THE LAST DANCE Dublin manager Jim Gavin, shakes hands with Mayo manager James Horan after the 2013 All-Ireland SFC Final at Croke Park. Pic: Sportsfile
Billy Joe Padden
IMAGINE being in James Horan’s shoes this week.
Getting ready to try and take down a team that haven’t lost a championship match for over six years. A team that Mayo haven’t beaten in league or championship for more than eight years. No pressure!
It’s important to say that there’s not a lot Horan can change between the semi-final and final in terms of what his team does against Dublin. As a manager at that level, in terms of your principles, your game-plan, and how you want to play, all you can really do is tweak them in such a short period of time.
I have absolutely no doubt that James Horan would not have come back to manage Mayo again if he didn’t have an idea about how he could get the better of Dublin.
There are a few main things he’s changed since he came back at the end of 2018.
Firstly, Mayo’s athleticism, bringing in Oisin Mullin, Eoghan McLaughlin and Tommy Conroy. What are the key attributes they have? Physicality and the ability to run in wide open spaces of Croke Park are certainly two of them.
You have to have that running power and ability to stay with Dublin.
Another thing that’s going to be absolutely vital against Dublin will be the ability to retain and hold possession. The ability to hold on to the ball even if you’re not always an attacking threat. We’ve seen Tommy Conroy do that at times, which shows a lot of maturity for such a young player who was all about taking his man on at underage and club level.
In the last few games I think he’s really picked his moments about when to take a man on and kept the ball well.
Matthew Ruane and Conor Loftus have been really good at retaining possession too, apart from maybe the first quarter against Tipperary when they tried to kick too much ball.
Make no mistake, retaining possession is absolutely paramount against Dublin.
Because no team are able to hurt them every time they have the ball; Dublin are so tactically aware and cynical when they need to be (they will foul you if you’re on a quick counter-attack) so you have to be able to retain possession.
It’s something Mayo did really well in 2016 and 2017, and it really knocked Dublin out of their rhythm.
Some people went away from those games saying, ‘Dublin didn’t really play well in those finals’. Dublin didn’t play well because they didn’t have the complete and utter dominance of possession that they maybe had in other games.
Cavan had a lot of ball in their own half in the first quarter in the recent semi-final, but they didn’t know whether to stick or twist. Mayo have to have a clear strategy in that regard.
It’s fine if they have to go back 40 yards to David Clarke at times, but it’s only fine if they’ve planned for it. If the ball goes all the way back to Clarke then the rest of the team have to drop deep and you start the rebuild again.
Then there’s the kick-outs, which have been a worry for Mayo and their supporters for quite a while now. Back in 2016 Stephen Rochford changed the goalkeeper for the All-Ireland Final replay against Dublin and it proved to be a mistake. It just didn’t work out.
Both Rob Hennelly and David Clarke have their own strengths and weaknesses.
James Horan has been very clear throughout this championship that he has a clear number one, and I think that was needed given all the talk about goalkeepers in the past.
Having said that, even though Clarke is a phenomenal ‘keeper, and he showed that against Tipperary, I don’t like his ‘intermediate’ kick-outs at all.
Because you’re almost breaking your team in half and you’re kicking the ball most of the time to a half-back or a midfielder who’s coming on to the ball with no momentum.
What David Clarke has proven himself to be excellent with are his short kick-outs.
That’s something that Mayo are going to have to continue to do well next weekend.
They’re lucky in that Oisin Mullin, Chris Barrett and Lee Keegan are exceptional at carrying the ball out from the back.
Now if Dublin decide to be brave and put a ‘full court press’ on then that short kick-out might not be an option. In that situation, I would rule the ‘intermediate’ kick-out option out completely unless it’s an absolute ‘slam dunk’ of kicking it to a team-mate in 40 yards of space.
Instead, I would be in favour of picking your moments when you go long to contests.
Because David Clarke can’t do what Shaun Patton or Stephen Cluxton can do, that’s not an option. Clarke’s kick-outs hang so it’s crucial to send it to an area where you have three or four bodies and that you can defend it if you lose it.
Maybe that’s where Aidan O’Shea comes into the equation; where there are those real scraps for possession and he is the dominant figure on high ball.
For me, the kick-out strategy has to be as simple as that.
The final verdict
I DON’T expect Sunday’s final to be a shoot-out.
Against Dublin you have to get a big score to beat them because they’re going to get a big score. But you can’t go out in the early stages and encourage that sort of a game because they’re better than every other team at creating scoring chances and taking them.
They’re a more efficient machine than every other team. Mayo are working very hard on that aspect of their game, but they’re not the finished article yet.
I can see Mayo playing a lot more possession-based football because they cannot allow Dublin to play the game at their pace. Mayo have to try and dictate those terms as much as possible and play at a steadier pace. That might not always suits Mayo, but there are going to be periods on Saturday when they have to hold the ball.
I expect to see Mayo moving the ball from side to side quite a lot, and that will lead to more bodies being around the middle of the field, and more bodies helping out in a defensive sense.
So you will have less of those goal chances that Tipperary had the last day created as a result.
Mayo are still going to concede a couple of goal chances, and they’re going to need David Clarke to make another couple of saves. But I think any team coming in to play Dublin would expect that.