Sunday 24 September 2017

Management, defence, kickouts and sweeping duties - Underdogs measure up in every department

7 August 2017; Mayo players, from left, Jason Doherty, captain Cillian O'Connor and Colm Boyle ahead of the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter Final replay match between Mayo and Roscommon at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
7 August 2017; Mayo players, from left, Jason Doherty, captain Cillian O'Connor and Colm Boyle ahead of the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter Final replay match between Mayo and Roscommon at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Billy Sheehan

Mayo’s management team consists of Stephen Rochford, Tony McEntee, Peter Burke and Donie Buckley. The latter has been the only constant for the last five seasons and three management tickets.

A lot of the same players have been involved during this period, and, have benefited greatly from the building blocks put in place by James Horan, Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly.

This season, just five players have started every championship game, with the low number of only 21 different starters over the nine games.

Under Rochford they have played 17 games in the championship and lost just three — Galway got the better of them twice and Dublin once but no loss was by more than a score.

Despite a most impressive record they have come under a lot of unjustified and indeed unsubstantiated criticism. This negativity comes as a result of some controversial selection calls.

The decision to replace David Clarke with Rob Hennelly in last year’s All-Ireland final is one that garnered a lot of attention. Hennelly’s ability to kick long distance frees was obviously a consideration for management, along with his length and accuracy off the tee for kick-outs.

He kicked long for eight of 14 restarts but the decision is still the subject of some debate due to one misplaced kick-out and one dropped ball. The management were looking for the inch after the drawn final and they hoped their gamble would give them that.

Also the replacement of Andy Moran against Galway this season after 48 minutes, at a time when Mayo were three points behind caused a stir. The poor weather conditions along with being reduced to 14 men and the fact that Galway had numbers behind the ball meant the introduction of Aidan O’Shea and Danny Kirby was needed to add some physicality to their challenge and it did just that. The momentum swung in Mayo’s favour and they got to within a point of Galway. If it was not for poor execution and decision making in a frantic finale the result could have been different.

The location of Aidan O’Shea in defence this year against Kerry was the subject of widespread scrutiny but few scratched the surface or explored the basis for the decision.

In the drawn game in 2014 in  Croke Park, Mayo were five points ahead after 66 minutes. Enter Kieran Donaghy as the last throw of the Kerry dice. His towering presence and aerial ability brought Kerry back from the brink. He can change the momentum and lift the crowd when they see him rising up to catch the high ball. In the replay 17 balls were directed towards him, he won nine, resulting in a return of 2-4.

So, it was easy to see the thinking behind the Mayo management’s decision given how successful the McMahons and their physicality were for Tyrone in the 2008 All-Ireland final.

Last month, in the drawn semi-final, when Donaghy was winning it low but on the wing O’Shea stood off at times and covered the threat of a goal scoring opportunity. Kerry did get goals the first one came from a lost possession from Seamie O’Shea in midfield and the second from a broken long ball into the square when Aidan O’Shea was out of position as a result of a misplaced pass.

While much was made of his match-up with Donaghy not many seemed to notice or acknowledge that it negated a lot of the threat of Kerry’s ace attackers, Paul Geaney and James O’Donoghue especially in the drawn encounter.

At the end of the replay the decision had ultimately been vindicated. Donaghy’s influence was limited not just on the scoreboard but in terms of what he can do to lift a crowd and change a game too.

Starting Alan Dillon against Tyrone in 2016 also paid dividends because he occupied one of their key sweepers.

So did Barry Moran’s introduction off the bench in last year’s All-Ireland final as he took advantage of Dublin’s lack of height in the full-back line.

And this season when Conor Loftus was brought on against Derry it was a season-saving moment.

These decisions are informed and thought out. A lot of the criticism of the Mayo management doesn’t stand up and indeed their records individually with different teams and together with Mayo confirms they are a management team loaded with experience and expertise.

The Case for the Defence

The Mayo team defends as a unit, built from the front, in tandem with their back line. Their level of intensity is fierce in all quarters of the pitch.

Cillian O’Connor’s industry is the platform on which their defensive set-up is built and it is complimented right back through all of the lines.

Whether it’s six players or two upfront the Mayo forwards will hunt, track, tackle and hassle. They are relentless. A roadblock is set up inside their 45-metre line, the centre is always well marshalled forcing the shooters wide and they will inevitably flood the ‘D’ with bodies to prevent scoring opportunities.

In the drawn match with Dublin 12 months ago, Jim Gavin’s men got their first point from play in the 33rd minute and just two from play in the opening half.

In the replay, Dublin’s six starting forwards got just four points from play, so the defence is a vital component in the team’s make-up and it can adapt to different types of attacking strategies.

