SETTING STANDARDS Mayo captain Aidan O’Shea and Paddy Durcan are pictured during the National Anthem last Sunday. Pic: Sportsfile
IF an underdog is to have any chance of causing an upset or even staying competitive, they must have a plan, more hunger and desire than their opponents, and have the training done to be able to keep the foot to the floor when they need to.
Leitrim had none of those things on Sunday and looked a demoralised outfit from the start.
It’s easy to feel sorry for them. They simply don’t have the numbers to compete on the same level as the Mayos of this world. Their aspirations are more modest.
Getting promoted to Division 3 in 2019 represented a huge breakthrough for them. Mayo winning promotion back to Division 1 this year was a formality by comparison.
The two counties operate in different orbits.
But Leitrim showed last year that they can be competitive for large parts of games when they took on Mayo in Carrick-on-Shannon. They took a four point lead and were up for it. They gave it their best shot before the inevitable Mayo victory.
It must be hard to motivate yourself for the inevitable defeat though. You are playing for a modest defeat, a sign of a team making progress.
On Sunday in Castlebar they looked devoid of any optimism. And Mayo certainly didn’t help them in this regard.
When there’s such a gulf between the two teams, an inherent complacency can sometimes help to level the playing field.
But in the current Mayo squad, less than half of the places in the starting team are nailed down. Everyone else knew a lacklustre display could have them on the bench, or even outside the 26, for the Connacht Final.
And while you might understand some ‘nailed-on’ starters easing off the gas for such a routine game, that didn’t happen.
When you have totems of the team treating this game as seriously as Paddy Durcan, well any young pretenders know they cannot slacken off.
Durcan bombed up and down the field in the first half as if he was playing in an All-Ireland Final. He had to know Leitrim were not going to beat them but he was determined to eke the most out of the game ahead of a Connacht Final. All he could do was maintain his standards.
One cameo 12 minutes in encapsulated it.
MAYO’S shot conversion rate, 25 scores from 39 shots. It was Mayo’s lowest this year.
NUMBER of goal chances Mayo had, converting five.
THE number of Rory Byrne’s kick-outs that Mayo won, 14 out of 16. Mayo won 14 out of Leitrim’s 29 kick-outs.
A Leitrim kick-out came towards Durcan and three Leitrim players. He had no right to do anything with it but fought might and main to hold off the Leitrim tackles, stretching every sinew to get the ball loose to Jordan Flynn and securing possession for Mayo.
That drive was setting an example to all around him and no-one was inclined to ease off.
So not only did Leitrim have to deal with a stronger, more athletic, better footballing team in Mayo, but they also had to deal with a team whose attitude and mentality triumphed theirs.
Leitrim were gobbled up in the tackle, their skill execution was poor, and they gifted so many opportunities to Mayo.
Mayo, meanwhile, were following the example set by Durcan. They were blocking shots, driving forward in waves and doing the right thing in possession most of the time.
It meant, when the second water break sounded, Mayo led by 25 points, 5-14 to 0-4, and were on course for their biggest ever championship win (previously 29 points against Sligo, 7-10 to 0-2, in 1949).
For long stages it looked like the type of underage game where you’d ask the winning manager to take off a few players to take the bad look off it.
But this was senior inter-county championship and 30 minutes in James Horan could be seen frantically appealing for over-carrying against a Leitrim player – Mayo led by 18 points at the time!
The only thing that stopped a record-breaking victory was an easing up from Mayo in the last quarter when they lost a bit of shape from substitutions and Leitrim finding the wherewithal to kick a few scores to get into double figures.
They were credited on RTÉ for having an ‘unquenchable spirit’.
Sadly, we’re not sure they did. They were a team beaten before the ball was thrown-in and while some might point the finger at them for this, one cannot escape the reality that such an attitude is a product of an inter-county game in which the gulfs are growing between the haves and the have-nots.
How can you motivate yourself for a fixture when an 11 point defeat in 2020 is supposed to represent a very good achievement. Why would you bother?
So, what did Mayo learn?
NO more than the Sligo game, the most we learned on Sunday is that Mayo were up for it and prepared to play the game at their level, not coming down to meet their opponent’s level.
It remains hard to grade individual performances though when the opposition was so poor.
However, the full-forward line of Tommy Conroy, Darren McHale and Ryan O’Donoghue were all buzzing around the field, looking to take the game to Leitrim time and again.
O’Donoghue deservedly left with the man of the match award while McHale came deep smartly in the second half, proving a useful outlet for possession off Rory Byrne’s kick-outs.
Byrne got a long overdue run-out in goal too when it might have made more sense to prepare him for championship by giving him a run in the league.
Aidan O’Shea was used more around midfield than on the edge of the square while Padraig O’Hora got an overdue start too. Might he have been started with a view to picking up Damien Comer in the Connacht Final? It could be a mouthwatering match-up.
The answers to most of our questions may only become apparent on Sunday week.