Joe Brolly: Mayo finally put faith in sweepers, not stonestacks
John Mackle, who coaches our club under 16s with me, used to be the Derry 'keeper. He retired when he was 30.
Then, when he was 45 and his twin boys were 18, he was press-ganged back into service by the new St Brigid's club. He had carefully stored his old steel toe-capped Blackthorn boots during that 15 years, polished and pristine. So, the father did nets with his ancient boots, the twins played outfield and I had the pleasure of ending my career soldiering alongside all three.
Recently, when John was in Iceland at the sacred ground at Lake Pingvallavatn, he took an extraordinary photograph which ended up on the front page of The Guardian. He discovered out there that Icelandic people are extremely superstitious, putting their faith in curses and spirits. In a recent survey, 80 per cent said they believed in elves. Mackle's picture shows local people building stone stacks to appease the huldufólk and the álfar (the hidden people and the elves) and so ward off bad luck.
Me? I'll take my chances with a strong sweeper system and a well-rehearsed goal-scoring strategy.
Just shy of 2,000 km from Pingvallavatn, the equally superstitious people of Mayo believe they have been labouring under a 60-year Croke Park curse. But after the Donegal match, they're starting to wonder if all that suffering might just have been the result of crap strategy, not huldufólk.
Big games are won in the narrow margins. To win Sam, there are two essential constituents: Defend goals; score goals. Until this year, Mayo have been the only team in the top four with no strategy for either.
Watching their doomed campaigns over the past five years reminded me of Billy Connolly's line about Scotland manager Billy McNeill: "He thinks tactics are a type of mint." So, until now, the best panel of players in the land have been a car crash waiting to happen. Anyone could score goals against them, even Sligo, who were queuing up for them in the Connacht final. They managed two that day but it could easily have been five. Jesus wept.
After that game, management decided that they could no longer afford to wait for a few old men to die. Time to spit out the mints.
Just three weeks later, Mayo folk were treated to the novel experience of being able to relax as their team played a big game in Croke Park. It is the first time in living memory that they didn't look like imploding at any minute. So, when Aidan O'Shea got his goal, the game was over. Donegal knew it, we knew it and best of all, the Mayo players knew it.
Mayo have lost two recent All-Ireland finals (2012, 2013) because they conceded two bad goals in each one. Two long balls to the full-forward with the full-back totally isolated (Murphy 2012, Brogan 2013) and chaotic defending inside the danger zone with the primary defenders coming off their man (McFadden's tap-in 2012, Brogan's palmed goal 2013).
The final against Dublin is most instructive. Mayo were 0-4 to 0-1 and had Dublin in a vice in the middle third. Then, a long ball was floated in on top of Brogan, on the square, in 40 metres of space with only Cafferkey in attendance. It wasn't just a three-pointer. It was a huge release of pressure for Dublin, who suddenly began to play with confidence.
Then, having done Trojan work to get back ahead via Andy Moran's goal, they threw it away a few minutes later in typical Mayo fashion. Dub (Bastick) comes through the middle. Primary defender (Cafferkey) leaves his man (Brogan) like a dog running to a dog biscuit. Bastick didn't even have to shout "Here boy, here boy." The ball was duly handpassed over his head for Brogan to flick to the empty net.
This has been a huge issue for Mayo. Derry got an identical goal against them to win last year's league semi-final. Galway's second goal in the Connacht semi-final was yet another flick to the net by an unmarked corner-forward at the far post when Cummings' man (Cunniffe) left him and ran towards the ball carrier like, well, a dog running to a dog biscuit. "Here boy, here boy." Or what about the goal that saved Kerry in last year's drawn semi-final. David Moran drives the ball long to the square.
Keith Higgins leaves the game's most dangerous predator and runs towards the dog biscuit. Star catches and, to his delight, sees that James O'Donoghue is standing in front of him on the edge of the square, absolutely free. One handpass later and the ball is whipped to the empty net by a gleeful O'Donoghue, who resisted the temptation to pat Keith on the head. "Good dog, good dog." It was embarrassing and depressing, especially since the cure was blindingly obvious.
In the quarter-final, Rory Gallagher discovered to his dismay that Mayo had finally wised up. Sweeper Barry Moran gobbled up the first few high balls kicked in to Murphy. Donegal stopped trying them. Auxiliary sweeper Colm Boyle policed the goals and the primary defenders stuck to their men. So, for the first time ever, when Mayo built a lead, it was secure.
Today, they are very likely to play the same defensive system. Firstly, they haven't had much time to rehearse, so best stick to what worked. Secondly, it will work, subject to the primary defenders sticking to their men like glue as Dublin advance through the scoring area. The Dubs like to play high-speed basketball through the danger zone, but so long as the sweepers are in position, that will only succeed if the primary defenders drop off their men.
So, the Dubs found it virtually impossible to make headway last year against Donegal, or this year in the league against Tyrone. Today, Boyle should permanently police that area in front of the full-back as he has the pace and dynamism required. Moran meanwhile should contest the kick-outs then drop back to stifle any high ball threat. Which will mean no easy goals.
On the second crucial area, Mayo are scoring goals freely since they began to work on a long-ball strategy to Aidan O'Shea, even though it is under-rehearsed. This lack of rehearsal time can be seen in two facets. One, the Mayo players in the middle third are not kicking the ball quickly enough or from the right place.
Only Seamus O'Shea is getting it right, because he is used to doing it at club level. Only two balls were kicked in correctly against Donegal ( from those Aidan won a close-in free and scored the killer goal) and both came from his brother. The second problem is that Cillian O'Connor has become virtually anonymous. This is because at club and county level he has always been the go-to guy and being the poacher off the go-to guy is a different world. It is something Mayo have been working on but time is against them.
As for Cluxton's kick-outs, they are more or less impossible to deal with. The RTé boys did up a graphic for me from the last four championship matches and it's like sheep shit on the page. He kicks everywhere and anywhere. Looked at aerially, it's like pool balls after the break. But if Mayo can win even a few, they can do damage. This is because the Dubs run all over the place for his kick-outs so if there is a malfunction they are not in a position to defend. Donegal won three of his 23 kick-outs last year and punished them with 1-2.
Dublin's midfield is the weakest left in the championship. Neither can score and although they work hard they are out-gunned by Mayo.
The full-forward line is also below par. Brogan remains dangerous but Dean Rock is being carried for his frees and Mayo do not foul. And although Dublin's man-to-man defending is superb and augmented by Cian O'Sullivan's expert sweeping, they are vulnerable to quick long ball to the Bull of Breaffy. He is after all half man, half bovine.
Mayo football people have been climbing Croagh Patrick and saying rosaries for 60 years. I prefer to place my faith in science. Sweepers not stone stacks. Mayo to win.
Sunday Indo Sport