Wednesday 17 January 2018

Cautious start vital for Mayo to contain Dubs, warns former captain Kevin O'Neill

Former Mayo captain Kevin O'Neill pictured at the launch of the FBD Kilmacud Crokes Sevens
Former Mayo captain Kevin O'Neill pictured at the launch of the FBD Kilmacud Crokes Sevens
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The cold hard facts of this All-Ireland final point to Dublin being overwhelming favourites, with the right profile of forwards to deliver a second title in three years.

Former Mayo captain Kevin O'Neill's assessment is drawn from the head, not a heart that is naturally willing his native county to a first All-Ireland title in 62 years.

"Every All-Ireland (winning team) over the last couple of years have had two or three real marquee forwards and Dublin certainly have a couple of them," acknowledged O'Neill, who used to play club football in Dublin with Na Fianna but is now back with his home club Knockmore.

Mayo have averaged over 24 points per game in their five championship matches to date but some of that thrust has been drawn from their defenders pushing forward in what is "a different approach" by the management, according to O'Neill.

"There are more guys weighing in with scores and it's more a collective effort. They're not depending on one or two guys to score five or six points in every game," he said.

"That's one of the things that has been positive from Mayo. They have shown great leadership from corner-back right the way through the half-back line. They're not depending on one or two players up front.

"In days gone by, Mayo would have had two or three more marquee forwards but James (Horan) has gone for a different approach and it has worked.

"Only at 5.30 or 6.0 on Sunday evening will we know if that's an Achilles' heel for them or not."

O'Neill was adamant it wasn't possible to judge whether this is Mayo's best team since 1951 but he has praised the way they have adapted to modern football.

"You'd have to say they're approaching the game a little bit differently, both tactically and physically," he said.

"I think the team is set up in terms of their physical approach to the game.

"In years gone by, Mayo might have played a more expansive game, but this year the team is very much built on a solid defence and work-rate all the way through from corner-forward back.

"That's a collective team thing that they have been working on consistently over the last couple of years.

"There are definitely improvements that have been made for the good. To take into account how modern Gaelic games are played, they have adapted very well to it."

O'Neill  is expecting a conservative Mayo approach in the early stages to allow them to buy time they haven't had in the county's three previous All-Ireland final appearances.

"I think they really have to be aware of that. The first couple of minutes the next day are absolutely critical. The last couple of All-Irelands that Mayo have played, they have been caught out really in the first 10 or 15 minutes," he said.

"I think the players are smart enough to realise that after last year.

"It might not be the more open expansive game that has taken place in the last two semi-finals – it could be quite a battle of attrition for the first 10 or 15 minutes until the game settles down and people get their positions."

O'Neill, who replaced the current Mayo manager James Horan in the drawn 1996 All-Ireland final against Meath, is adamant that Cillian O'Connor is worth the risk of starting him on Sunday.

"If any player can get himself mentally right I'd say Cillian O'Connor, in terms of his preparation, he'd be 100pc on the money at that," he said.

"From a management perspective, it is a big risk to start him.

"I'm not aware of his current condition but for his frees alone and his general play, I think it's worthwhile taking that gamble too.

"A lot of people mightn't see some of the other things that he does but he's a very smart player with the ball in his hands. He doesn't tend to lose possession that quickly.

"He'll probably have to evolve his game over the next couple of years to be less physical in the encounter.

"He does get stuck in physically but I think, given his injury, he will have to look at that after Sunday."

As a playing colleague there looked to be more obvious future Mayo managers in the 1990s dressing-room that O'Neill shared with Horan.

"He was probably not as obvious as some of the more vocal players that were on the squad at the time but I always felt that James thought a lot about his own game," recalled O'Neill.

"While he might not have been as extrovert or talkative as some of the more senior players on the squad, he was a very smart footballer himself.

"Given the way the game has gone and evolved over the last couple of years, there's definitely a swing and we're seeing a younger age profile in senior inter-county managers.

"James has proved over the last couple of years that he is one of the top managers."

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