Monday 19 March 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Ageing Mayo running out of chances to reach for the top

Aidan O'Shea, left, with his team-mate Cillian O'Connor
Aidan O'Shea, left, with his team-mate Cillian O'Connor
Cillian O'Connor of Mayo. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Al Capone, Ned Kelly, Butch Cassidy . . . they never got as much publicity as Diarmuid Connolly did last week. Most of the comments around what happened in Carlow last Saturday night were negative. Connolly was tried and sentenced in the court of public opinion.

In some respects his case could be argued to be prejudiced already but he still has the avenue of appeal against the proposed 12-sentence.

It is a bold move for Connolly and the Dublin County Board to say that they are not appealing, as an incident like this in a club match would be dealt with in the same way.

Connolly has done the right thing here. In not appealing the suspension, he is effectively accepting there was wrongdoing on his part. I have no doubt that this will raise his standing in the eyes of the GAA public, and it could be a sea change in the culture of the GAA, where suspensions are treated as something to be challenged regularly. This is quite unlike most other sports, where breaches of rules are accepted.

In the past I have trumpeted his case as Footballer of the Year and defended him in previous incidents where he was sent off. On this occasion I believe he is right to do the time.

While the Connolly case grabbed the headlines, it has diverted attention away from the real business of championship football - just as proper contests, as distinct from most of the phoney wars of the past few weeks, are about to begin.

In Pearse Stadium, by the windy sea in Galway, there is a heavyweight contest to savour. This will be a no-holds-barred battle; the re-emergence of Galway last year has helped rescue a Connacht championship where rigor mortis had set in.

Galway ran aground against Tipperary last year in Croke Park; they looked like innocents abroad in that match. They were unable to cope with high ball then and that route is still a danger against a relatively small backline, which is not as physically strong as the Mayo forwards.

There is no better sight in football than a corner-back who thinks he can push around the corner-forward, getting a few digs in return, especially if that back has to give away both weight and height.

So Mayo have a big advantage here. The O'Connors - Cillian and Diarmuid - are big men, and so is Jason Doherty - and that is before the trumpets are sounded, the band starts up and on comes Aidan O'Shea, a man whose notoriety almost matches Connolly's. If both let their football do the talking, it would be better for their teams.

I have watched Galway twice in the flesh this year: in Navan they played quite well against Meath but lost by a point, and in the Division 2 final when they beat Kildare. They are a team on the move and first division football next year will improve them further. In the league final against Kildare they played their best in the last quarter, which is a good reflection on any team, but the standard in that game and the one that followed between Kerry and Dublin showed the gulf which Galway must bridge to be a serious outfit.

Perhaps they might get there too, as they have forwards, which can elevate them above the huffing and puffing of those who are fit, organised and willing but short a bit of class up front. Shay Walsh provides some of that, so too does Damien Comer, whose bustling style is not liked by modern backs who want to be ball-players first and defenders second. Michael Daly showed with the under 21s that he could make it, and overall, with a decent midfield in Fiontán Ó Curraoin and Paul Conroy, Galway have a future.

Mayo have given rise to a thousand articles, and unless they win an All-Ireland soon there will be a hole in the ozone layer and a bigger one in the rain forests with all the timber needed for the papers to carry the ongoing saga. Many think after each disappointment that they won't be back. Yet what does a man do? Retire? Walk away? After the hurt eases, there is nothing to do but go back again.

The reason for playing is enjoyment and with that there is always disappointment when players strive for the top. Mayo have had to ship more than their share but there is nothing in life for those who feel sorry for themselves.

So the quest goes on, but for many of these players the endgame is definitely approaching. The clock is ticking: many of the squad have turned 30. Now 30 is a good age for winning - but there are not too many chances left.

Mayo are a hardened outfit and there are no better in the country than Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle, Lee Keegan, Patrick Durcan, Seamus O'Shea, Tom Parsons and the O'Connors. It should be easy to add on a few more and wave from the mountain top, but like many teams they don't possess a Canavan, Gooch or Brogan to stick one in the net when they need it most.

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Yet for all that they have great qualities: they are manly, tough and willing, which carries them a long way. They did not look good against Sligo but I don't think the Mayo train is stopping in Connacht this year. I expect a good future through the back door for Galway, but Mayo will win today.

In Kingspan Breffni Park there is another local squabble between Monaghan and Cavan. Patrick Kavanagh wrote: "I made the Illiad from such a local row, Gods make their own importance." It may not have been directly applied to this game but, like politics and religion, everything is local in football . . . And there is nothing more important for those of drumlins, small fields and hard work than a win today.

When they met in the league earlier in the year it finished seven points each in a dog of a game. Low-scoring games need not be bad, as there is a skill in defending too, but parking a fleet of buses is not a skill and Cavan especially are finding it very difficult to get enough scored to win big games.

They might keep the total against them down but in general they are unlikely to win high-scoring games. It's no mystery; it's the same reason as Mayo, Cork, Tyrone and 25 more: a shortage of a really class forward.

Monaghan are lucky in that regard: they have Conor McManus and now they have Jack McCarron riding shotgun, as well as Conor McCarthy. Against Fermanagh these three came too far out in the first half but fired live bullets in the second half and ran up a huge score in bad conditions. They also have a defence too - the Wylie brothers are hard-nosed, old-style defenders. What is most striking is that Monaghan have moved on another bit and are probably a better Croke Park team than a few years ago, as there is speed to back scores, yet the discipline and organisation are still completely intact.

Cavan really needed to stay in the top division for another year, but have been a bit inconsistent. The problem as I see it is that players like Killian Clarke, Conor Moynagh and Gearoid McKiernan, who can inspire, are on the wrong side of the field.

The tide has gone out on Seanie Johnston providing enough scores; he will toil honestly but where is the 1-3 or 1-4 man from play? Hardly Cian Mackey or Martin Reilly, who will cover huge territory, get loads of ball but need someone with hands of silk and feet of gold to convert all this hard-won possession. Eventually though, chickens come home to roost. There are more scores in the Monaghan full-forward line.

A Monaghan win for me.

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