Wednesday 22 May 2019

Colm Keys: 'League gives Mayo a major lift but gap to Dubs too big this season'

League informs Mayo that they'll be a relevant force into the next decade

Mayo’s cup overfloweth: Fergal Boland of Mayo flings the cup in the air as he and his team-mates celebrate their win over Kerry in the Allianz FL Division 1 final. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo’s cup overfloweth: Fergal Boland of Mayo flings the cup in the air as he and his team-mates celebrate their win over Kerry in the Allianz FL Division 1 final. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Mayo's first national title for 18 years has renewed hope that an elusive All-Ireland title is still well within their grasp, lifting the psychological barrier that goes with nine previous defeats and a draw in national finals since their 2001 win over Galway.

It felt good in Croke Park for them to hoist silverware and share it with their supporters to bring a progressive league to a satisfactory conclusion, one which has given Mayo football a clear vision for the future.

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Mayo's Rob Hennelly and Aidan O'Shea celebrate
Mayo's Rob Hennelly and Aidan O'Shea celebrate

In any analysis Mayo will still strongly contend but even with the gap closing slightly on Dublin, they will still have to take their place in the queue with 2020 in mind.

Dublin remain well out in front

The most obvious barrier to Mayo or any other team pushing through is the Dubs. The champions may have lost three league games for the first time in the Jim Gavin era and they may have some difficulties in dealing with an aerial threat but this is something that isn't new to them and they have adapted to before.

It shouldn't take much to reset for the summer and get players like Ciaran Kilkenny, Brian Fenton and Con O'Callaghan firing again. The fact remains that Mayo have yet to beat Gavin's Dublin team.

They've matched them at times, they've been unlucky for sure, but can they honestly say that they've been better than them for a full 70-80 minutes?

Manager James Horan shouting the instructions. Pic: Sportsfile
Manager James Horan shouting the instructions. Pic: Sportsfile

Even on nights on their own home turf in Castlebar, Dublin have had just a little too much.

In celebration, Mayo can still reflect on the two games they lost in the campaign as the two games they need to win most for some broader perspective, Dublin in Croke Park and Galway in Castlebar who they haven't beaten in their last 14 and seven attempts respectively.

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Those two just can't be erased with the gleam of silverware.

By contrast, their recent history with Kerry is more than favourable - no Croke Park loss in five meetings and no loss on Kerry soil this decade.

They still make hard work of it

Their spirit is admirable but as is their wont, Mayo were still hard on themselves down the closing stretch of a game they were dominating.

But for Rob Hennelly's instinctive save from David Clifford it could have been the latest chapter in a long enduring tale of woe.

James Horan's suggestion that they could have won by 10 or 12 was a little generous given Kerry spurned decent chances themselves, but the new league champions did leave far more scores out there.

By our count, they dropped 11 shots short or were blocked, in addition to their eight wides.

This was a recurring theme during the league, despite its conclusion. Against Dublin they hit 14 wides and dropped four more shots short. Against Galway they had more attacks but still registered 11 wides.

They still need more possession, it seems, than their rivals to kill a game.

They're unsure of their best team

When Horan returned for a second act last September he was adamant that sufficient talent existed in Mayo to push on.

"I'd be very excited about what's coming through as regards the youth talent that's in Mayo," he said.

"If you squash that in with the experience that's there, I just think that there's possibly exciting times."

Naturally, he didn't specify when those exciting times might manifest. But he was right about the talent. And there's plenty of it.

But that creates its own problems. Of the top teams, Kerry and Mayo are probably a little bit behind the rest in knowing what their best 15 will be by summer, despite this win.

Horan has given game time to 34 players, springing James Carr for a full debut in the league final in a manner that perhaps only Brian Cody would do.

Carr, Matthew Ruane, Fionn McDonagh, Ciaran Treacy, Michael Plunkett, Brian Reape, James McCormack and Conor Diskin have made a mark at some stage or another.

Fergal Boland and Darren Coen have been regeneration projects, Ryan O'Donoghue, Cian Hanley and James Durcan saw little or no action this spring.

That's a lot of emerging talent to put pressure on the old order. But it's also a lot of choice that may take more than this summer to refine.

Free-taking

Cillian O'Connor missed the entire league and continues to rehabilitate from knee surgery.

When he returns he'll surely assume free-taking responsibilities but even prior to his injury O'Connor had not been offering that same guarantee that he gave during his first five seasons with Mayo, certainly not the same guarantee that Dean Rock gives Dublin and Sean O'Shea is now providing for Kerry.

In his place, Jason Doherty has stepped up but his failure to convert from 22 metres on Sunday, dropping a first-half free into Kerry goalkeeper Shane Ryan's arms, highlighted a potential weakness in the armour.

Rob Hennelly can offer an option from long range but Hennelly, despite his heroics against Dublin and again last Sunday, must first become the No 1 choice ahead of David Clarke.

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