Wednesday 20 November 2019

Colm Keys: Mayo can't fight their fatigue off indefinitely

Three weeks' respite stretched ahead of them but now they've been dragged down another dark alley

Cillian O’Connor of Mayo attempts a kick at scoring a point. Photo: Sportsfile
Cillian O’Connor of Mayo attempts a kick at scoring a point. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Heavy mileage does not necessarily preclude a team from winning an All-Ireland title.

When Tyrone were crowned champions for the second time in three years in 2005 they played 10 games to reach the summit.

They met their great Ulster rivals Armagh three times that summer and Dublin twice before eventually outgunning Kerry. Was there ever a more difficult final stretch than that?

When they reclaimed the title three years later they took a circuitous route too, losing an Ulster first round replay to Down, playing three dour qualifiers, the last against Mayo, before exploding to life in an All-Ireland quarter-final against Dublin.

A year later there was shock and awe for Dublin when Kerry limped out of a three-game qualifier series where Longford, Sligo and Antrim took them to the wire before the sun broke through when they hit Croke Park.

Croke Park can sometimes bring the best out of teams who have been coughing and wheezing their way through the championship's backwaters.

If we take it that the current cycle for this Mayo team began in 2011, James Horan's first year in charge, yesterday was their 27th match in Croke Park, 19 in championship, eight in the league including four regular fixtures against Dublin.

Evidence

No team enjoys more familiarity with the place these days than this group of Mayo players. By contrast, only Seanie McDermott has played a championship for Roscommon there.

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Yet even that familiarity couldn't provoke the right reaction from them, providing more clear evidence, if any more was required, that their powers are ebbing.

After the excesses of MacHale Park and Derry and the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick, with Cusack Park, Ennis and Clare stitched in between they needed to command here, they needed the start Roscommon got and they needed to manage the game from there on. Essentially they needed to punch, not to fight.

That three-week break to an All-Ireland semi-final with Kerry stretched out like an oasis to them.

The thought of it - a week recuperating, a week revving up again and a week fine-tuning against a side that stole their thunder three years ago. Perfect after the month they've had.

When they shelved a round of club championship fixtures after last year's All-Ireland semi-final the logic was that the extra week together would give them a headstart over their opponents. It was a psychological crutch that they reached for and, all things considered, probably worked out for them.

But now that's gone from them and they're being dragged back down another dark alley again.

If they do prevail on Monday week the disparity with Kerry's route will be stark, 530 minutes (not including added time and provided the replay doesn't go to extra-time) to Kerry's 210.

And that's before their exhaustive efforts over the previous five years are factored in, something not as relevant to Tyrone in 2005. The burden of winning for them had eased two years earlier. For Mayo now it feels like it's weighing heavier than ever.

Their resilience and courage in difficult situations will never be questioned, of course. There's a composure about them when adversity strikes that is perhaps clouded by the struggle with the scoreboard.

This could easily have slipped from their grasp and when Sean Mullooly popped a pass to David Murray in the 67th minute, when the sides were level, it was Aidan O'Shea who got back in between them to intercept and clear the danger.

Stephen Rochford will wonder after this though how they left it out there and his demeanour in the press auditorium afterwards reflected that.

Cillian O'Connor alone hit five wides and left another two shots short, three in added time when they had a significant grip. Scores just didn't come easily for them, as much down to Roscommon pressure as their own shortcomings.

Rochford had delivered the first big tactical victory of the afternoon by deploying Lee Keegan to shadow Enda Smith from midfield.

Smith had dominated the Connacht final but he retreated somewhat with the presence of the footballer of the year on his shoulder and it was Keegan who took the game to Roscommon, posting 1-3 in an electrifying opening half.

It was on McStay's 'to do' list this week to remind Smith that he is the midfielder and this is his territory. But against a player of Keegan's dynamism and doggedness, that's easier said than done.

Pushed

For many years now there has been quite a body of opinion that Keegan should be pushed up into a more advanced role.

Clearly, there is some subtraction involved in the level of protection he gives in dealing with players like Diarmuid Connolly and Sean Cavanagh as he did last year.

But his ball-carrying and shooting on the run - how often has he executed that outside of the right foot slice between the posts? - are always menacing.

Mayo have needed something different all season. Keegan to midfield looked to have provided it until Kevin McStay trumped it briefly by placing Smith in the full-forward line, essentially baiting Keegan to follow, which he did, much to McStay's "delight". It helped with the momentum shift back to Roscommon.

The withdrawal of Colm Boyle in the 51st minute for Donie Vaughan was a curious one as the firebrand half-back had been one of the steadier hands in recovering the early seven-point deficit. He didn't appear to be discomforted by injury.

Neither did Tom Parsons who was omitted from the start but came on to play an important role.

More and more it seems that Mayo choices off the bench have become more limited. An extra pair of fresh legs was available but never called upon.

Physically Mayo had an edge but maybe not as much as Roscommon might have feared. When 6'4" O'Shea collided with 5'9" Niall Kilroy in the first half it was like a scene from a bowling alley with a ball scattering the last pins left standing.

Diarmuid Murtagh felt the full force of Diarmuid O'Connor in another collision and the amount of turnovers Mayo enjoyed suggested a significant difference. But it never really manifested.

And so a season wading in treacle takes another unexpected twist for Mayo. In the overall scheme of things, light at the end of the tunnel is still faint.

Irish Independent

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