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It looks like a long road ahead

Kevin McStay
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martin penrose been tackled by trevor howley
SLIP SLIDIN’ AWAY Tyrone sub Martin Penrose is a step ahead of Trevor Howley. Pic: Sportsfile

It looks like a long road ahead

kevin mcstayIN a game that remained there for the taking for close on an hour of so of average to good football, it was a shame we didn’t just push on and take it. Two mediocre teams, pale shadows of their last incarnations, huffed and puffed but never convinced they were taking this Round 3 qualifier game as if it was a matter of footballing life or death. So, Tyrone live to die another day and Mayo troop home with heads bowed once more, their season in ruin due to two single point defeats.
But don’t let those one-pointers fool you into believing Mayo are on the cusp of a major breakthrough. It is true management are working to a three-year plan, but John O’Mahony and his background team will be extremely disappointed with the progress after two years. The bottom line is we appear to have fallen back a little – no Connacht title and two qualifier exits are linked with excellent and average league form over those two years.
It is difficult to find reasons to be cheerful after this latest exit. Scanning the team and substitutes that played last weekend, you are immediately struck by the lack of real emerging talent. Indeed, the best performers were the old hands. James Nallen, David Heaney and Keith Higgins played grand football. Peadar Gardiner smothered Brian Dooher and David Clarke kept clean goals. Conor Mortimer, BJ Padden and Alan Dillon rose above the chaotic to emerge with reputations enhanced.
But where were the new players? Tom Parsons recovered from a very poor start to go on and have a decent game, his misses from well-engineered shooting positions hurting his overall contribution. But there was no Colm Boyle, no Kieran Conroy and the call to give Aidan Kilcoyne and Aidan Campbell game time never really worked out. So, that is disappointing and if we are being realistic, only Tom Cunniffe and Tom Parsons have made the step up, while others appear to have careers that are already in the rear-view mirror.
To reflect on the game itself is to realise how poor the challenge was when all is said and done. We scored four points in the second half. Three of those came from frees while the other was a screamer sent over the bar by the threatening Conor Mortimer. It was the only effort from open play in that half and perhaps should have been dispatched to the net. At the time it put Mayo three points ahead and the argument was if the goal was stuck we might have started the gallop for home. I’m not sure about that conviction – a couple of more points tacked on to the three-point lead would have completed the job just as easily.
Only three players contributed to the scoreboard: Mortimer with 1-4, Alan Dillon 0-3 and Billy Joe with two superb points from play. That is simply not acceptable at this level and will not win the major championship matches in Croke Park. And once again, we had the galling wides that seem to be constant companions when we play in HQ. At least they were from open play because Mayo had the free-taking completely sorted this time – I think we had a 100 per cent return in that department. Of course a wide where the ball nearly hits the corner flag counts just the same as one that grazes the post on the wrong side, but the shooting position adds to the horror. In the case of the Mayo wides they were often from in front of the goals.
There is a part to this game management will find very difficult to reconcile. Their match-ups were excellent and the star Tyrone players were completely negated by the attentions of their Mayo markers. As already mentioned, Peadar Gardiner gave a repeat of his 2004 performance and reduced Brian Dooher to the status of observer. Likewise the McGuigan brothers, who eventually were called ashore. Seán Cavanagh was positioned at the edge of the square for most of the first half and while he contributed, his removal from midfield was a plus for Mayo.
And despite all those personal duels falling the way of the Mayo lads, the players could not shake themselves to push on for the tantalising win. Perhaps the surreal atmosphere played a part – just under 28,000 paid in to see the games, and many of those had departed after the Down v Wexford match to beat the traffic north and south. Yet, the winners could find the extra few per cent to reach the finish line first. It must be said that when the gun was put to their head after the Mortimer point that might have been a goal, the two-time All-Ireland winners answered with the next six points on the spin. That is championship and champion form.
And what of the referee? This was a big step up for Cormac Reilly – the first televised game of his career and his third game this season. He took charge of the Kildare/Cavan qualifier in Newbridge and the Sligo/London Connacht championship affair in Ruislip. Hardly the type of clashes to sharpen your own game. He got a decent amount of the games calls correct and I am slow to get after referees – I will get a bad name for criticising them. Stop laughing in the back row, please.
But this guy was a little out of his depth and his handling of the key breakthrough for a Mayo goal chance in the second half was the perfect example. He whistled up for a foul on Conor Mort as he was about to dump a short ball to a colleague for a three-on-one situation. It was a terrible decision and the subsequent converted free was little compensation.
The number of pick-ups he got right was cancelled by the number he got wrong. And his adjudication of the swarm tackling left a lot to be desired. But hey, he was hard on both sides and I have no sense Mayo can point in the direction of the match officials when blame for defeat is being apportioned. But the ref was patchy at best, and it must be said Mayo suffered more than Tyrone with his decision-making.
Like many Mayo fans, I departed Croke Park a little indifferent to the result, perhaps mirroring the indifference some of the players had displayed earlier. It’s another year of stagnation (at best) and clues as to how the squad might improve were difficult to find. There might well be a simple enough reason we are where we are; Joe Brolly often reminds me Mayo just do not have enough class players. After all, how many of last Saturday’s team might make it on to a Kerry selection? One? Two? Three at most.
Many observers of the local scene point out to a deep pool of average talent-maybe 100 players of more or less the same ability. Hard working, committed and wanting so badly to do well for themselves and for Mayo football. But ultimately, there are just not enough standout performers in club football who can be identified to make the next step up.
The project must continue then. By my count we have about six players that are able to hold their own at this level. Where to find the other 14 remains the challenge and John O’Mahony will spend year three of his tenure attempting to do just that. You wouldn’t envy him the road ahead.