There are no great expectations
WHEN the M and M Show got the bum’s rush out of the county after guiding Mayo to the All-Ireland final in 2006, the rather impolite haste with which the county officials acted was never really fully explained. But it is agreed there was a sense among many of those at the coal face that this marriage, and in particular the style of marriage, could not last and would not, ultimately, deliver the grand prize.
And of course, it must not be forgotten, John O’Mahony was then without portfolio and so, if he could make himself available, there could be few dissenting voices. JOM is a proven All-Ireland winner and with him in charge, the players certainly could not point to a management deficit. In other words, the ball would be firmly in the court of this current squad of Mayo footballers and they would either sink or swim.
Upon appointment the manager spoke immediately about patience, a 3-year-plan and the notion of a transition period from the old panel to a new one in his own image. Locked in there somewhere was an effort also to dampen down expectation, a negative travelling companion in the recent history of Mayo football. This all got an immediate green light.
We are agreed on a few of those opening positions. Patience and a 3-year-plan were important then and remain so today. Otherwise the project implodes and we start all over again. That, no matter your opinion, is a non-starter.
Remember, you can change managers as often as you like, and each will bring their own style to the job, but is there really a field full of quality footballers out there the new manager keeps on walking past? Hardly.
So, there is a need to hold the nerve for now. And that is the position the manager, the county officials or a majority of supporters must arrive at. The matter of expectation is a separate issue and has tended to look after itself with this particular group. The media or the supporters cannot be accused of losing the run of themselves down Mayo way in the recent past.
But the problem today, as I see it, is two-fold. One: management is coming to realise what their predecessors knew after a few short months in the job; this crop of Mayo players are great guys in terms of commitment and dedication. A few can be difficult enough to handle but in summation, there are not enough quality players in the squad to win major championship matches.
Two: the first two years of this programme have ended in disappointment. That will have a negative pressure as 2009 approaches.
Last week we wrote about the deep pool of average talent available to any Mayo manager. And asked where are the standout players? I came to a figure of six players that are up to this level, do you disagree with that number? Of course we do not need a complete 30-man squad of geniuses but we need a few more than we have.
The record for competitive games in 2008 is reproduced below. If you read it in tandem with the previous year, it has to lead to some very hard decisions being made about many of the footballers in those squads. No Connacht title, no All-Ireland quarter-finals, an excellent first NFL followed by a very average one.
Two leagues and two provincial campaigns later, JOM has completed two thirds of the journey. It has been a slow, methodical process and no doubt a little more success was anticipated. And patience is still required. The transition is not obvious but there are signs.
There is a thread connecting the 2004 and 2006 All-Ireland U-21 teams to this year’s squad. These players are making their way in inter-county football, some faster than others. Keith Higgins is on board and the real deal. Tom Cunniffe is trying manfully to step up and he should get there. Trevor Howley is a real prospect and Tom Parsons has, overall, had a really good senior season of league and championship football. Aidan Kilcoyne and Aidan Campbell have demonstrated flashes of their potential and 2009 awaits to see if they can command a first team place.
Add to those lads another handful like Barry Moran, Colm Boyle, Seamus O’Shea, and Mark Ronaldson and you are looking at the young guns of Mayo senior football and they are most certainly a work in progress.
The old sweats are still there and rightly so; James Nallen, David Heaney, Aidan Higgins and Peadar Gardiner were our top players against Tyrone. What is one to do? Be ageist and throw them off the panel? Surely it has to be about form, ability, enthusiasm, conditioning and commitment? They appear to tick all those boxes.
And between the young and the older you will find the players that win the big matches for any team. Players now approaching their peak like Alan Dillon, Conor Mortimer, BJ Padden, Trevor Mortimer, David Clarke, Andy Moran, Pat Harte, Austin O’Malley and a few others.
So where are we then? Post Lisbon and the NO Vote, a lovely phrase emerged: we are where we are. You will recall we were hammered by Kerry in the 2006 All-Ireland final yet two years later, despite the 2006 defence being the focus of that hammering, we find the so-called transition of that back line to be a very slow one indeed.
Some observers remarked on the real lack of change that was evident when the team trooped off after the Connacht final defeat. It was interesting to note the names of the Mayo defenders left on the field when the referee blew full time.
For the record, six of the back seven that played in the 2006 final (David Clarke, Aidan Higgins, James Nallen, Keith Higgins, David Heaney and Peadar Gardiner) played in the 2008 provincial decider. You must realise then just how short we are in real contenders for senior status. In all, 14 players from the 2006 All-Ireland final played against Galway this year. Facts are stubborn little things.
Midfield should be okay for the foreseeable future; Ronan McGarrity and Tom Parsons should be well fit to hold down those berths and compete on the national stage. We could do with a couple more engine-room men to keep the group competitive and I imagine they are in the county.
But it is up front that the real problems continue to lie. For some reason we just cannot get enough quality together at the one time. Dillon and the Mortimers would hold their own in most company but the remainder are not hitting the high notes every day they tog. We have no natural 11 or 14 and you have to go back to 1996-99 era for the last good Mayo forward line: Horan, Sheridan, Casey, McManamon, McDonald and Dempsey.
The need to get a target man at 14 is critical if the current attackers are to show more penetration and goal-scoring prowess.
I remain convinced this Mayo team lost to a very average Tyrone outfit. After two years of endless work, Mayo fell to a team that is running on empty.
At the first meeting of the backroom staff this autumn some items on the agenda might be:
Reassess the panel — drop and add
Find a 3, 6, 11 and 14 (that was easy to type!)
Establish a player to take all 45s
Play a three-man-full forward line
Establish your two best defensive man
Get Conor Mortimer taking frees off the
Persuade senior players to stay on for 2009
Get some scoring half forwards
On paper, it looks easy. Yet there needs to be a complete mid-term appraisal. An honest and tough one where reputations and egos are held in check and a blueprint for the final year is decided upon.
Expectation or silly losing the run of oneself won’t hinder the final year of this project. To tell you the truth, right now, there is no expectation.