Friday 27 April 2018

Goalkeeping gamble will give the Mayo football management nightmares long into the winter

Mayo dejected after defeat to Dublin in the 2016 All Ireland final
Mayo dejected after defeat to Dublin in the 2016 All Ireland final

Dermot Crowe

You make decisions and you live or die by them, in some cases, and in some instances it is less important than that: you lose All-Irelands by them. Everybody wants Mayo to win an All-Ireland. Even Dublin people, a good many of them, would not be averse - though not at their cost, naturally. Nowhere though is the want greater than in Mayo itself. Nowhere else have they thought or agonised or dissected this question more. Nobody has spent as much time mulling over that question than those charged with the duty of relieving Mayo of this torture that has lived with them for 65 years.

And so, as mistakes are made on the field in the desperate need to succeed, they are also made on the sideline. There were many factors that conspired to derail Mayo's latest All-Ireland bid, but none more glaring that the one which decided that changing the goalkeeper was a prudent move, or, at least, a gamble worth taking. Of the own-goals Mayo conceded over the two-day final, this was the hardest to excuse.

Robert Hennelly had not played a match since June, aside from one club game for Breaffy he decided he needed while his county were training during their qualifier run. David Clarke replaced him after losing to Galway in the Connacht semi-final and did nothing, in essence, to create a convincing case for his demotion.

After the All-Ireland final drawn game he was an All-Star in waiting. Despite the solidity Clarke provides, and the form he was in, the Mayo selection panel was swayed by three poor kick-outs in succession nearing the close of normal time in the drawn game, of which one led to a Dublin score. Before looking forward and moving on, Mayo must, as ever, look back on their latest failed All-Ireland title mission and the goalkeeping decision is the one that will stick in the craw and proffers the simple lesson: leave well enough alone. Their conquerors on Saturday week last, Dublin, can enjoy a less conscience-stricken winter and enjoy the well-earned celebrations.

Mayo must bear the brunt of the harshest analysis and the least sympathetic conclusions. Some forces are beyond their control and it is often said that once the game starts it is largely up the players. But in this instance team selection proved critical; Dublin's team changes worked extremely well in the main; Mayo's one proved their undoing.

If Clarke stays on, and there is no reason why he should not, then he looks to be their number one choice for 2017. When Mayo begin planning for next year they are aiming to be in contention on the third Sunday in September and with that in mind, can they now trust Hennelly to play a third All-Ireland final, having had bad experiences of his previous two? His display in the 2013 loss to Dublin was not as damaging to his confidence because he redeemed himself with some good stops, one in particular from Eoghan O'Gara a wonderful save, but the game is remembered more for the high ball which Bernard Brogan scored a goal from that got Dublin back into the match against the run of play.

Sources say that Hennelly was informed on Thursday, two days before last weekend's replay, that he would be playing in goal. He is a product and victim of the times. This is an age of relentless statistics to the point where Gaelic football, and hurling, increasingly subscribes to numbers and mathematical formulae which don't always tell you the full truth or cover the nuances and complexities on which a major decision is dependent. But those facts are useful and can be beneficial and often are.

It is how they are interpreted and evaluated that matters. Goalkeeping has evolved to the point where kick-outs are now deemed an essential part of the mix. In this case the core fundamentals, security and stability, were sacrificed, in the hope of gaining some percentage advantage through Hennelly's reputation as a good kicker of a placed ball, especially over distance. He has that advantage over Clarke.

However, his first three ended up in Dublin hands and his confidence was undermined. Wearing the psychologist's hat, it is not unreasonable to surmise that the fatal ball-drop that led to his back card dismissal and handed Dublin a goal out of nothing were the result of a player whose mind had been frazzled by the day's events. All the more torturous for Mayo when they realise that Dublin didn't create a single clear-cut goal chance in open play.

Mayo created a defensive structure that reduced Dublin's attack to incredibly lean pickings, with no point from play from their forwards until 33 minutes into the drawn game. Dublin's starting forwards kicked two points from play the first day and the team managed just nine points in total. In the replay their starting forwards managed just four points from play, with the substitutes matching that, underlining another key differential: Dublin's greater options off the bench.

But with such tight margins and low scoring terms of reference, the onus was on Mayo to avoid needless or unforced errors and the penalty which Hennelly conceded cost them three points that would have taken at least three wayward Clarke kicks to match. Clarke looked to be held to a level of rigorous analysis that, if applied to Stephen Cluxton, would arguably have led to his demotion after the All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry when he had a poor second quarter that contributed to a rush of Kerry scores.

