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Time for Horan to mix it up

Sport

TALKING STRATEGY Mayo manager James Horan, left, and Aidan O’Shea walk the pitch before the recent Connacht SFC quarter-final defeat to Galway. Pic: Sportsfile


The way I see it
Ger Flangan

THE night before Mayo played Galway, the Laochra Mhaigh Eo-Heroes Wall was the centre of attention at its unveiling at Hastings Insurance MacHale Park.
But less than 24 hours later a wall erected by Galway stole the headlines.
The maroon and white tiles were erected by Padraic Joyce himself (with some help from Cian O’Neill), but in a nod to Joyce’s predecessor they were inscribed with the name of Kevin Walsh.
Because this performance from the Tribesmen was a throwback to the approach of the last Galway manager to beat Mayo in the Connacht championship in Castlebar.
The Tribesmen sat back and clogged the area around the ‘D’ and the goalmouth, hassling and harrying Mayo in numbers and forcing a retreat or slow lateral play.
Few people back in 2016 predicted Walsh’s ambush in a rain-soaked Castlebar.
He did it again in 2018.
And while last weekend’s meeting of these old rivals was more balanced, it was still Mayo’s game to win given all the variables.
Not even a new surface — that former Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice likened to Croke Park in terms of reaction and speed — could turn the tide in Mayo’s favour.
That tide had well and truly engulfed the home team by the last quarter, and only for some resilient deck hands keeping the boat afloat with a late burst of scores, Galway looked like they would run away with a victory.
That finish from Mayo put a gloss on a poor display but it doesn’t hide the reality.
The first quarter and most of the second half left an awful lot to be desired.
James Horan often speaks of taking ‘learnings’ when he entertains the press. We’ve learned at this stage that most of what is said when he’s speaking to the media is sound-bites; but the naive part of us believes that surely they are learning from every defeat, and implementing changes to make their game more proactive, less reactive.
Yet last Sunday had all the earmarks of our latest failed All-Ireland bid against Tyrone.
Galway set up defensively, played with two sweepers, often the wing-backs, dropping inside the 45 and cutting out the ball into the full forward line.
Mayo’s slow transitional play allowed Galway to get back into their defensive shape straight away too. Where they basically set up a wall of men around the scoring zone.
When Galway pushed out to engage the Mayo runners and turned them back, they just shuffled back into position and blocked up the central channel.
It was unbelievable discipline. Terrible to watch at times, but it just ground down Mayo and left them frustrated and void of ideas.
Like Tyrone, when Galway turned over the ball they broke off the shoulder hard and with support. Once they broke the Mayo line they had an acre of footballing space to kick into as Mayo’s full-back line was disastrously exposed once again.
When you have someone with the range of passing like Paul Conroy, and ball winners like Damien Comer and Shane Walsh, it was always going to be a recipe for disaster.
The recent league final hammering is another case in point where Ireland’s best footballer, David Clifford, was given the freedom of Croke Park by the Mayo pressing game.
I can only begin to imagine how much of a nightmare it must be to play in the Mayo full-back line.
But that’s not really what this column is about.
It’s about the learnings.
The issue with these learnings is that they are being used by the opposition more than us.
Mayo’s last three big games – the All-Ireland Final, the League Final and last Sunday – all fell short in similar circumstances. Mayo played much the same style in each and were found out and exposed in a similar manner by Tyrone, Kerry and now Galway management.
This Mayo system appears incredibly easy to beat if a management team is given the necessary time and resources to do it.
Yes, it will reap reward in the cut of ‘week on, week off’ championship where teams aren’t afforded as much lead-in time as they’d like. But it appears that any good management team can now very easily devise a strategy to counteract the style favoured and imposed by James Horan.
The lack of an alternative style of play makes that challenge much easier too. A one-sided player is easy to mark.
If they’ve never showed a willingness to change up their game, you know well where they are going to go and you can sit and set traps to beat the band.
For all Stephen Rochford’s flaws, he was a brilliant strategist. Some failed to work – don’t mention the war – but others were strokes of genius.
And the line between failure and genius is often millimetres.
He had the ability to adapt his team to the opposition. Set up to expose and confuse in equal measure. Like starting Alan Dillon at full-back and pushing him up on Colm Cavanagh, Tyrone’s sweeper, in the 2016 All-Ireland quarter-final was a masterstroke.
Rochford never got over the line against Galway in his tenure, but ‘the want’ wasn’t the greatest for that at the time.
With this Mayo team, James Horan has managed to unearth and blood some brilliant new talent. That is a skill that comes so easy to him and should be revered.  
But the one-dimensional game plan he adopts has hit another major snag and it’s now incredibly difficult to see how he is going to navigate the treacherous waters of the qualifiers while riding a bull shark that has been through the wars.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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