5 Things We Learned About Mayo Football This Weekend

Pointless lists aren’t just for the Daily Mail and Buzzfeed…

A particular bugbear of mine in the never-ending rise of online clickbait is the seemingly endless amount of spurious lists. “27 things you never knew about the Kardashian’s ankles”. “43 things we love about Andrea Pirlo’s beard”. And so on.

But they’re clearly popular for a reason and if you can’t beat them, join them. So here, in no particular order, are five things we learned from the victory over Donegal. Or at least five things that occured to me.

Lesser lights can shine just as bright

Attention in the build-up to the game almost exclusively centered on the blazing beacons of Cillian O’Connor and Aidan O’Shea. 23 points between them in a Connacht final tends to draw focus. And although we witnessed another Breaffy barnstormer in his tussle with Neil McGee, it was arguably his other colleague in the full forward line who was the next most effective performer. Jason Doherty kicked three points from play, was in hard luck for a goal opportunity when put through by O’Shea’s quick thinking (although did well to recover for a point), and was generally a constant menace all over the pitch. Continuously putting pressure on advancing Donegal defenders, his aggressive and intense approach from the front set the tone for a physically imposing team performance. There’s always the risk of damning with faint praise with a “most improved accolade”, but I’m hard pressed to think of another player in the country who has worked so hard to develop his all round game. In addition to the effort which was always there, he’s now added serious athleticism and a clinical edge. A vital name on the Mayo team sheet, but don’t expect his performances to attract the headlines.

Attack the best form of defence – defence the best form of attack

Gaelic football lends itself well to clichés. The Cultured Left Foot. The Game of Two Halves. But one that can now be added to the lexicon is the “Marauding Mayo Half Back”. It can usually be applied to any or all of the Keegan/Boyle/Vaughan triumvirate but in truth, there was no more suitable word to describe the performance of the Westport man this weekend. To corral Odhrán MacNiallais so effectively and still drive forward to kick a goal and two points was an outstanding display, and there was no hyperbole in Jim McGuinness’ remarks after the game that he is now the best half back in the country. Regardless of the intention behind the goal, both points were things of beauty and delivered at crucial times when the game still ebbed and flowed. After a diligent man-marking display on Michael Lundy, this was a reminder of some of his strongest attributes. And with the defensive pressure applied by the forward unit, it was also a reminder that curbing the natural attacking instincts of the Mayo half back line may be leaving one of the most potent weapons on the shelf.

Could two heads be better than one?

Let me preface this observation by declaring my undying admiration for James Horan. He took over a team that had been eliminated by Longford (never forget!) and brought Mayo senior football to a level that most couldn’t have foreseen in terms of skill, physicality and consistency of performance. Save for landing the big one, no individual will ever have such an important impact on a team’s style and attitude. But even with the successes he delivered, no doubt James himself would admit there are things he would have changed if he had his time over again. A minor tactical tweak. An earlier substitution. On such small margins are histories reviewed. Whether or not the collective expertise of Connelly and Holmes can take the final step remains to be seen, but the tactical approach on Saturday was certainly something new in trying to get there. After delivering a tailor made game plan to exploit the Sligo weaknesses, this was a completely different setup but still one perfectly aligned to dismantle the opposition without losing sight of their core strengths. Delivering something as effective for Dublin will be a big ask.

Fitness a key weapon in the Arsenal

Strength. Stamina. Speed. However the challenge of the Dubs will be met, supreme physical fitness will be a prerequisite. Fortunately that is one area in which this squad of players won’t be found wanting. The development of the team over the past five years has been founded upon elite-level strength and conditioning. It’s little wonder that S&C coach Barry Solan has been recruited to the premier league.

Intelligence more important than philosophy

A couple of commentators in the buildup to the game stressed the importance of employing some form of a blanket defence to counteract Donegal, but almost simultaneously queried if Mayo could change their “philosophy” at a whim to suit a certain opposition. The performance of Barry Moran in particular answered this question. In an unfamiliar withdrawn role he shielded the full back line, made a couple of crucial interventions and still contributed as an auxiliary midfielder. At various times Colm Boyle and Keith Higgins stepped in as acting sweeper in what was a fluid but tactically cohesive performance. Perhaps philosophy plays second fiddle to footballing intelligence.