Ciaran Whelan: 'The Mayo-Galway game would restore your faith in Gaelic Football'
When I arrived in Salthill last Sunday morning for the Galway v Mayo game, I feared the worst. The stadium was shaking with the wind as the rain blew hard down the pitch. Conditions were nothing short of horrific and it was easy to feel the outcome of the game was going to be a lottery.
As the wind died a small bit and sun came just before throw-in, what enfolded between Mayo and Galway was the exact opposite.
A full-blooded championship game, hard hits, great scores,
end-to-end attacking football, it would restore your faith in our game. It epitomised what our championship is about. Two great rivals going toe-to-toe with massive intensity.
Galway, to their credit, fell over the line after delivering a strong third quarter performance into the wind. With the extra man, Johnny Heaney was able to sit in front of the full-back line and offer the necessary protection in the second half. This allowed Galway to get their running game going and they worked some fantastic scores.
When Galway hit the panic button with 10 minutes to go Mayo were unable to take advantage. Their lack of firepower and decision-making under pressure came back to haunt them once again.
Key tactical decisions by Stephen Rochford came into question once again. The absence of Colm Boyle, the positioning of Lee Keegan at 6 to curtail Shane Walsh and finishing the game without some key forwards on the field, all undermined Rochford’s ability to bring Mayo to the Holy Grail.
Galway are a team on an upward curve and their goal this year must be to ‘take out’ a big team in Croke Park and make an All-Ireland SFC semi-final.
The biggest aspect of Galway’s performance last weekend was the brave decisions made by Kevin Walsh. Walsh has built a defensive mind-set in his players over the last 12 months. That is now in their locker. A system they can play when, and if, required.
However, last weekend Galway brought a different dynamic to their play. They backed themselves to push up man-on-man with Mayo. It may have let Mayo execute an effective kicking game in the first half and at times it exposed weaknesses in the Galway full-back line.
It was a brave move. It may not have been the reason they won the game but it showed Galway’s willingness to compete with Mayo playing this style of football.
More and more we are beginning to see teams play with more adventure and that can be only good for the game as a spectacle. It is essentially ambition overtaking curtailment at times.
The benefits from pressing the opposition in their own half are clear and evident to see.
The days of conceding the opposition kick-out are in decline and it is the first notable mindset change which can only be good for the game going forward.
Do not get me wrong. I am certainly not getting carried away thinking that defensive football is in decline. Far from it. Westmeath against Offaly last weekend or Donegal playing Tyrone this weekend will continue to reinforce the message that defensive systems are alive and well.
Louth are the perfect example of team who suffered as a result of having ambition. It can backfire badly. When Louth played against Meath, they went man-to-man all over the pitch.
Meath’s core strength is the pace they have in their forward line. Their forwards could not believe their luck. Loads of space for the ball to be kicked into, one-on-one duels, and chance after chance.
Meath tore them to shreds kicking 27 points and they should have rattled the net on numerous occasions. If Colin Kelly was given the chance again to face Meath, I am quite sure he would back curtailment over ambition and have a very different approach to the game.
Every team has to cut their cloth and execute a game-plan based on who the opposition is and what they think the opposition are going to do.
As long as we have an imbalance in our championship structures, the weaker teams have no choice but to opt for a defensive system based on curtailment. That is life and until we have radical change, we must accept that as part of the game.