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.

Mayo Rocking into the Semi Finals?

“You better stop, look around
Here it comes….
….Here comes your nineteenth nervous breakdown”

– The Rolling Stones, “19th Nervous Breakdown”

“Me nerves can’t take this. I’ve to go for a walk”. A direct quote from my 85-year-old grandmother who can no longer stick the pace of a Mayo match in the knock-out rounds. And who could blame her. August in the wide open plains of Croke Park isn’t for the faint-hearted. And it certainly doesn’t make for safe television viewing for Octogenarians. But to borrow from a group of lads who are pushing eighty themselves, sometimes you have to stop and look around. Look around at exactly where Mayo football is right now, and how excellence at senior level has become the norm. How consistency of performance has resulted in a fifth consecutive Connacht title. How unflinching discpline and unmatched desire has delivered a crack at a fifth straight semi final appearance.

These truly are heady times for supporters of Mayo football, and it’s been a privilege to witness their development and evolution as a unit. They’ve certainly come a long way from that dark afternoon over here in Ruislip when they were dragged to extra time by a feisty London outfit. From that point on we saw the real stamp of the James Horan era and the emergence of All-Star talents like Lee Keegan, Cillian O’Connor, Aidan O’Shea, Keith Higgins and Colm Boyle. Just that snapshot of the squad highlights the quality which we’ve been spolit with over the past half a decade. Excellence the norm, and yet…

And yet, facing into Sligo in the Connacht final there were a few murmurs of trepidation. Not loud, and certainly not drastic enough to expect a loss, but a fear of getting “caught cold” rattled around the back of one or two minds. Sligo had disposed of a much vaunted Roscommon side. (Well, at least by those east of Ballyhaunis). The dangerous full forward line. The bad pitch. The high ball. The lack of hunger after a fifth year on the road. And yet…

And yet, the performance in the Hyde was more of the same provincial dominance. More of what we had come to expect but were fearing was going to become less frequent. The old cliché “champagne football”, didn’t do it justice. This was hard liqour. It was swigging Jack straight from the bottle. It was speakers to eleven. It was rock and roll, and the man in number eleven was hogging the spotlight. Swagger of Jagger, creative chaos of Keith Moon. 26 points to spare in a provincial final. And yet…

And yet here we are again. Thursday before the game, nerves are jangling. A very fine Donegal team on the horizon, one we’ve had a couple of memorable battles with over the past few years. One more memorable than the other to each set of fans, for obvious reasons. As the first clash of two of the generally accepted “big four”, it’s arguable that Saturday’s encounter is the first of any genuine substance in this year’s championship. Murphy, McFadden, McBrearty, McHugh and the bros McGee. Higgins, Keegan and the bros O’Connor and O’Shea. Hard-edged competitors. Outstanding talents. Mayo’s “all court press” – a term I believe Billy Joe Padden may lay copyright to, although he’ll no doubt owe a royalty to Liam MacHale – versus the entrenched defence and swift transition of Donegal. It should prove to be a fascinating tussle, and one I’ll unfortunately be watching from afar as I play tour guide bringing a group of English friends on their inaugural tour of the Atlantic coast this weekend.

The bookies may edge us slightly, but I objectively couldn’t split the margin between the two. Heart says the green and red will prevail. Just don’t rule out 19 nervous breakdowns between now and the final whistle. You might want to go for a walk.

Throwing in a Tuppence Worth…

“I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying”

– Oscar Wilde, The Happy Prince and Other Stories

A blog. Another blog. Just when the medium seemed to be dying away in a flurry of podcasts and other means of connecting idle thoughts with idle hands (or ears), along comes another one.  And shur what of it? We’re well into the red in the online credit union of opinions and views – what’s another tuppence drawn out at very low interest.

So I’m opening the ledger. A starting point at collecting my own invariably rambling thoughts in some sort of coherent and documented format. As an Irishman living in London, I find plenty of time sitting on tubes, buses, planes, or just generally walking the streets of this great city with my thoughts to myself. But no longer. Now they’re here. I’ve always enjoyed writing – not so much note taking, letter writing or anything of actual use. But from national school essays to dabbling as a part-time, zero-use sports journalist in university, the written word has always fascinated me. So in an effort to keep up some sort of practice and hopefully offer the odd entertaining or useful insight, I’ve decided to set up this blog. And as a Paddy abroad, what better way to open the account than by borrowing from one of Ireland’s most celebrated writers and emigrants.

It’s all downhill from here.