Tipperary’s Michael Quinlivan and Conor Sweeney posed a different type of threat in last year’s semi-final. Both had scored a combined total of 3-12 from play in the previous two rounds but Mayo got the job done limiting them to two points with Barry Moran supplementing the defence, Ger Cafferkey picking up Conor Sweeney and Lee Keegan marking Quinlivan.

Brendan Harrison and Chris Barrett confirmed their credentials as markers in match-ups with Bernard Brogan and Paul Mannion in last year’s final and carried it through to this year’s championship taking up the mantle to match-up to Sean Armstrong, Conor Cleary, Paul Kerrigan, Geaney and O’Donoghue. Harrison’s input releases Keegan further out the pitch. He was tried by the Mayo management throughout the 2016 League as a tagging corner-back but now does a match-up job on whoever Mayo see as the key danger man further out the pitch.

Jamie Malone, Enda Smith and Paul Murphy have been picked up by Keegan in half-forward, midfield and half-back positions.

Keegan not only has the ability to shut-out players but also put them on the back-foot, his 1-3 performance from midfield kept Mayo afloat against Roscommon while all around him were searching for their legs after their extra-time win over Cork eight days previous.

It’s a rearguard unit which owes much to the tackling skills perfected by coach Donie Buckley. The Kerryman has worked hard on that aspect over the last few seasons and they are reaping the benefits.

Turnovers on the ball high up the pitch have proved fatal on the scoreboard for this Mayo team, 1-12 was conceded in last year’s replay and 2-9 combined in both games against Kerry. This shows the importance of keeping possession and reacting in the middle when backs have committed forward.

In their last six championship meetings with Dublin, Mayo have averaged under 13 kicked points.

The defence is the platform on which their attacks begin.

In the first half against Kerry four shots in-a-row came from Chris Barrett, Donie Vaughan, Harrison and Keegan while the goals came from Colm Boyle and Keith Higgins against Roscommon and Kerry.

Sweeping Duties

Over the last few years the sweeper has become a buzz word in Gaelic games and even more so in the last few months as a result of the focus on Tadhg De Burca’s role with the Waterord hurlers.

 But the term sweeper is sometimes used to cover a few different defensive options and at times it can be a defence plus one.

Stephen Rochford has always used a player as extra defensive cover. Kevin McLoughlin was deployed in the role last year, and he was particularly effective.

He is a great reader of the game; he is comfortable on the ball and has the experience of playing as a corner back. And he is well able to match-up if a defender assumes an attacking position. McLoughlin has also been key as a start-up player to Mayo’s transition play.

This year Keith Higgins has played that role and today that could mean dropping McLoughlin back in an auxiliary role to allow Higgins to make his lung bursting, line breaking runs forward.

The sending off of Higgins this year after 26 minutes in the Galway game was crucial to the eventual outcome.  Against Kerry, he played as an extra half-back, pushing up, which meant that Kerry had to track him and this left them short of numbers in attack.

 In the 2015 All Ireland semi-final replay against Dublin, they were up a point after 55 minutes, they conceded two goals, three in total, and lost by seven. They have restructured, evolved, and improved an awful lot since then.

Since 2012 Dublin have scored 10 goals to Mayo’s three, their only win in 2012 came when Dublin never hit the back of the net, lesson learned.

Kick-outs

They have now become more commonly known as restarts due to the impact Stephen Cluxton has had on his side’s success story.

In the replay last month Kerry played into Mayo’s hands by playing a sweeper and Mayo’s keeper David Clarke got the ball out easy to the spare man.

Mayo targeted Kerry’s long kickouts and had a reward of three points in the first half with Kerry only winning four of their first nine.

Dublin will target the kickouts, with a formation of 4-4-3-3 which they have used throughout the Championship.

Mayo, with five up, will go zonal on Cluxton’s deliveries.

Both will put a lot of emphasis on their respective strategies and it could ultimately be a key element in the contest.

Mayo scored a combined total of 3-14 against Kerry and 1-5 in last year’s replay against Dublin with quick transition by both foot and hand which shows the importance of David Clarke maintaining his kick-out dominance.

Also having Aidan O’Shea back around the middle will be a huge addition for the long kickout. He excelled during the summer against Derry, Clare, Cork and Roscommon in primary ball winning and was really missed in the drawn game against Kerry as Mayo struggled at times to win the ariel ball clean.

The Engine Room

Depending on the opposition Mayo usually deploy, the O’Shea brothers, Donie Vaughan or Tom Parsons in the midfield diamond which covers positions 6-8-9-11.

