BLACK MARK Mayo’s Diarmuid O’Connor reacts after being shown a black card by referee Noel Mooney against Westmeath last Saturday. Pic: Sportsfile
WHEN James Horan reviews the data from Mayo’s win over Westmeath this week he will surely wonder how it turned out to be such a difficult assignment.
He will surely be aghast at just how Westmeath were within a solitary point of his team in second half injury-time.
Because, make no mistake, Mayo had the platform to dominate this game but failed to utilise it.
They made ribbons of the Westmeath kick-out, with the hosts only winning 42 percent of their own restarts. You are usually in big trouble if you can’t win two-thirds of your own kick-outs so winning less than half ought to have spelled disaster for Jack Cooney’s men.
Yet, a John Heslin score in the 71st minute had them within a solitary point of Mayo.
And it wasn’t as if Westmeath made inroads off the Mayo kick-out.
Rob Hennelly found a team-mate with 86 percent of his restarts. Granted, Westmeath were happy to give Mayo many of their kick-outs, but their own restart implosions should have been fatal.
In all, Mayo mined 71 percent of all kick-outs, 32/45. That means they had a staggering 19 more possessions from restarts than Westmeath. You will rarely get such an advantageous possession platform in inter-county football.
And yet …
Mayo had nine more shots than Westmeath but only won by three points, kicking the last two scores of the game.
There’s two reasons why it was closer than it needed to be.
Firstly, and obviously, Westmeath outscored Mayo by two goals to nil.
We mentioned in advance how an early goal could make this game interesting and didn’t it just?
Just three minutes in and Westmeath had the ball in the Mayo net.
It was preventable too (just like last week against Down) and too often we have seen Mayo steepen the hill they have to climb by conceding soft goals.
The other issue was turnovers in Mayo’s attack.
A shower of rain just before the game meant the ball was like a bar of soap but Mayo tried to pick out intricate passes in attack as if it was a dry day.
Balls that forwards might have held just in front of their man on a dry sod were altogether more difficult to gather in that first half so you’d have to question the decision-making at times.
After a poor first ten minutes, Mayo became more efficient with possession for the rest of the half.
But after half-time they seemed to feel the need to drive direct ball into the full-forward line. Perhaps it was a half-time instruction but most of it came straight back out.
To give Westmeath their due, they were much harder to break down than Down had been seven days previously but Mayo were, in large, creators of their own problems.
Kevin McStay has always said Mayo never respect possession historically because they usually always have enough big men to ensure they can win enough of it. Saturday was a bit like that, too much well-won possession gifted away.
Indeed, in the third quarter, with a direct approach, Mayo only hit three points. After the water break, they appeared more intent on carrying the ball forward and, with Paddy Durcan leading the way, it was a smart tactic. They kicked eight points after the water break.
And simply made better decisions in attack.
Trouble was, Westmeath were lively at the other end too and it could have been a different result had Rob Hennelly not made two vital interventions.
Had either or both gone in we might be having a very different conversation today.
But such a sucker punch should never have been on the radar.
MAYO’S shot conversion rate, 21 scores from 30 shots. Similarly, Westmeath converted 67 percent of their shots, 14 from 21.
THE paltry percentage of their own kick-out that Westmeath won, 10/24.
Mayo won 86 percent of their kick-outs, 18/21.
THE amount of points Mayo have kicked in two games, exactly 21 points per game. They also added two goals against Down.
The usual suspects stood up once more
AGAINST Down it was the younger players who led the way with Tommy Conroy, Ryan O’Donoghue, Matthew Ruane and Oisin Mullin excelling.
None of them played poorly on Saturday but of that quartet, only Ruane was among Mayo’s best in Mullingar.
There was no doubting Mayo’s best player though — Paddy Durcan was immense.
After Mayo conceded an early goal, it was their captain who was one of the key men who led the response.
In the second half, it was Durcan who punched holes in the Westmeath defence, again and again. At the death, it was Durcan who was winning a crucial kick-out and keeping Mayo on the front foot.
Indeed his punted point to put them three clear with two minutes remaining spoke volumes of him.
He was being fouled, but was getting no free, and he still managed to ward off the tackles.
He then had the wherewithal to realise a side-footed shot would be blocked so he punted it over. It was the epitome of resourcefulness.
Kevin McLoughlin came alive in the final quarter too; three assists and a lung-bursting point came from the half-time sub.
Cillian O’Connor was ultra-reliable from free kicks and linked well throughout.
Ruane continued his strong, hard running from midfield, with two points and was a constant threat. He looks stronger and is improving all the time.
For the second week running, James Horan was quick to make changes, calling players ashore at half-time.
It was a day when you can learn more about players in a tight situation than perhaps we learned against Down. That’s the best thing you could take from Saturday. And the two points, of course.