Thursday 21 September 2017

David Kelly: 5 Things Mayo must address to end their All-Ireland famine

"We lost. We always lose." – Yul Brynner, The Magnificent Seven.

Mayo made it to their second consecutive All-Ireland football final but there was nothing but dejection at the end of the game against Dublin, from let, Shane McHale, Brendan Harrison, Kevin McLoughlin and Barry Moran
Mayo made it to their second consecutive All-Ireland football final but there was nothing but dejection at the end of the game against Dublin, from let, Shane McHale, Brendan Harrison, Kevin McLoughlin and Barry Moran
David Kelly

David Kelly

When the Boston Red Sox finally purged the fabled Curse of the Bambino in 2004, some folk in New England were presented with an unforeseen problem.

Having spent so long fretting about the quest for success, that search was then supplanted by a more pressing existential problem. How could they now live without the burden that had borne down on them, defined their character even, for so long?

Mayo people would not mind shouldering such a load this week. But their wait, and all that weight, persists.

Closer than ever before and yet still further away.

1 FORWARD THINKING

In the heaving aftermath of Sunday's success, one didn't have to be a rocket scientist to work out Mayo's Achilles heel.

In case there were any doubts, helpfully a rocket scientist – albeit a blue-clad supporter – was at hand during the post-match celebrations to lament the opposition's pained efforts in the forward ranks.

A welter of stats support the view, whether it was Andy Moran's status as Mayo's sole scorer from play in the last 25 minutes or a conversion rate of less than 50pc from a first half of seemingly portentous dominance.

Dublin had a wider spread of scorers and they possessed the storied "marquee forward." You don't always need both; Cork won an All-Ireland title without a star forward but they did have consistent returns from all six.

Last year, much was made of the early goals that cost Mayo; far more severe were the self-inflicted wounds in the forward ranks when they were hungrily bullied into insignificance.

The sins of that final were revisited on Sunday; worse, with much of the same cast.

Mayo need to trawl the county for talented forwards who can score when the pressure is at its most intense, and not just against Connacht fodder.

Donie Buckley has rightly been praised for his innovative coaching. But is anyone correctly coaching the basics of point-scoring?

A job once done by Martin Carney, Mayo should also scout the county – and country – for someone who can perfect Mayo's forwards.

As an aside, Mayo are also hampered by losing one potential scoring star to a further five-year commitment in AFL, while on their own doorstep, their most proficient championship scorer remains in self-imposed exile.

2 HEAD FOR HEIGHTS

The psychology of another loss – and how Mayo recover from it – will be a crucial area for this group of players to address as they attempt to reorganise themselves for another assault on Sam.

This Mayo team may declare that they are different from all the others that have lost an All-Ireland final since 1951. But they are still one of the teams that have lost an All-Ireland final since 1951.

Furthermore, they are effectively the same cast – on and off the field – that lost an All-Ireland final last year too.

They must turn that into a strength. Cork did it in the 1980s; ultimately they won back-to-back titles.

Since then, Dublin, in the 1990s, and Cork, with their hard-fought 2010 conquest, have demonstrated an ability to withstand repeated body blows.

Mayo's fate remains inextricably linked with the stigmata of serial agonising defeat. That Sunday's loss was not freighted with any one self-inflicted body blow, like in previous finals, almost compounds the sense of gloom.

Instilling a new mental attitude into this squad was an impressive feat; renewing that faith will be just as intractable.

3 MAKE MINOR CONSOLATION A

MAJOR GAIN

September's cold deliberation may have dampened much of their ardour but the impact of Dublin's 'Three Amigos' – Jack McCaffrey, Ciaran Kilkenny and Paul Mannion – cannot be underestimated.

Bernard Brogan, an experienced veteran, may have ultimately delivered; however, his enduring excellence this summer has been fuelled by the restless pressure of young breaths on his neck.

Jim Gavin was intimately acquainted with these young guns and others like Kevin O'Brien.

They were also no strangers to heartbreak; the freakish 2011 minor final on a day of deliverance for the seniors bore a hole deep in their conscious.

Mayo's minors have experienced similar anguish to their seniors; before Sunday, they had lost six finals since 1985.

But they did win.

They have lit up their summer with their vivacious, attacking approach and, in the rapacious Tommy Conroy, Michael Plunkett, Michael Hall, Stephen Coen and Diarmuid O'Connor, Mayo have an encouraging conveyor belt of talent that must be cleverly curated.

4 GET THE BEST OUT

OF AIDAN O'SHEA

The formidable midfielder was a symptom of the fitfulness and anxiety that ultimately suffocated Mayo on Sunday.

Having demonstrated his capability of dominating the middle sector of the field already in his championship, it was mystifying that so much of his team's ongoing strategy served to undermine, rather than underpin, his efforts.

Mayo's kick-out policy inexplicably removed his aerial strength as a factor; so much so that Stephen Cluxton may as well have been taking the Mayo restarts, such was the tendency to increasingly ignore the losing team's best fielder.

O'Shea's fate was sealed when he, along with his middle third colleagues, simply stopped trying to track the opposition's kick-outs, while growing increasingly frustrated that none of their own were coming their way.

The final indignity was that when Mayo abandoned the strong carrying game that drove them in the opening quarter, replacing it with a vapid policy of unsuitable high balls, Michael Conroy amongst others were repeatedly repelled. Why O'Shea wasn't moved up front remains one of the many mysteries of Mayo's tactical meltdown in the final quarter.

5 A BETTER SIDELINE VIEW

James Horan's three-year term as manager expired with his team's final hopes on Sunday evening.

With no obvious preferable option, and given his remarkable composure and steely application since assuming the position, it is an absolute no-brainer that Horan will, family commitments notwithstanding, be offered another term.

Horan will know that tactical errors off the pitch, which he thus far has refused to countenance, rather than the basic errors on the pitch, undermined his county in this season's finale.

His side were on the back foot from the early Dublin switches that tied up Donal Vaughan and Colm Boyle.

His personnel changes generated much debate in desolate saloons on Sunday evening. Why was Alan Freeman, if not unwell in the week before the game, withdrawn so prematurely when others were performing worse?

Why was Keith Higgins removed from the attack when other defenders could have filled in? Why was a goalscoring option in Jason Doherty left out of the action so late?

In contrast, every Dublin substitute made a positive contribution; Mayo's switches weakened them exponentially.

Tactically, Horan and his men made significant errors, the most blatant of which was the dereliction of duty in attending to the dwindling returns from their own kick-outs, not to mention their inability to counter those from Dublin.

The sudden shift in emphasis from a carrying, running game to a predominantly fruitless high kicking game was odd.

And losing a game against a side that was TWO men short was tantamount to coaching suicide.

Horan will be retained but he needs to demonstrate a more acute tactical awareness. Whether Horan needs a new voice to challenge his decisions only he can decide.

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