, really needed. That’s a flaw that those lads need to address.

The Summer
The problem for Mayo is that beating Sligo won’t answer any of the big questions for the team or their supporters. Winning the Connacht championship won’t either, and that’s the unfortunate legacy for Mayo football from the last 30 years.
There is only one thing that will answer the question. Mayo have to get to an All-Ireland semi-final or final if it’s going to be seen as any kind of a successful year. It’s shocking, it’s unfair, it’s nobody’s fault, but it’s the way it is. It’s where Mayo are now.
That makes life terribly difficult for Johnno and I wouldn’t envy him. Half the county are wondering if we’ll beat Sligo and the other half are saying, ‘sure even if we beat Sligo, what’s that going to tell us’. He’s almost in a no-win situation which is unfair but . .
If Johnno gets a bad result next weekend, it would destablise just about everything in Mayo football. That’s a lot of pressure going into a game.
There are certain matches you simply have to win if you’re going to continue on as an inter-county footballer. I would say, for a lot of the experienced lads in this Mayo team, Saturday night is one of them. A lot of those lads, and maybe the manager, could not take the notion of losing to Sligo.

The Opposition
If Sligo are going to ever beat Mayo, this is as good a chance as they’re ever going to get. They’re at home, which is a huge bonus, and their confidence is sky-high after a superb league final win, albeit at a different level.
They’ll bring a confidence from their last competitive outing that Mayo won’t have. And Kevin Walsh will be telling his team that Mayo are vulnerable if Sligo can ask them some difficult questions. I’d agree with him.

The Build-Up
Since 1983, when I started playing senior football with the county, Mayo have been the ‘challenge game champions of the world’. Challenge games results don’t matter.
I know Mayo have played a lot of them in the last few weeks but I’m not surprised. So many questions came out of the league final that the management team were left wondering if there were any ‘known knowns’. They needed to look at practically everything again because a lot of their plans were in shreds.

The Game
Mayo will need to start strong and their big players like Ronan McGarrity, Trevor Mortimer, Alan Dillon and Conor Mortimer will have to lead. If Sligo get on top of those four or five, Mayo are in trouble.
I expect the game to be tight, and level with ten minutes to go would be a great place for Mayo to be in. They have the more experienced players and you’d expect them to push on. I certainly don’t see any scenario where Mayo have this game wrapped with fifteen minutes to go.
However, I don’t think Mayo will have any problem believing that they’re good enough to win this game. It’s later on in the season that the issue of belief becomes a problem.
In terms of the game itself, Mayo need to keep it real tight defensively. They need old-school, specialist man-markers on Sligo’s corner-forwards and weld themselves to them.
They need a really, really strong start too where Sligo are struggling to put scores on the board. I don’t see any obvious areas where we can hurt them but Ronan McGarrity needs to put down a marker with Stephen Gilmartin from the off. I’m sure Eamonn O’Hara will be around that area too though and he won’t be shy.

The Verdict
I won’t be a bit surprised if Sligo win it. Okay, they do find it hard to beat Mayo in the championship and there’s an expectation on them that they don’t normally have. But there’s pressure on Mayo too and pressure does strange things to people in big matches. Sometimes it inspires you, sometimes it destroys you.
Mayo need to put distance between themselves and Sligo as quickly as they can. The locals need to be nailed on every ball in the first twenty minutes. Mayo need to be out to every ball and scoring early. That will put the doubts and the questions back in Sligo minds.
This could be one of the best matches in the championship. It’s likely to be close and, once that happens, you can get over the lack of quality.
If Alan Dillon isn’t playing, I would give Sligo the vote to win. Even if he is playing, I think it will be a very tight squeeze.  I have a feeling that we could struggle defensively.
If there is anything in Mayo though, we’d expect a reaction after the league final display.