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Man with the plan for Mayo

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FORWARD THINKING: Mayo coach Donie Buckley.

FORWARD THINKING: Mayo coach Donie Buckley.

FORWARD THINKING: Mayo coach Donie Buckley.

SEPTEMBER 23 2012: We're in the 11th minute of last year's All-Ireland football final. Paddy McBrearty's shot for a point rebounds off an upright to Kevin Keane ... but his untimely fumble sees the ball break to Colm McFadden and, in an instant, the Mayo net is dancing for a second time.

AUGUST 4 2013: We're in the fifth minute of the Mayo/Donegal quarter-final. Eamonn McGee wins possession near his own end-line, but he's on the ground and, in a flash, bottled up by Cillian O'Connor. The ball squirts loose, Kevin McLoughlin skips inside a despairing tackle before teeing up O'Connor for an ice-cool finish.

These two case studies are telling for all manner of reasons. At the most basic level, McFadden's goal left a Mayo side already reeling from Michael Murphy's early thunderbolt with Everest to climb ... whereas O'Connor's early strike, three weeks ago, set the agenda for their 16-point revenge mission on Donegal.

Yet there's something more profound at play. That first example was symptomatic of the errors Mayo had to eradicate to return this year as heavyweight contenders. And the second snapshot? Mayo's summer in microcosm. Forwards tackling hard (but fairly) high up the pitch, forcing turnovers that immediately transform into scoring opportunities.

So then, what's changed in the last 11 months? Just nine of last year's All-Ireland team started the recent quarter-final, but even that suggests a level of upheaval that doesn't quite exist: three of the current team came off the bench last September.

So, this year's model is not a 'new' Mayo, per se ... but the repetition of cakewalk results and punishing turnovers and goalscoring-made-easy all point to a very improved Mayo. If it isn't down to the players, and the manager remains the same, what then is the X-Factor?

It has to be Donie Buckley.

"Donie would never give you a bad word, it's always positive. And the word he'd give you is intelligent, he analyses teams and he's just a good guy to have around the place. His coaching knowledge, to me, is second to none."

So says skipper Andy Moran of the Kerry native who accepted James Horan's offer to become Mayo coach this season.

Prior to Buckley's arrival, Cillian O'Connor had won back-to-back Young Footballer of the Year awards but his game (shoulder injuries permitting) has now found an even higher level. The tackling above. All those goal assists against Galway. Those back-to-back hat-tricks against London and Donegal.

"He has done a lot of work on the basics of the game – the pick-up, the catch and the hand-pass. Just simple things," says O'Connor.

"I wouldn't say it's anything out of this world. It's just he's a new voice, which is great. It brings a bit of freshness to the set-up. He has great man-management skills. All the lads seem to get on with him. He breaks the game down and makes it specific to your game or your position."

INFLUENCE

The first clear indicator of Buckley's positive influence came in Pearse Stadium last May. Galway were ransacked for three goals before the break: the third was a textbook example of Mayo forwards swarming around the ball-carrier and then maximising the turnover's impact, as McLoughlin's instant through pass and O'Connor's selfless offload left Donal Vaughan free to walk the ball into an empty net.

Defensive hara-kiri? For sure. But Mayo, in the past, might not have capitalised.

They know all about the benefits of Buckley's coaching nous in Clare (where he was joint-manager for a year with Michael Brennan); in Kerry (he was Jack O'Connor's coach when they reached the 2011 All-Ireland final); but probably in Limerick more than anywhere. He joined Mickey Ned O'Sullivan's management team towards the end of the 2008 league and helped them to stave off relegation to Division Four.

Barely two months later, in a Munster semi-final, they were leading Cork by three points only to be sucker-punched by two late goals. A month further on, they pulverised Meath in the qualifiers. Buckley would stay on as Limerick coach for the next two seasons. "By the time championship came around (in 2008), we were literally hopping off the ground," recalls Pa Ranahan.

The Limerick defender goes on to explain how this "bundle of energy" left such a lasting impression. "Usually it takes the trainer two months to know everyone's name, and literally after two training sessions he nearly had everyone on the whole team pinged," he explains.

"Every training session, he's there about an hour and a quarter before training and he's hopping around the scene and the minute the whistle goes for half-seven, if you're not up to his speed as regards energy levels and awareness ... not in a bad way, but there's no hiding on the pitch. He always sees fellas who are yawning or dragging their ass."

BRILLIANT

While the training sessions were "brilliant", Ranahan reckons there are loads of good trainers with impressive drills but few with Buckley's attention to detail.

"It could be 10 o'clock at night and he'll give you a phone call – just because he thought of something you did well in training or what you need to do in training or the fella you're going to be marking the next day," he expands.

"His analysis of other teams was just unbelievable. He'd have pages and pages. I remember he used to ring me and ask to meet him in the South Court Hotel, and we'd go through the fella I was marking for about half-an-hour. And you'd leave the meeting and you'd be really confident that you knew everything you needed to know."

Watching Mayo this summer, Ranahan has been struck by several familiar traits: forwards applying the GAA equivalent of basketball's full-court press, stripping backs coming out with the ball, then going for the jugular.

"He was never one for this blanket defence," he says.

But why haven't we seen more of the man instead of his methods?

"Especially the way inter-county management is gone, where you spend as much time dealing with the media and things off the GAA pitch, that really isn't something that would interest him at all," Ranahan surmises.

"All he wants to do is work with the players, improve on things that need to work on, and be involved in how a team plays. I'd say he has little or no time for answering questions after that ... I don't think I've ever seen an interview with him in a paper."

Tomorrow in Croker, expect Mayo players to do his talking on the pitch.


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