Horan demands Mayo up their work rate for Cork clash
MAYO have 'Riverdanced' their way through the Allianz NFL campaign so far, taking two steps forward and two back -- but the next three weeks will decide whether they receive bouquets or brickbats for their overall performance.
A very good start against Laois, followed by a tasty away win in Armagh left James Horan's men setting the pace in Division 1, but they crashed back down to earth with a home defeat against Down followed by another loss to 14-man Donegal last Sunday.
Now they need a seriously improved display against Cork at Castlebar tomorrow to restore confidence and get the campaign back on track.
Horan had targeted a strong challenge in the league because Mayo have to wait until June 24 to play Leitrim in their opening championship game. So how has that plan worked out so far? In truth, very moderately, as is revealed by their record to date.
Mayo have played four matches, winning two and losing two. Their scoring difference is exactly zero, with 52 points for (3-43) being mirrored by 52 points conceded (1-49).
A win over Cork, which will be a tall order given that Conor Counihan's team will be highly motivated after their own loss to Kerry, is of paramount importance because Mayo's next two games are the rescheduled clash with Dublin, followed by a visit to the high-flying Kingdom.
Plenty of food for thought there, and that thinking process started on the pitch at Ballyshannon last Sunday after Donegal had won 0-17 to 1-7.
The home side had to overcome the loss of Rory Kavanagh, who was sent off a few minutes before half-time, and still won by seven points, while Mayo missed the influence of big midfielder Aidan O'Shea, who was suspended for two games after being sent off against Down.
However, Mayo couldn't use O'Shea's absence as an excuse for their defeat.
There was no quick trip to the dressing-rooms for Horan after the game as he spent a long time discussing the various elements of the match with his back-room team before addressing the players in the centre of the pitch.
The evidence of his own eyes was backed up by statistics, including, as Horan revealed, Mayo conceding 35 turnovers.
The performances and results may not be to his liking, but at least Horan calls it as it is, unlike many managers in the English Premier League.
If Mark Hughes of QPR was the Mayo boss, he would have been claiming that Donegal were outrageously lucky to win that many turnovers and that it was a huge disadvantage to his team to have an extra man for the entire second half.
Well, Horan is no Hughes, as was evident by verdict on the Donegal match. The truth may hurt, but he wasn't afraid to speak his mind.
"A lot of the ball we turned over was unbelievable. We were terrible in every aspect of the game. We will have to figure it out. But when you put in a performance like that, something is not right," he said.
"I don't think the sending-off had anything to do with the result. When you don't have work rate or a platform to work hard enough off, everything else just falls into second place. That's really where the concern is for me."
No team can get it right all the time, but having lost to Down at home after making such a bright start to the league, Mayo supporters would have expected that Donegal would have suffered a bit of a backlash from the men in green and red last Sunday.
Winning the Connacht championship and reaching an All-Ireland semi-final in 2011 upped the ante for Mayo this year and whatever about bad kicking or handpassing, work rate, effort and intensity are taken as a basic minimum in the Horan regime.
If he didn't get that level to his satisfaction last week, the onus is on the players to make amends against Cork.
In terms of the league, it's still quite possible for Mayo to figure in the semi-finals, as Horan and Conor Mortimer observed prior to tomorrow's match.
"There's plenty of opportunities to improve. We're in a bit of a sticky spot now at the moment so we just need to get back and make sure that the next game we play, we work as hard as we can," said Mortimer, who has contributed 17 points, 16 of them from frees, over the four games.
"We have to win at the weekend if we are looking at a semi-final. It's a fine line. Win at the weekend and you are up there, lose and you are in trouble.
"I'd be confident that if we put the head down this week and put in a performance, then hopefully we can come out the right side of it."
Incidentally, no matter how their league campaign ends, the Mayo squad will have a pre-championship training camp in Portugal from April 15-21.
April 15 is the date of the Division 1 semi-finals, and if Mayo manage to claim a place in the last four, they will play the match and travel that evening.