Sunday 18 February 2018

Colm O'Rourke - Mayo set for another final if they focus on themselves and not Kerry

If Mayo's Aidan O'Shea could consistently turn in a solid 70 minutes without frills, that would do nicely. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
If Mayo's Aidan O'Shea could consistently turn in a solid 70 minutes without frills, that would do nicely. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

When Mayo were suffering the head staggers early in the championship against Galway, Derry and Cork, there was concern, at the very least, in the tourist industry in places like Bohola, Claremorris and Kiltimagh that the normal influx of 'foreigners' would not materialise this year. These are the Mayo people who have been scattered by the four winds to places like London, New York, Boston, Sydney and 100 other cities around the world.

The certainty for these emigrants planning holidays over almost all of the last decade, was that Mayo would be in the championship in late August, so that was the right time to be on home soil. This is no exaggeration and the attraction of the GAA to people abroad cannot be overestimated. It is the reason why clubs are flourishing in every corner of the world and there are a lot of Mayo people driving this expansion.

Today they are back in their usual haunt by the Royal Canal. Emboldened by the display against Roscommon in the replay, they are beginning to believe again that the well may not be dry. The players are probably believing it too. No matter what anyone says, from management to players, there was nobody very confident that there was such a display hidden away. It was as good as Mayo have ever played, but that has to be put in the context of Roscommon imploding.

Even allowing for that, though, there were signs of a different approach and it should continue today. Before that match I was advocating several changes in personnel, positioning and tactics. By and large the management seemed to think similarly, but sometimes those closest to any team cannot see the most obvious things. It happens with everyone.

The biggest single factor was shaking off the fear that seemed to be smothering them and letting loose their best footballers to just play. There are times when the preoccupation with the opposition can smother adventure and Mayo this year have been tentative. When they let it flow they still possess a lot of power.

The danger for Mayo comes if they obsess about Kerry because it is a long time since they have beaten the Kingdom in Croke Park. This could stifle them. Kerry cast a long shadow over almost everyone - but Dublin have the right approach. They treat Kerry with benign indifference. Of course they make their plans on most eventualities, but they never do so at the cost of their own game. The Dubs go for it.

Mayo need to do the same. They could get bogged down with who is going to mark Kieran Donaghy, James O'Donoghue and Paul Geaney. In fact, the team could lie awake at night worrying about it. The other way is to tell the players in the full-back line who they are picking up and get on with it. Games are won just as much by raw emotion as brilliant tactics.

In our game, the usual response after the battle is over is that the winning manager got the tactics right and the loser made a mess of it. From long years of management my experience is far less certain. Sometimes doing stupid things works well and the best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray because, in the end, the players decide the issue.

Kerry arrive at this stage largely unproven. It was fairly obvious from the beginning of the year that it would pan out like this and their first big test would be in the semi-final. What the warm-up matches have shown is that the team have a lot of flair and a lot of faults. At times in the quarter-final the defence was opened like the Red Sea. If that happens again it will be the Dead Sea. Since the Galway match I am quite sure that Éamonn Fitzmaurice has been busy behind closed doors rehearsing some kind of extra defensive screen. Yet players are creatures of habit and some Kerry backs have bad habits which are going to come back and bite them soon.

One of them is that they are not good man-markers, though at least some of the holes in defence are being caused by opposition backs coming up-field. They can expect it today and the Mayo policy should be for Lee Keegan, Keith Higgins and others to attack continuously. Mayo should also forget about points unless it is a last resort. The old-timers used to say that you should take your points and the goals will come. To hell with that, a goal to Mayo is worth more than three points in the lift it would give the team against Kerry and there is a better chance of their defenders getting the goals than the forwards.

Of course Mayo have Cillian O'Connor and Andy Moran up front as the out-and-out attackers and maybe the management have decided that the policy of taking off Moran and Colm Boyle at a certain point is not such a good idea. Only take them off if they are not up to it. Anyway, their biggest problem is that their bench is not nearly as strong as the remaining teams, so the men on the front line must stand and fight for longer.

Kerry played like an old Fordson Major tractor against Galway. There was lots of puffing and black smoke and the job got done eventually, but some day soon the engine won't heat up. They need a much tighter defence and O'Donoghue must fire. Of course the new Donaghy threat could cause havoc. He seems better on his feet than last year, maybe he has been taking ballet lessons in Tralee. The real scorer is Geaney who plays as if he believes that Croke Park was built for his special talents. Mayo need to mind him more than any other player as he goes for goals when only points are on. He is in the league of great Kerry corner-forwards but has his off days too.

Against Galway I was impressed by Paul Murphy and Johnny Buckley. Both are honest and graft hard. David Moran needs a big game as Tom Parsons and Seamus O'Shea are a useful midfield combination. The big question is always about Aidan O'Shea (below). He was not near man of the match in my estimation against Roscommon. He will not win All-Irelands for Mayo but if he could consistently turn in a solid 70 minutes without frills, that would do nicely. And Keegan needs to play for the team too. If he listens to the crowd he will get the impression that it is a one-man band.

Stephen O'Brien starts for Kerry. They need more attackers and their half-forwards this year have been quite defensive, it is hardly working very well either. Fitzmaurice is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He would like to attack more but is afraid of the backs. With good reason too.

This should be a very good game. Neither side have mastered the art of defending like Tyrone, and Mayo usually find new ways to make a mess of things when they get to Croke Park. If they show Kerry the same level of respect that Galway did then they will be beaten. Yet this Kerry side has many flaws and they are not doing a good job of disguising them. They gave away a lot of goal chances in all of their championship games so far this year. That problem does not go away just because it is Kerry and they are in an All-Ireland semi-final.

Mayo should dominate possession around midfield whether kick-outs are short or not and it is particularly in Mayo's interest to ensure that all kick-outs are long. Then they have the pace to attack from the back and overwhelm the Kerry backs. This is contingent on a mental preparation which is based on their own game without concern for what Kerry might do. At this stage I think Mayo players can handle all of these stresses very well. It may appear to many that it would be an upset for Mayo to win. Not to me. Mayo for the final, again.

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