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Mayo respond when chips are down

Sport

EYES FOR THE BALL Keith Higgins and Donegal substitute Eoin McHugh race to win possession. Pic: Conor McKeown

Talking Tactics

Billy Joe Padden

IT’S vitally important that Mayo avoided relegation last Sunday. As far as I’m concerned, Division 1 is the only place to play football, and you have to be in Division 1 to be really recognised as a serious contender to win an All-Ireland. Galway are a good example, because Galway are definitely contenders for the Connacht Championship, but are they All-Ireland contenders yet? No, they’re not. For young players in particular, Division 1 is the only place to play.
There was a huge crowd in Castlebar last Sunday, and the fans clearly backed the team. Mayo supporters could easily have gone into Sunday’s game expecting an unpleasant afternoon – Donegal were playing so well, we all expected Cavan to do the business against Roscommon, and relegation was on the cards. But I think the really big crowd shows the faith supporters have, and that can only boost the players. It’s to the credit of Mayo fans that they have such faith in the team.
So how are Mayo fixed? I think we’re in the exact same place we were at the start of the league. When Mayo are physical and motivated, they remain a very difficult team to beat.
The disappointing thing for me is that I still think we’re tactically muddled in terms of what our approach is. We came away from last year’s All-Ireland final playing with a sweeper, and I was hoping we were going to fine-tune that and develop it further, but we haven’t really done that.
Every Mayo supporter is looking for us to find that killer forward inside, and we haven’t done that, although that doesn’t surprise me, because those sorts of guys don’t just grow on trees.
But you still have to say that when the chips are down and the going gets tough, this Mayo team has continued to react in a positive fashion, putting their shoulders to the wheel, being aggressive, making their opponents feel uncomfortable in certain situations, and that is what got them the last four points in this league campaign. That still remains the key component of what this team is and what they’re all about.
It’s no surprise that our improved performance in the last couple of league games coincided with Brendan Harrison, Lee Keegan and Chris Barrett coming back into the team. Defensively, we’ve looked a bit better since they came back.
I think that Fergal Boland has definitely been a positive for this league campaign. But other than him, has any forward gone out there and put his hand up for the championship? I don’t think so.
If anything, I think Mayo have looked better balanced the more defenders they’ve had on the field. For the last two weeks, we’ve started with eight defenders, including Shane Nally and David Drake in the forward line, and I think we’ve been better when we’ve done that. Nally played well again on Sunday. He’s an intelligent footballer who can get back, defend, start counter-attacks for Mayo, and chip in with a point or two.
Danny Kirby has also made an impact in the last few weeks. He’s big and physical, he’s put himself about. When he’s had opportunities, he’s kicked scores.
But for the most part, the plus points of this league campaign have involved the same guys going back to the well doing the same things. There’s nothing new about it, really … but that’s fine. Mayo are who they are. We haven’t uncovered anyone like Jack McCarron, who’s come in for Monaghan and now looks like a superstar forward.
Stephen Rochford has to do a lot of work this week. He has to trim the panel, but he has to plan out the next six weeks, what they need to get out of each session, and deciding on the sort of game-plan they put out on the field against Sligo (or New York) is going to be their starting point for making a play at another Connacht title.

Aidan O’Shea goes back to basics

IF anyone was doubting Aidan O’Shea’s contribution to this Mayo team, they’ll now have to admit after the last two weeks: ‘ That’s what we need’. Some people will say: ‘Well, Aidan has proved himself to be an excellent substitute in the last two weeks’! But I think his contribution was so meaningful in the last two games that Mayo will look to get him involved as often as possible and as soon as possible.
Besides, nobody who can play in the forward line has played well enough to keep him off the starting 15. The interesting thing for me, though, is that he did most of his best work last Sunday around the middle of the field. With Sligo our likely next opponents, some people might be tempted to put Aidan on the edge of the square and pepper them with high balls, like the 2015 Connacht final. But I wouldn’t do that, because I don’t think that will work against a top team.
I said all through last year that Aidan O’Shea had to go back to basics, and to me, he’s done that in these last two cameo appearances. He’s gone back to winning the ball, laying it off simply, and being a physical presence, driving through fellas; not trying to be a finesse footballer, just being the big, strong, dynamic athlete that he is. For me, he’s gone back to what he does best. I think he recognises that if he’s going to make the best of his ability, that means being a physical presence, pushing people around, winning 50/50 balls, breaking through tackles. It’s not selling a dummy and kicking a ball over the bar, or sitting back in the pocket and playing a pass off the outside of his boot. That’s not him. That’s not the Aidan O’Shea we need. The Aidan O’Shea we need is the one we’ve seen in the last two weeks.

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