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The case for Mayo’s defence


OUT OF ACTION All Star defender Brendan Harrison is still trying to work his way back to match fitness. Pic: Sportsfile

Edwin McGreal

IT might have been just an FBD League semi-final with an understrength Mayo team on a fast, artificial surface in January, but there was something jarring about the three second half goals Mayo conceded against Galway in the Dome recently.
All three saw the centre of Mayo’s defence prised open far too easily when they should have been able to see out a comfortable lead. It was a salient reminder of Mayo’s vulnerability to concede goals at inopportune times over the years.  
Their propensity to ship goals at key moments in All-Ireland finals has been one of the main barriers to them getting over the line.
One statistic sums this up succinctly.
In Mayo’s seven All-Ireland Finals from 2012 onwards, Mayo have scored just three goals and never more than one in one game.
At the other end, Mayo have conceded 12 goals and never kept a clean sheet.
The timing of the goals conceded have been seismic blows too. Two early goals against Donegal in 2012 meant the game was an uphill struggle from there on; a goal against the run of play in the 2013 final curtailed Mayo’s dominance to that point and Dublin’s second undid the benefit of Andy Moran’s goal; ditto two own goals in the 2016 drawn final. Tyrone’s first goal in the 2021 final was a hammer blow coming minutes after Mayo missed a penalty.
The recent departure of Lee Keegan is an obvious blow to Mayo’s defensive prowess, but considering he has scored two of Mayo’s three final goals in the last decade, he’s a loss at either end of the field.
Keegan’s departure is the latest – and most severe – blow to Mayo’s defensive quality in the past three years.
Across the last decade, eight different Mayo defenders won All Stars. It’s a remarkable tally but five of them – Keegan, Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle, Chris Barrett and Ger Cafferkey – have retired. Oisín Mullin has left for Australia.
Brendan Harrison is doing his best to get over an injury ravaged couple of years so of the eight All Star defenders, only Paddy Durcan is fully fit and available this year.
In many of those seven deciders, the sheer quality of Mayo’s defence meant they could go ‘mano al mano’ with Dublin and allow attacking minded defenders to surge forward.
Perhaps that approach is what left gaps for goals in many of those finals. But while Mayo had decent forward lines, there’s no doubt they needed raiding defenders to add to the scoring threat.
Lee Keegan’s personal tally of 2-4 in those finals is a perfect example of this.  
Against Tyrone in 2021, it was clear that the overall quality of Mayo’s defence was not at the level of, say, the defence of 2016/17. Since then Mayo have lost two of their best three defenders in Mullin and Keegan (Durcan being the third).
So it’s hard to see Mayo adopting a man-to-man approach this year, even if they wanted to.
It will be very revealing to see how Mayo set up defensively against Galway on Saturday night and throughout the league.
Stephen Rochford, when he was last in charge of Mayo, was more given to dropping a sweeper than James Horan was.
However, he also had high-quality staff he could rely on.
What do Kevin McStay, Rochford, Donie Buckley, Damien Mulligan and Liam McHale come up with this year?
In his enthralling book ‘The Pressure Game’, McStay spoke of his time in charge of Roscommon and compared setting up a strong defence with a strong attack.
“Defence is easy. The hardest thing about building a winning team in this day and age is the offensive structure.”
It is a point he has expanded on in The Mayo Football Podcast last year, making the fair point that if you lose one defender, you will likely find it easier to replace him with a relatively able deputy. Lose a marquee forward though and it may not be as simple.
But it is the sheer volume of top-line defenders Mayo have lost that makes the challenge particularly harder. What structures do Mayo put in place to compensate?
Having lost Keegan and Mullin since they took over from James Horan, do McStay and Co have to rip up their defensive plans and start again?
How many of their players from midfield up will now have a more fundamental role on the defensive side of things?
A fully-fit Ryan O’Donoghue, Tommy Conroy and Cillian O’Connor might allow Mayo to do something they have not always been able to afford to – and that is set up defensively with a forward line who can pay their way without as much support from attacking defenders.
In the modern game every player is a defender when you don’t have the ball and every player can be an attacker when you do. But we might see a shift from the gung-ho attacking from every Mayo player like we saw in the past.
Striking the right balance is key and the goals for and against columns will give you a good sense of how well things are going.

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