Friday 23 March 2018

First signs that Mayo might be set to turn back the clock

Eugene McGee IF you wanted to provide the ultimate test of a team manager in Gaelic football there is a ready made option. It would be to manage a Mayo football team to All-Ireland success.

Fifty five years have passed since Mayo won their last All-Ireland title by completing two in a row in 1951 and since then many great men have tried, and failed, to extract another set of All-Ireland medals out of the wearers of the green and red jersies.

The decline of some fabulous football teams that adorned the first half of the last century by winning two or more All-Ireland titles in that period, such as Kildare, Mayo, Cavan, Wexford and Roscommon has been a remarkable GAA phenomenon.

Because not one of these has managed to regain the Sam Maguire Cup since 1952 when Cavan won their fifth title. Apart from Cavan and Wexford, where football was devoured by the hurling avalanche which swept that county in the 1950s and is only now recovering, Kildare, Mayo and Roscommon have played in finals but lost.

The failure of Mayo to regain the All-Ireland is the most mystifying of all. Throughout those barren 55 years they have produced many marvellous footballers and indeed great teams but the closest they got to the holy grail was to fail in five All-Ireland finals in 1989, 1996 (draw and replay), 1997 and 2004. For good, or bad, measure Mayo have also lost numerous minor and Under-21 All-Ireland finals so it is clear that a culture of losing has replaced the former ring of confidence that Mayo football teams used to take to Croke Park in the halcyon days up to 1951.

Therefore the manager who can get another senior All-Ireland out of Mayo footballers would deserve to be called the greatest.

The latest volunteer to step forward is Mickey Moran from Derry, a man who literally lives his life for football. Not alone is he the Mayo manager this year but in his spare time he is also manager of Jordanstown University Sigerson team.

Mickey is nothing if not an adventurer as the Mayo job is his fourth assignment having already managed Derry, jointly with Eamonn Coleman, Sligo and Donegal prior to this latest appointment.

John Maughan's achievement in guiding Mayo to four All-Ireland final contests was remarkable by any standards. The fact that none of these ended in victory indicates that there is a major psychological weakness inherent in Mayo football when it comes to finishing the job.

History will record just how successful Maughan was with Mayo even if in the short term Mayo footballers may be less generous in their appreciation.

It is clear therefore that if Moran wants to bridge the great divide between good performance and outright victory he will have to work as hard on the minds of Mayo players as on their bodies. That is what makes his job both very unpredictable and yet a huge challenge.

There are standard methods for bringing players to the height of their physical and skill prowess through proper training methods.

Achieving the crucial mental perfection which is required to win an All-Ireland is not nearly as clinical and is very much down to the particular skills of the manager.

In that context Mayo's victory on Saturday night may be a very important result for Moran.

The manner in which the victory was forged was the most significant because for most of the second half Kerry dominated possession and really should have won this game by a few points based on that. But the Mayo players dug deep all over the field and refused to yield, something that many previous Mayo sides might not have done. It looked promising but as always when dealing with Mayo football there are many caveats to be entered.

Kerry followers will claim they are behind other counties in fitness and this was Mayo's biggest advantage. If so then one has to ask why Kerry should be in that predicament. Their team is at a crossroads after losing two of the last three All-Ireland finals they played in, something that last happened to Kerry 40 years ago.

So there should be a strong element of urgency about Kerry's attitude this year particularly as it seems certain that if they want to regain the All-Ireland they will have to beat Tyrone or Armagh, or both, the two teams who brought final day anguish to the Kingdom in 2003 and 2005.

Kerry need to strengthen their defence, particularly the centre half-back position which has cost them dearly in recent times.

On Saturday, Eamon Fitzmaurice and Tomás Ó Sé were unable to cope with the powerhouse that is Mayo's Ger Brady who scored four points from play and set up a couple more.

This is one direct bonus for Mayo in the post-Maughan era because the Brady family from Ballina Stephenites and the former manager did not seem to be very compatible.

Dara Ó Sé's outstanding performance at midfield was certainly a positive for Kerry and dispels any notion that the An Ghaeltacht man was on the way out. But the Kerry forward line which was cruelly labelled a one-man attack last year did little on Saturday to dispel that notion.

If Declan O'Sullivan is going to be the new full-forward to replace the retired Dara Ó Cinnéide then he needs to actually play in that position rather than being seen chasing balls at midfield or further back. This proved a very costly exercise when he did the same thing in the 2005 final.

Colm Cooper is undoubtedly one of the best for wards of this decade but even he cannot operate in isolation. When a team has a superstar of that quality then other forwards need to operate to a system that will ensure Cooper gets the ball to his best advantage.

It does not make sense for Cooper to be working the ball in and then passing it to a player with less scoring ability.

But we should not be very dogmatic about any football statements based on a league game in early February. Kerry usually have an inbuilt sense of timing about winning All-Irelands based on winning formulae going back 100 years.

They will not be unduly concerned about looseness in performance now but will want to see the problem areas of last year's final being rectified.

Mayo of course have had more false dawns than any other county so the wise heads will be thankful for small mercies such as this fine victory, but no more than that.

Yet there was a a 'cut' about players such as James Gill, David Heaney, Peadar Gardiner, Billy Joe Padden and Andy Moran, as well as Brady of course, which hinted at a new approach under Moran.

As ever with Mayo football, we'll have to wait and see

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