Peter Canavan: Mayo are serious All-Ireland contenders, but are they smart enough for Sam?
Joint-bosses Holmes and Connelly need to build on strides made by Horan
Published 13/06/2015 | 14:00
For new managers, the best time to win an All-Ireland is the first season. It worked for Joe Kernan, Mickey Harte and Jim Gavin. Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Jim McGuinness in recent times built on a promising initial season to get things in place to ultimately succeed.
So if I was Mayo's Pat Holmes or Noel Connelly, I would want to be making the most out of this year, which brings us to this weekend's glamour tie in Connacht, with Mayo - third-favourites behind Dublin and Kerry for Sam, meeting old rivals Galway.
In terms of groundwork, James Horan has already spent four very productive years raising expectation and standards.
Speaking from personal experience, when Mickey Harte took over Tyrone in 2003, we had been knocking on the door, having won our first National League title the year before.
Mickey's arrival did not herald wholesale changes on the playing front. But he tweaked a few things. Mayo are in a similar situation. It can be the smaller things that make the difference, what Clive Woodward termed the 'Critical non-essentials.'
In 2003, Mickey insisted upon a culture of respect. He established it from the first player in the squad, to the last person in the backroom team. Everyone's role within the squad, playing and non-playing, was identified. And for the players to achieve, we needed everybody working hard together.
The emphasis at our training sessions was very much on intensity. They never lasted more than one hour and were all with the ball; sharp and focussed. No time for idle chat. We did less physical work in 2003 than we had in years, yet we knew about it at the end of each evening, having given it everything for a solid hour.
Contrary to what many experts might believe, very little time was spent working on systems of play.
Mickey's philosophy was to facilitate players expressing themselves and playing to their strengths. For example, the likes of Brian Dooher and Brian McGuigan covered every inch of the pitch, getting involved and playing their normal game.
My brief was also clear - I was able to score and I was to stay close to the goals. Gavin Devlin was always an excellent reader of a game, so his job was to sweep, clean up and avert danger. Mind you, he was also told not to cross the halfway line or find himself in danger of taking a shot!
Our team spirit was excellent and it led us through tough battles that year. The building blocks were honesty, team unity and togetherness and stood to us for years to come.
The best set-ups that I played in were always player-driven. You can feed off a manager's enthusiasm and he can provide direction, but ultimately the players must take responsibility if a team is to go places.
There are a lot of decent, genuine men playing for Mayo. Footballers who want to do their best and they still believe they are good enough to win an All-Ireland. That's driving them on.
When James Horan got the Mayo job, he achieved his aim of taking 'the bullshit out of Mayo football.'
Although Horan won the players over, I believe that all that was needed was a few adjustments to their style of play to have won Sam.
Against Kerry last year and Donegal in the 2012 final, the opposition just kept bodies back. People made a big deal over Kerry keeping their defence in place for the All-Ireland final against Donegal. But when Kerry played Mayo in the semi-final, while in possession they retained their full-back line, and two half-backs.
In the modern game, if a defence leaves one-on-one situations, they will be ruthlessly exposed by the top teams.
Donegal exploited this weakness in the 2012 final when he was left isolated on Kevin Keane almost from the throw-in and helped himself to an early goal that put them on their way.
Likewise last year, the duel between Keith Higgins and James O'Donoghue was the highlight of the year. But from a Mayo point of view, they were still playing with fire. The burning that followed was inevitable.
Because they go man-for-man, they weren't in control of their shape, the opposition were. That's why you had that fantastic duel, and why they found it so difficult to contain a rampant Kieran Donaghy throughout last year's semi-final replay.
But compare that to Donegal's defence last year. On their way to the final last year their defence marked Conor McManus, Jamie Clarke, Bernard Brogan and James O'Donoghue. Those top forwards in the county could only manage three points from play between them.
Any time they got the ball there were men around them and they were forced into a situation where they were never going to shoot.
Number two, there is a need for a target man up front.
They have been too honest in going forward in the past, too cavalier at times. They have a number of players who take too much out of the ball and don't look up enough. They seek the contact because they are so physically strong.
They were seen as a ball-carrying team and that can be counteracted by reducing the space for the likes of Lee Keegan and Donie Vaughan to run into.
The last three winners of Sam have used the big target man; Eoghan O'Gara, Michael Murphy and Kieran Donaghy. There is no coincidence that in the last three finals, goals have resulted in long balls in towards the square. Mayo have the potential to also do this. Don't be surprised to see Aidan O'Shea taking up a similar position.
I was disappointed to see James Horan go, because they were playing to a high standard.
Luck is always the most underestimated quality in winning titles. In 2002, we could have knocked Armagh out before their tans faded from the warm-weather camp. They ended up All-Ireland champions.
A year later, Derry took us to a replay and Down were leading us by nine points in the Ulster final. We won Sam in the end.
Back to the game. Even for all the necessary adjustments Mayo have to make before August, they would have far too much for Galway this weekend if both sides went man-for-man.
Galway manager Kevin Walsh will have watched how Mayo got into serious bother against Tyrone in the league when they packed the defence.
He can retain three attackers in an advanced position, and then once the transition from defence to attack occurs, they can exploit the situation as outlined in the graphic above.
Time for Mayo to make a statement of intent. They are serious contenders. A grain of sand can tip the scales.