Friday 20 April 2018

Vincent Hogan: Mayo still fighting the old suspicion as Kerry survive

Self-harm becoming a familiar charge against western warriors after epic

Andy Moran of Mayo after scoring his side's first goal during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Kerry and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Andy Moran of Mayo after scoring his side's first goal during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Kerry and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

So Mayo again challenge our capacity to hyperbolise epic conflict and, still, leave us with the suspicion that their greatest sin may be to over-think things.

In romantic terms, their story is like something dredged up out of an old-school catechism, a convoluted parable about reaping heartache through some bad deed of the past. A graveyard. A funeral. Inebriated supporters. A curse. A story for Hollywood maybe, but not for the cold, damp stonework of Croke Park on an inky autumn Sunday.

You want to forget that nonsense. You're sitting there thinking that, eventually, enough will be enough for these men.

Not in the sense of their contrariness, finally, closing the deal. Being contrary has never been the issue. Finding the dog within to make life difficult for anybody, anywhere, anytime has never been a bridge too far for this Mayo team.

Getting lucky remains the problem. Reaching some kind of resolution with the sniggering deities is where this seems to keep getting tricky. Because this has never been about heat, nor about the giving or taking of hay-makers. It always somehow seems to come down to subduing whatever gland it is that keeps tempting them into a backward glance.

Put it this way, anyone inclined to dismiss Mayo as weak-spirited would just as likely decree someone like Jimmy Young a boxing bum for never being heavyweight champ of the world in the era of Ali and Frazier. Mayo's misfortune has been to co-exist with teams who, in ways, have rewritten our understanding of the modern game.

Yesterday was cut from familiar cloth, Mayo leaving behind a multitude of reasons to believe that they might just be better than this Kerry team, yet departing the scene sounding ever so faintly defensive.

Stephen Rochford isn't a naturally adversarial man, but the tilt of the forensic seemed to needle him. Aidan O'Shea's match-up with Kieran Donaghy annulled one man's impact on the game and it wasn't Donaghy's. The big Tralee man had a monster game; O'Shea's presence was a murmur.

A year ago, Mayo changed their goalkeeper between drawn and replayed All-Ireland finals when the need seemed less than pressing. Now this?

Rochford took to offering a small glossary of O'Shea's previous experiences as a full-back. A game against Donegal's Michael Murphy this spring. One against Kildare's Kevin Feely last year. He trumpeted his tackling qualities and the physical presence he'd bring to bear "against the physical and aerial threat that Kerry might bring in that area".

Trouble was, Kerry didn't seek out Donaghy as a lighthouse. They kept lasering deliveries in chest-high.

"We'll look back and see if things worked from it or did we lose something from it," admitted Rochford.

Asked if hindsight might record the deployment of O'Shea as some kind of psychological own-goal, Rochford reflected: "I don't know, I'm not trained in that...em...means. I don't care what's thought in the Kerry dressing-room."

Missing

Then, after a secondary question in the same vein: "Possibly. But we're not a one-man team, no more than Lee Keegan missing the Roscommon game. We don't want to be seen as a one-man team, we don't believe we're a one-man team. Aidan was effective in some aspects, but I think we'll take closer attention to see before, you know, we'll be sort of definitive on that.

"But look, we would have felt that 2006, 2014 there was lessons possibly to be learned from there. Was it the right decision? You know, you win the game, you lose the game, people decide that it was right or wrong. We'll see what happens next week."

You could forgive his lack of appetite for detailed, instant analysis given the helter-skelter nature of what we'd seen.

After all, think back to Cillian O'Connor's second-minute free bouncing wide off an upright from an angle and distance he'd consider unchallenging; or that pinball moment in the Kerry square ending with Andy Moran's shot ricocheting up off Mark Griffin over the Hill-end bar in a blurring sequence during which the Kerry full-back might well have conceded a penalty; or of Stephen Coen, Chris Barrett and Paddy Durcan all being guilty of careless shot selection before Durcan finally converted that 74th-minute equaliser.

And then you think of Stephen Rochford watching Bryan Sheehan line up that last-second free from between the Mayo 45 and 65 lines.

What was he thinking?

"He's a damn good free-taker and it wouldn't surprise me if he nailed it," he sighed heavily. "But I suppose... difficult under-foot conditions... and thankfully maybe just a little bit outside his range.

"Look, we haven't lost anything from it and we haven't gained anything from it either.

"We're still in the competition. We'd have felt we had good momentum at different stages after conceding goals that we'd be disappointed with. We need to review them and see what was the source of them."

By the mid-way, Mayo certainly had the familiar sense of a cold breath on their necks, having essentially bossed the game, nailed two Hill-end goals, yet found themselves slipping down the tunnel level with a Kerry team in virtual defensive meltdown. Kerry's full-back line would leak a remarkable 1-9 from play, the kind of statistic Éamonn Fitzmaurice will consider repugnant.

He'll know, too, that his team got lucky here.

But there's the rub for Mayo. Kerry seemed in trouble with the unanswered concession of four points between the 39th and 43rd minutes, the last of which Tom Parsons might have put in the Canal-end goal, having knifed onto a quick free from the rampant Andy Moran.

That move was initiated by Keith Higgins's steal on Donaghy and Aidan O'Shea galloping clear in just about the only discernibly constructive moment of the Breaffy man's afternoon.

But Johnny Buckley's 46th-minute goal for Kerry simply italicised the impression of Mayo all but out-smarting themselves, O'Shea a helpless onlooker near the toes of the Cusack Stand.

"Yeah, what's probably more disappointing is that we had possession on that and we tried to play it out, the ball hits the ground, goes out," recalled Rochford candidly.

"Aidan was out on the far wing, trying to bring the ball out. He's then away from base as such and then we don't defend the break. But then I mean you're playing against Kerry, the form team in the country."

Swinging

From there, it was just a prize fight, both sides swinging windmills.

And inevitably, the taste after was to read this as a lost opportunity for one, a profound reprieve for the other. Did Mayo have a sense of anything being left behind here? What on earth could Rochford tell us?

"I would have been disappointed with the concession of the two goals but again, we created a good few chances that we didn't score, so I wouldn't think that that was anywhere near our top performance."

On to another replay then, their ninth game of this championship. Anyone for fatigue?

"I'm sure at some stage I'll say yes to that question, but it's not going to be this week," said Rochford. "I thought we were doing the running there at the end.

"I've said this before, these guys are in great physical shape. You know, we'll train once this week, recovery started 15 minutes ago.

"We've been down this track a couple of times.

"The six-day turnaround isn't the biggest deal to us and we'll be back for next week. I think there's a lot more in us."

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