Billy Joe Padden
SITTING in the press box in the Hogan Stand last Sunday afternoon, watching Mayo get a great reception from the supporters as they made their way back to the dressing-room, I started to think back on the last five weeks.
From standing on the terrace in Newry, to watching them beat Armagh on TV, to working at the Galway game with Sky Sports, to getting sunburnt in Killarney last Sunday week.
And now I’d just seen them clock up their fifth win from seven matches this summer, and their first at Croke Park since they beat Kerry in the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final replay.
They really are a remarkably, resilient group and it’s been some journey this summer.
And the best part? It’s not over yet, with Donegal to come to Castlebar next Saturday week and everyone knowing that a Mayo win will see them into the last four of the championship.
But that is a column for next week. For the moment, we’ll stick with last Sunday.
Yes, Mayo were tired and flat for 50 minutes but that’s perfectly understandable after playing matches for five weeks in a row.
If anything the game followed the pattern that I was expecting, in that Mayo did what they had to do to get to the latter stages in one piece where they would be good enough to win it.
Early on I thought a lot of our forward play was reminiscent of what the team had done in Kerry. The ball was being kicked into them from too far out, and they were struggling to win possession out in front because they’re not the quickest on very pacy defenders like Seamus Lavin and Shane Gallagher, who both did well.
Any time that Darren Coen or Cillian O’Connor did manage to win ball ahead of their men, they often found themselves isolated and without any support coming.
Thankfully, midway through the first half that started to change a bit and Mayo started to carry the ball in closer, there were players coming at better angles, and the two scores kicked by Fionn McDonagh were prime examples of that improvement.
The period coming up to half-time was dominated by Mayo in terms of possession and chances, and Meath hadn’t scored for more than 15 minutes. And yet, the teams were level.
Mayo could have been out of sight if only they hadn’t dropped so many shots short, taken the wrong options, and turned ball over.
That meant that the third quarter was much more nerve-racking than I expected it to be because you could see that Mayo had lost their way completely.
It was then that you saw how crucial Andy Moran is in a game like that, he was involved in so many good things that Mayo did in the last 20 minutes.
He got a great score himself too that gave him confidence, and came at the end of what was probably the best bit of football in the game. He played a key role in the creation of Kevin McLoughlin’s goal too in the way that he won the Meath kick-out and had the vision to pick out Cillian O’Connor with a pass.
I thought McLoughlin did well to score the goal, he held his composure really well.
On the flip-side, from that stage on, Meath really lost their composure.
Mayo showed their experience in the closing stages too, fouling when they had to and keeping Meath at a safe distance.
I think there was a key period when Mayo started to turn the screw that you saw the leaders stand up and being counted once again: Boyle, Lee Keegan, Cillian O’Connor, Andy Moran and Kevin McLoughlin all delivered the crucial scores, showing that the old guard haven’t lost it yet!
When the chips were down, they all stepped up and they’re going to be needed again when Donegal come to Castlebar.
Defensive difficulties and kick-out strategies
I’D have to say that yet again I felt a lot of the Mayo backs were left with a lot of work to do in terms of one-on-one defending. Unfortunately for Meath at the moment, the weakest element of their game is probably their attack.
Mayo’s difficulties defensively were compounded of course by the fact that Paddy Durcan and Keith Higgins were both missing out of the backline the last day, and it’s absolutely vital that one or both of them are back for the Donegal game.
That would take a huge amount of pressure off.
In their absence on Sunday, Colm Boyle really stepped up and led by example. He filled a lot of gaps, drove forward and kicked an inspirational score.
I thought it was noticeable again that you saw good contributions from younger players. Fergal Boland and Fionn McDonagh kicked two points each, and James Carr came on and got a lovely score too.
I make it that Mayo now have four viable options in the full-forward line, and that’s a lot more than I thought we would have at the start of the year.
There’s Darren Coen, James Carr, Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor.
I think it suits Carr coming off the bench at the moment because of his inexperience, and it probably suits Andy coming on as a substitute because he’s that bit older and his craft really tells when things open up a bit.
In terms of the kick-outs, I thought Mayo did fine on our own restarts until that strange period when they went ahead. Meath started to put some pressure on David Clarke, and we overdid it on the short kick-outs.
It seemed a bit daft and a goal could easily have been given away. The reality was that Meath weren’t going to get enough points to win it but a goal could have made things uncomfortable. The kick-out strategy needs to be tidied up before Stephen Rochford and company come to town in less than two weeks.