FOOL me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. What about a third time?
For the third game in a row the opposition have dictated the rules of engagement to Mayo and in each of those games, their opponents have left with the win. On each occasion Mayo have singularly struggled to work their way around the opposition’s style of play.
Tyrone and Dublin both, in different ways, cut off space in the Mayo forward line and manufactured space for their own attacks. In fact it was remarkable that Mayo kicked 16 points in Croke Park under those rules of engagement.
Down on Saturday evening saw Mayo again struggle to deal with a variation of this defensive game. The Mourne men often dropped two of their wing-forwards back to cut off space and, more often than not, it meant that it was in the Mayo half where the space was while a wall of red jerseys confronted Mayo attacks.
Again, Mayo appeared unsure about how to deal with this challenge.
Far too often the decision-making was off. In the first half Mayo turned over the ball a shocking total of 21 times. Yet again we saw a Mayo player place the ball in the grateful arms of an unmarked Down player far too often. But more than that was the apparent lack of any sort of strategy about what to do with the ball.
Two of the conventional escapes from so-called ‘blanket defences’ are a target-man at full-forward and players who can kick points from long range, outside the defensive ‘screen’.
Mayo are struggling on both counts these days. What opposition teams seem to know is that Mayo are not going to find a lot of scores from their half-forward line at present.
In the three games before Saturday night, only four points from play came from numbers 10-12. It’s one reason why Cathal Carolan’s three point haul in Newry was so welcome.
His display was very encouraging when you consider how he struggled in Croke Park the previous week. It would have been easy for James Horan to sideline him after that but he showed admirable faith in him and it was rewarded.
Two of his scores came in the seventeen minute period between the 41st minute and the 58th minute when Mayo really got motoring. Turnovers became greatly reduced, the ball started to stick inside, and Mayo played at a higher tempo than theretofore. It was the tempo and determination rather than any subtle change of approach that saw Mayo score five unanswered points to get back level.
But because the comeback was based on tempo rather than tactics, all it took was the equaliser to see a change in the dynamic as Down upped their game. It was a very hard call on Kevin Keane that saw Donal O’Hare tap over the lead score one minute after Jason Doherty had equalised. Down went two clear but Mayo showed character – that hasn’t been lacking this Spring – and got level again.
But at that juncture the composure required to get over the line didn’t come from Mayo. A cheap turnover at one end of the field set in train an attack which ended with Keane again adjudged to have fouled. We thought it harsh. O’Hare made no mistake and threw over the clincher one minute later.
We could get bogged down talking about the poor standard of refereeing on Saturday night or some of the cynical play from Down — one late incident where Kevin McKernan repeatedly just tried to maul Aidan O’Shea to the ground to stop him joining an attack was particularly unedifying — but they are not issues that are of long-term concern to Mayo.
What is of concern for Mayo is how to start to control games and decide how they will be played. For three games in a row now Mayo have allowed the opposition to dictate how the match is played and been unable to work their way around it. The league is as much about learning lessons and improving as it is about results.
Mayo are doing neither at the moment.