WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? Mayo manager James Horan and Aidan O’Shea are pictured before the All-Ireland SFC semi-final against Dublin last August. Pic: Sportsfile
Billy Joe Padden
VERY soon we will be looking forward to the start of a new season for Mayo.
But this week we look back on their 2021.
And for this columnist, and many other people who follow the county footballers, the whole year was filtered through the prism of the All-Ireland Final.
Last year will be go down in the annals of Mayo football history as a huge opportunity missed. And I think James Horan will recognise that more than anyone.
Just look at how the 2012 All-Ireland defeat to Donegal feels in hindsight, considering Mayo’s run of results against them in championship football since.
The defeat to Tyrone felt like a missed opportunity on the day, and will continue to feel like that into the future. I respect Tyrone and what they’ve done, and I respect their management, but I honestly don’t think they’re a top-level team in the way that Dublin were.
Maybe they will prove me wrong, but right now they’re not at the level that Dublin were at during their heydays of 2015 to 2020.
I think the missed opportunity of 2021 may well end up defining the careers of many of these Mayo players, in some respects, and James Horan’s career, if they’re not able to win an All-Ireland in the near-future.
When you look at last year as a whole. . . In 2020 you saw improvement because you saw so many young players come through and do well. A lot of them took another step forward in 2021, which is great. But we don’t feel as good about it now as we did a year ago.
That’s because Mayo had an All-Ireland Final that was there to be won, and didn’t win it.
Now we are wondering can Mattie Ruane and Ryan O’Donoghue continue to improve?
They’re already at All Star level so that will be difficult for them. They were both also very lucky with injuries all last year, and you hope they will be again as they’re both huge players for Mayo now.
That’s why you’re already thinking, ‘we need to find a couple more players’.
Who knows what’s going to happen with Oisin Mullin? If he does end up going to Australia then that’s going to put a big dampener on the early part of the season.
So Mayo supporters come away from last year with a very different feeling than they’ve had for a while.
Rightly or wrongly, James Horan also goes into this season under more pressure, considering he’s managed Mayo teams into All-Ireland Finals against Donegal and Tyrone and hasn’t won either of them. Now the challenge is to get all the troops back on board again and firing on all cylinders to try and address that. Like every manager he’s going to be relying on the players he has to react and be focussed for another tough year of competition.
In some respects he’ll be happy with the performance levels of players like Stephen Coen, who had a great All-Ireland Final and a really solid year.
Tommy Conroy is continuing to improve and there’s much more in him.
Cillian O’Connor coming back will give everyone a lift if he can rediscover the form he was in before he got injured.
And James Horan will draw energy from all that.
But Mayo still need to figure out a strategy for what they’re doing in the full-back line. For me, you need four markers who are able to play as the last two in defence at any stage.
We haven’t that now for a while and it cost us against Tyrone.
Michael Plunkett is a good footballer, but he’s not comfortable in the full-back line.
There are a few big questions to be answered in the coming weeks and months too; like Aidan O’Shea’s future and what James Horan plans to do with him, and how he intends to use him. Time will tell how it all plays out.
We didn’t heed the warning signs
LOOKING back on it, I start to wonder how much of the feeling among Mayo people in the build-up to the All-Ireland Final was as a result of what we hoped would happen.
Or should that be, what we felt was inevitable, considering Mayo’s history in the last ten years. Did that trump what we’d actually seen on the field of play during the previous games?
I have to admit that I thought Mayo would beat Tyrone. I thought they were the better team going into a match between two imperfect teams.
Tyrone had been just as disjointed as Mayo in some of their games; they weren’t great against Monaghan and they were in serious trouble around the middle of the field against Kerry.
But we found out, first-hand, how they addressed that particular issue.
That’s probably one of the biggest issues that Mayo supporters will have when they look back on the All-Ireland Final. Some of the areas where we knew Tyrone would be strong on, we weren’t able to counter-act that.
We didn’t have a good enough response to that and we didn’t seem to have the right game-plan to go and beat Tyrone, considering we knew how they were going to set up.
That was very disappointing. That we couldn’t create more forward play and that we carried so much ball into the tackle. We knew that was exactly what they wanted us to do.
We didn’t show enough patience at the right times either, and our finishing let us down dramatically throughout the game.
Did Mayo create enough chances to beat Tyrone? Yes. Did they take them? No.
If they’d taken them would our perception of the forward play be different? Yes.
That’s the reality of football at the highest level; it’s dictated by the number of chances you create and the amount of them you take. That’s the only metric of forward play that matters.