Sunday 25 August 2019

Colm Keys: 'Mayo's focus on big picture after being left on canvas'

Horan can take positives from performance and O’Connor’s return could be key to campaign

Silver linings: While Diarmuid O’Connor proved inconsistent against Roscommon. Photo: Sportsfile
Silver linings: While Diarmuid O’Connor proved inconsistent against Roscommon. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Just under two years ago Mayo conceded two goals to Roscommon in an All-Ireland quarter-final to trail by seven points, before an inevitable recovery brought it down to the wire in Croke Park.

At the death, it required strong nerves by Donie Smith to post an equaliser, but it was a temporary stay for the then Connacht champions. In the replay Mayo mauled them, hitting them with everything early on to score four goals and bury the tie by the 20th minute. They would subsequently reach the All-Ireland final and give their best account on that particular day.

For Mayo, there seems to be case history for every imaginable scenario in a game of football.

Roscommon scored two first-quarter goals on Saturday night and again the Mayo response was inevitable, just as it was in August 2017. Mayo even got in front at one stage, but this time there was a little more in Roscommon and when it came down it Kevin McLoughlin couldn't replicate Donie Smith's steel. The Mayoman's free, from a more advantageous position, to send the game to extra-time would quite possibly have seen the home side regain the momentum.

It's no surprise that Roscommon put Mayo under a bit of early pressure. It's no surprise that Mayo responded. What's new is that for once in this fixture Mayo fell a little short.

These are the margins that decide games. When Roscommon were in Castlebar in January for an opening round League match they lost by just a point, manager Anthony Cunningham referencing after their win over Leitrim that they had a "score" to settle on that account.

Aidan O’Shea is, arguably, in the form of his life. Photo: Sportsfile
Aidan O’Shea is, arguably, in the form of his life. Photo: Sportsfile

Fighting talk no doubt from a man who will complete the distinction of managing teams in club and county hurling and football provincial finals next month, but words that underpinned the determination they were likely to have in returning to the venue four months later.

James Horan will recall getting out of Dr Hyde Park in his last Connacht Championship campaign by a point, so the recent history of close games between these two neighbours, peppered by a couple of big Mayo wins, is there.

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While it's a surprise that a Mayo team who haven't been to a Connacht final for four years lost, it couldn't be classed as a shock.

Mayo may have won the League and basked in the glory of a first national title for 18 years, but the bottom line was they lost the two games that should be seen as the most accurate indicators of their well-being, to Dublin and Galway.

Mayo manager James Horan. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo manager James Horan. Photo: Sportsfile

Dublin created up to seven goal chances on the night they met in Croke Park; Galway spun the same web they have been spinning in their previous six meetings, forcing Mayo down the same cul de sacs to produce much the same scoreline. It should have tempered any future projections about them.

Mayo's issues haven't so much been a failure to win national titles as a failure to properly get to grips with these two.

Losing a Connacht semi-final to Roscommon by a point after posting 15 wides is a setback, but in the greater scheme of things, apart from some calendar adjustments, it doesn't alter their All-Ireland prospects to any great effect. They are just as close, or far away as the case may be, to Dublin - which is, of course, the only barometer.

When they get over the irritation of Saturday night's loss, that will become a lot clearer.

They are still a work in progress, just as they were when they met Roscommon in January, just as they still were at the end of March when they won the League.

It's understandable that there is always an urgency around Mayo and their quest for an All-Ireland title because of their recent history and the age profile of their stalwart players.

However, what winning the League and successfully integrating new players did was take them back from the cliff-edge and that 'now or never' dynamic that seems to follow them.

Horan needs to have an eye on the future beyond this season as he sifts through the wreckage of Saturday night.

That's easier said than done, but they still have a lot going for them. Aidan O'Shea is arguably in the form of his life; Paddy Durcan is challenging either Dublin incumbent as the most threatening wing-back in the game; Darren Coen and Fergal Boland stood up to any pressure their situation created and need to be trusted a little more now.

The League final showed the level Diarmuid O'Connor can go to, but Saturday night pointed to inconsistencies. And they still have some fine young players to fall back on.

Timing

The benefit of sitting out a fair chunk of 2019 after their earlier-than-expected exit last year may now be realised.

For a team that has been down this road so often the timing of another trek may just be right to help further integrate a few more of them.

If any other measurements, apart from the most important one of course, were analysed from Saturday they'd have come out on top. In that respect the performance won't feel as bad as the result.

They have issues in defence. Keith Higgins had a fine League on the front foot, but opponents have clearly identified potential profit from running at him.

And there are also persistent free-taking issues. Remember Jason Doherty dropped one short from 22 metres in the League final, while Cillian O'Connor has not been offering the same guarantees of old from dead balls in recent seasons. However, his return seems even more pivotal to Mayo now, in light of this defeat and particularly that final play.

There's much to play for still.

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