Thursday 26 April 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Tactically, Mayo are lions led by donkeys

Talking Point: You don't need hindsight to spot the glaring errors in Stephen Rochford's collection of bizarre gambles

Cillian O’Connor has his shot blocked by a combination of Kerry defenders. Photo: Sportsfile
Cillian O’Connor has his shot blocked by a combination of Kerry defenders. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Watching the Mayo football management in action is a bit like watching Donald Trump in the White House. You keep telling yourself things can't get any nuttier, but then, lo and behold, there's something new to up the craziness levels.

The latest blockbuster production from the men who brought you such hits as, 'Let's Replace the Best Keeper in Ireland with his Dodgy Understudy', 'Taking Off Andy Moran and Colm Boyle No Matter How Well They're Playing' and 'Quick, Move Lee Keegan Back to the Full-Back Line Before He Scores Any More', comes the groundbreaking 'Aidan O'Shea: Full-Back of Mystery'. The mystery being what he was doing there in the first place.

Referee Maurice Deegan falls during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Kerry and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Referee Maurice Deegan falls during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Kerry and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile

Playing Aidan O'Shea on Kieran Donaghy is the kind of idea a football-mad child might come up with.

"He's as tall as him dad and he plays basketball too. That means he'd be able to mark him."

Reluctantly, you'd explain that there's more to Kieran Donaghy than catching high balls and more to full-back play than being big and that the fact O'Shea had never played there would disbar him from assuming the position in an All-Ireland semi-final.

"It won't be happening, kid."

Yet happen it did and the results were as predictable as the decision was unexpected. These Mayo gambles don't just look bad in hindsight, they look bad in foresight too.

Surging

It was obvious that Rob Hennelly would do worse than David Clarke in goals, that Lee Keegan would contribute more surging forward than tidying up in his own full-back line and, I'm afraid, that Aidan O'Shea would not be a success at full-back.

Putting him on Kieran Donaghy is a bit like matching Conor McGregor with Floyd Mayweather. It is disadvantaging a talented performer by placing him in an utterly unfamiliar arena against an opponent who knows the territory inside out.

O'Shea has as much experience as a full-back as McGregor has in professional boxing. A positive result is not entirely impossible, but it is unlikely. The result of the latest Mayo experiment was that Donaghy had his best game in years.

Had he not, a subdued Kerry would have exited the championship and Mayo fans would already be planning their next trip to the capital.

The Kingdom spent most of the game playing catch-up and Donaghy was central to many of the moments which enabled them to do that successfully. He laid on the 12th-minute goal for Stephen O'Brien which steadied the favourites after a rocky start and was enabled to do so by O'Shea's inexperience as a full-back. As Donaghy ambled forward, an uncertain O'Shea simply backed off and left him with space and time to put O'Brien in.

That laissez-faire attitude manifested itself so often that Donaghy didn't just enjoy one of his best games in the Kerry jersey, it was also one of his easiest.

Time and again he was able to win the ball without serious physical competition, turn and take his time before picking out a pass.

O'Shea's defending was, unsurprisingly, that of a man more used to confronting his opponents out around midfield, where the tendency is to shadow players and prevent them breaking into the danger areas. This doesn't work at full-back because the player is already in the danger area and needs closer attention.

There was also something irredeemably midfield about O'Shea's contribution to Kerry's second goal, which again came at a time when the tide of the game seemed to be going against them.

After the Breaffy man unsuccessfully chased a ball on the wing near halfway, he was immediately exposed when Kerry transferred the resultant sideline ball into the area where O'Shea should have been.

Soon after, Johnny Buckley was finding the net.

It was Donaghy who was instrumental when Jack Barry might have had a third goal but for a fine Clarke save and Donaghy who had the shot two minutes from time which led to the Paul Murphy point that looked like the winner, before Paddy Durcan popped up to save Mayo.

All afternoon the Kerry full-forward won the ball ahead of O'Shea and pulled the strings. The stirring aerial contests between the pair apparently anticipated by the Mayo management never transpired.

Why would Kerry play high ball into Donaghy? He was doing fine as it was.

Deficiencies

O'Shea's deficiencies as a full-back are only half the story. By moving him there, Mayo also denied themselves the services of one of their very best players in areas where he could have made a huge difference.

Like last year's All-Ireland final and the previous semi-final between these two teams, this was a game Mayo left behind them.

They looked sharper, stronger, faster and hungrier than Kerry, yet in the end it was they who came closest to losing the match. It's hard to believe that had O'Shea been stationed at centre-half forward or midfield he wouldn't have contributed enough to nudge the team over the line.

There's a sad irony to a player whose campaign to date had been an exemplary response to negative criticism being let down in this way by his team management.

The old 'O'Shea doesn't do it in big matches' line can't be trotted out this time because the man was left in an impossible position.

He did as well as Keith Higgins would have done at full-forward or Andy Moran at midfield. Stephen Rochford was a lot more unfair to Aidan O'Shea than Bernard Flynn ever was.

Who knows what treats the brains trust will have in store for us next Saturday. Maybe Mayo haven't blown their chance and it will work out in the end.

They were magnificent in many respects yesterday and looked the better team. But watching them brings to mind a line once used to describe the British soldiers of World War One.

When it comes to big tactical calls, Mayo are lions led by donkeys.

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