Sunday 17 November 2019

Mayo still crippled by fear factor

Dillon says psychological scars and lack of confidence the root of woes

The irony won't be lost on anyone in Mayo that Billy Joe Padden has scarcely had a championship day or night like it.

His three points at the Morgan Athletic Grounds on Saturday only told some of the story of his remarkable debut for his county of residence.

His intelligent lay-offs were in perfect harmony with Armagh's desire to continually switch the direction of play and keep Down guessing. He was busy, he was productive, confident and he looked the part. All in an orange shirt.

Few could have expected it from a 28-year-old who only looked to be pitching his lot in with his new county because it was more convenient and his race may have been run in Mayo.

The colour of the shirt, though, is the important dimension. Padden was away from the environment of fear that has enveloped Mayo football over the last few years, an environment that has allowed them to win just one championship match of significance since their epic All-Ireland semi-final win over Dublin in 2006.

Thrust into a new environment, Padden cut a completely different player with the very same skill set that saw him feature across every line of the Mayo football team for the previous eight years. That Alan Costello has experienced much the same spike in form across the border in Sligo can't be a co-incidence, can it?

As Padden was celebrating a memorable night in Armagh, the Mayo players would hardly have been aware of the quality of the debut their old colleague had delivered as they settled into their London hotel in advance of what should have been a routine trip for a Connacht quarter-final meeting with the Exiles. What happened next? Well you could hardly make it up.

Mayo came within minutes of arguably the most embarrassing championship result in modern times.

Clare toppling Kerry in the Munster final of 1992 doesn't even come close to Ruislip on Sunday. The extra-time trauma suffered by Leitrim at the same venue some years ago and the near-miss experienced by Roscommon more recently pale into insignificance by comparison to what was narrowly avoided.

This was Mayo, after all, a county with one of the strongest club structures in Gaelic football, a county that has punched its considerable weight in terms of dominating the province at underage level over the last decade.

And yet they were hanging by a thread against a team that have only Kilkenny in their slipstream on an annual basis in the league.

That they needed two late points to bail themselves out of such a tricky situation points to a malaise that has been gripping the county team for some time now and shows little sign of abating.

True, the nature of Mayo and Galway clashes are such that form is often of little consequence. Galway's abject display against Mayo in Tuam earlier this year was hardly inspiring with June 26 in mind. And Mayo may even win a Connacht title.

But, for some teams, psychological scars can be draining and right now too many players are playing as if they are encased in shells. The expression in their football does not seem to be there over the last few years.

If an accurate conversion index existed to measure talent and potential against achievement it wouldn't make pretty reading for them.

Mayo captain Alan Dillon watched the last 10 minutes on the sidelines suffering from concussion but with still enough focus to realise the scale of what was happening.

Dillon senses a lack of confidence in the squad that needs to be addressed with new determination, citing that dearth of championship success over the last five years.

"The Connacht final win over Galway is the only real meaningful victory we have had since 2006," he reflected. "No one is dressing it up as anything else but a close call and it was a very quiet journey home.

"For those last few minutes there were a lot of nerves. We have to do a lot of soul searching now. Let's hope it was the serious kick in the arse that we need."

However, James Horan thought that such a kick was delivered the week before when Mayo played poorly in a challenge match against Offaly, hardly a ringing endorsement of form given Offaly's feebleness against Wexford on Saturday evening.

So infuriated was Horan that evening that he held the Mayo squad back in the dressing-room and let fly in a manner that no one had seen from him before.

Mayo can point to some positive things from Sunday. They won from an awkward position, a few players -- Andy Moran, Trevor Mortimer and Dillon -- showed leadership and the last time they were in London and struggled in '06 they went on to contest an All-Ireland final. It's not a bad parallel.

But the rap sheet is getting longer for these Mayo players. Sligo and Longford last year, put to the pin of their collar by London now.

It's back to the drawing board for Horan now. Using a sweeper system -- Trevor Howley was deployed as a seventh defender for much of the game -- sent out the wrong message and invited London on to them but it may not necessarily be the wrong tactic the next day.

Horan has to look at Mayo's championship now in much the same way as Pat Gilroy did with Dublin after their Leinster crash 12 months ago.

As much as they are finding it hard to win when they should, Mayo must become a team that finds it hard to lose.

One of the main forks of the action plan devised and released in controversial circumstances last February was to reach out to the Mayo diaspora around the world.

Whoever thought that part of that diaspora could bring them so close to their lowest ever moment just three months later?

Irish Independent

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