EYES WIDE SHUT Mayo’s Michael Plunkett tries to go past Westmeath’s Kevin Maguire during Saturday’s National League match at TEG Cusack Park in Mullingar. Pic: Sportsfile
Billy Joe Padden
THAT was a funny old game against Westmeath, but a win is a win.
Especially when the main objective is to try and get promoted at the first attempt.
The biggest positive for Mayo was the result, but James Horan will be under no illusions that they will have to be better when they come up against better opposition.
From a coaching perspective, he will feel that he can take plenty of examples from Saturday’s game that he can get players to improve on before they play Meath.
He will definitely have plenty of feedback for the full-back line and the full-forward line, and defending counter-attacks better around the middle third of the field will feature as well.
But even though Westmeath had so many bodies behind the ball and kept playing counter-attacking football reasonably effectively at times, I would take some positives from how Mayo went about their business.
How many times over the years have we seen Mayo teams run into bother against that sort of defensive set-up because you really are playing football on a knife-edge.
You’re trying to force the issue against a packed defence because you’re behind, and at the same time you’re vulnerable to a quick counter-attack.
So I think we saw some growth in the Mayo team here in that regard. Maybe that was because they were playing Westmeath and not Tyrone, Monaghan or Donegal, who are different animals altogether. And much better teams.
But Mayo did show better patience and know-how in Mullingar; they shot from distance and in the second quarter you saw the likes of Matthew Ruane and Conor Loftus pick off scores from long-range, outside the mass defence.
Mayo never panicked. Being behind against a team that set up like Westmeath did mean that they had to force the issue at times. But they did in a calm and collected way for the most part. Even when they were two or three points down, and had Diarmuid O’Connor in the sin-bin, they kept plugging away and playing their game.
That was the most satisfying thing for me watching on.
Overall, I thought the middle third did well and Mayo dominated possession in that sector for long spells. Matthew Ruane had another strong display and took his scores confidently, Paddy Durcan was immense, Conor Loftus kicked two superb points, and Lee Keegan looked as good as he has at any time in the last two years in terms of his sharpness and ball-carrying ability.
You probably would be a bit concerned that the full-forward-line didn’t show better, albeit in difficult circumstances because they were operating against a blanket defence.
But the first half really passed them by while the second half was a bit better from them.
Cillian O’Connor persisted and kicked his frees really well, and I wasn’t surprised to see him take on the late shot that turned out to be the insurance score.
Sometimes we take his free-taking ability for granted, but we’ve seen in the last two games just how invaluable he is in that regard. He’s been hitting a very high percentage, and when you want to win games and get out of the division, you want to be taking all the easy scores you can. As well as the hard ones, of course!
So Mayo move on to the third round against Meath in Castlebar next Sunday with two wins from two games, and Aidan O’Shea, Brendan Harrison and Jason Doherty still to return.
Next weekend the bar will be set higher so the performance will have to be better to get a result. The good news is that a place in the semi-finals has been booked already.
That’s another reason why beating Westmeath was so important.
Durcan delivered a power-packed display
LAST Saturday we saw why Paddy Durcan is Mayo captain material.
He was outstanding. The way he drove forward with the ball, took it off the shoulder at pace to punch holes in the Westmeath defence, and took on outside shots to get his three points, were inspirational. And all while never neglecting his defensive duties.
I thought it was a really dominant display from him, he was the stand-out player on the field.
Paddy did what he does so well over and over again; those well-timed runs at pace where he is so hard to stop, sees the gaps in the opposition defence, and just drives into them.
Not to mention being able to get his shot off and get scores at the end of it.
It was an exceptional performance by a wonderful footballer.
Let nobody be in any doubt, Paddy is one of the very best players in the country who is in his absolute prime. Watching him was a pleasure and Mayo supporters should realise how lucky we are to have him.
Speaking of which, I have to mention Colm Boyle’s contribution as well.
That’s the most we’ve seen from him in a Mayo jersey since the night he hurt his knee almost 15 months ago, and it was great to see him back in action.
I’m not sure though how he felt (or how any of us should feel) about ending up defending one-on-one in his own full-back line. I’m sure that’s not the job he envisaged for himself when he was coming back this season.
But I’m sure he was delighted to get game-time and he did reasonably well in the role, even though it doesn’t necessarily suit him. His leadership and his experience were invaluable at other times too. It was just reassuring to see him on the ball. He’s a warrior.