They use Vaughan as a tagging midfielder and will be mindful of the fact that Brian Fenton got in for two goal chances last year one of which was scored.

Stephen Coen is another option and when Vaughan was black carded against Clare; Coen stepped into the role with a lot of effect picking up Gary Brennan as indeed he did against Jack Barry in the Kerry game.

Key Players

Aidan O Shea

Almost inevitably his name comes up in conversation whenever Mayo’s prospects are discussed and deliberated. His full-back role this year confirmed the qualities he possesses in terms of adapting and improvising in challenging situations.

If he plays on the ‘40 today, as is likely, he will probably adopt a roving role. This will create a dilemma for Dublin, who will have to pick him up or drop off.

They can’t afford to leave the centre open to the blistering pace coming from the back.

He brings a different dynamic to the 40 even though some might think that there is quicker movement in attacking situations when he is not there like against Kerry.

Certainly he is a player who divides opinion in terms of where he is best deployed. But undoubtedly wherever he operates he is a player with the ability and the physical presence to have a profound impact on the eventual outcome.

Andy Moran

The 33-year-old is on the shortlist for the Player of the Year. As Mayo’s primary ball winner inside his lateral movement can take a sweeper out of the game and Mayo since Rochford’s appointment have increased the amount of ball kicked into their forward-line.

Against Kerry the ball was delivered inside the 45 by foot 33 times which accounted for 3-11 on the scoreboard over the two days.

With a low delivery, Moran out in front can create and convert with clinical efficiency. He is also capable of wining the high ball as he did for their second goal three weeks ago and he could be isolated inside for long periods in this particular game today.

Last year Aidan O’Shea played alongside him for periods, which tested and distracted Dublin’s defensive cover, leaving runners to come in from behind.

It’s something we might see again today but whatever strategy is adopted, Moran is in a rich vein of form having already scored 3-19 from play and he could well be a trump card once again.

Jason Doherty

He is something of an unsung hero; the 27-year-old has become a key player, operating with great effect in a variety of roles. Against Cork he was given the task of tracking Sean Powter, while also acting as a link player.

Against Kerry, he drifted in and out winning primary possession, and popping the ball up to runners coming from deep.

When Cillian O’Connor was black-carded against Kerry he took on the role of free-taker and was unerring from placed balls.

Last year his positioning and movement caused problems for Cian O’Sullivan as he did this year on Mark Griffin.

So while he is not always mentioned in the same breath as some of the game’s marquee players, his contribution and effectiveness is equally as noteworthy.

Impact off the Bench

Much has been made of the embarrassment of riches Dublin possess in reserve. This was highlighted against Tyrone when Paul Flynn, Kevin McManamon and Diarmuid Connolly were introduced up front.

Mayo didn’t need game changers against Kerry, just players to keep their momentum going. They also used six subs which yielded a three point return with Conor Loftus scoring two of them.

There was a lot of opinion expressed about Colmr Boyle’s withdrawal against Kerry after 50 minutes in the drawn game but Paddy Durcan’s impact whenever he is introduced is considerable.

He has scored nine points from play in this year’s Championship, including the equalising point against Kerry in the drawn game. He almost inevitably increases the tempo and provides the impetus from midfield onwards.

There is an injury doubt about Diarmuid O’Connor, and, if Conor Loftus starts or is introduced early, in much the same way as Maurice Shanahan was in the hurling final, it will lessen Mayo’s options somewhat.

Stephen Coen also provides a steadying influence, so while Dublin on paper look to have a distinct advantage with their reserves Mayo won’t be found wanting in that area.

Down the Stretch: The Final Furlong

Mayo, apart from the Galway game have won or salvaged a draw in the majority of their games this year by virtue of a late surge.

Dublin also step-up a gear at this particular juncture but don’t always put the game completely beyond reach.

In fact their margin of victories in finals since 2011 has been by just a single score.

Mayo had an opportunity in the 75th minute to level last year’s replay.

Despite having already played nine games fitness shouldn’t be an issue for Mayo given that the highly rated Barry Solan is their conditioning coach. He splits his time between Mayo and Arsenal, the former footballer is very much in demand.

Dublin kick the ball more which normally provides a reserve of energy against a running team.

However, if as expected, the outcome is still in the melting pot, as the encounter reaches its finale, you can count on Mayo to match the Dubs stride for stride.

Mayo have only been beaten by the eventual winner since 2011 and as a group of players they will relish the opportunity to end their own pain and heartache and in turn reward their fans who have provided unwavering support.

Over the years win or lose the fans have been a constant presence in pitches around the country and whatever decisions management make or however players perform they will stand with them always. But I’m sure they are hoping that the goat has had a chat with the priest and the curse ends today.

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