Hennelly settled after his nervous start and got his kicking back on track, but a loose short kick nearing half-time led indirectly to the black card that Lee Keegan took for holding back Diarmuid Connolly. The loss of Keegan was monumental to Mayo, especially as he had gilded his defensive work with a brilliant goal in the 18th minute. In the final 20 minutes when Mayo were unable to offer serous attacking thrust, Keegan was sorely missed. If the same rigorous analysis had been applied to Hennelly as was to Clarke, then he would have been spared any further indignity by being replaced at half-time.

They decided to persist and the unfortunate drop which led to the penalty gave Mayo another small mountain to climb, having had a bright opening to the second half. Clarke came on and kicked with total assurance but by then the damage to Mayo had been colossal. In reviewing the drawn game, Mayo's selection panel looks guilty of thinking too hard, thinking too much, over-thinking. They designed a palatial defence and then removed the goalkeeper and the foundation collapsed. Hennelly must have felt enormous pressure to justify that decision. And the pressure told.

The challenge for Mayo in 2017 is to reproduce the same Herculean effort and embellish that with an attacking system that rewards the excellent defensive work that deserved more than another loser's medal. Of tantamount importance is a new attacking strategy because containing Dublin is not the same as beating Dublin. That might require an investment in forwards' coaching but they also need new blood, with Alan Dillon the most likely candidate for retirement.

Conor Loftus is one player capable of making an impact, if he can reach the daunting physical fitness pitch now required as a starting point, never more starkly illustrated than in the two games that finished the season. Loftus is likely to be given an extended run in next year's league in the same way that the management effectively schooled Brendan Harrison over last spring. Harrison has been a brilliant addition, and they will hope to restore Ger Cafferkey after his injury problems clear up. Paddy Durcan finished the season strongly and was outstanding in the two matches against Dublin. Evan Regan will get another chance to see if he can offer something to the Mayo attack but he had limited exposure in the All-Ireland final, only coming on late in the first game.

They need a more effective transition of ball between defence and attack, but last weekend's limitations on that score, with Barry Moran coming on as a full-forward target but seeing little ball, were influenced by the loss of Keegan and Donie Vaughan. Diarmuid O'Connor's season has been disrupted by injury and a fully-fit O'Connor offers them a greater scoring threat. Finding a more stable position for Aidan O'Shea, be it middle of the field or centre-forward, should also be on the checklist. Having O'Shea doing five things very well is more productive than asking him to do 15 things as well as he can. Getting that balance between stopping an opposition like Dublin and presenting them with a serious and incisive attacking threat is the primary challenge facing them in 2017. They still lack a cutting edge.

The trialling of Keith Higgins as a forward has not worked to the extent that it looks a viable option, but what is lacking, patently, is the ruthlessness from midfield up in going for the jugular; they already have that in place in the other half of the field. In the drawn final Mayo scored 15 points. Of the eight from play, six came from their forwards, one a sub. In the replay, of their 1-14, 0-9 came from frees, and 1-2 from their defence, with their sweeper Kevin McLoughlin getting another.

Dublin were clinical when they had to be, held their nerve, and led for most of the two matches. In pursuing three in a row they will have Jack McCaffrey back and next season is also likely to see the emergence of the richly talented Con O'Callaghan, of whom much is expected.

Cormac Costello's impact was so decisive that it is puzzling he was not sprung in the drawn match. Then again it is equally puzzling that he has not had more game-time up to now. He has attributes that defenders dread, a player with frightening pace who likes to take a direct line towards goal. Contrast that with the one-paced nature of much of the Mayo attack which is often too laboured and predictable.

Yet Mayo is the team that has given a Dublin side that has franked its greatness with a fourth All-Ireland in six years the most sustained trouble in recent years. They defeated them in 2012, lost the All-Ireland final in 2013 marginally and took them to replays in the last two years. Dublin's athleticism and power which destroys many teams finds an equal partner in Mayo. Mayo's efforts to compensate for their shortcomings in lacking the final finishing kick have been heroic, but they need a little more inspiration now and the same amount of perspiration. How the accumulation of disappointments impacts on them is impossible to foretell.

Dublin have their challenges too. With many of the team ageing, and some showing a clear drop in form, they will need freshening up. In their last four championship matches they had spells where they looked fallible, where it had become a grind, and in each of the Mayo games the balance between winning and losing was finely drawn. Paul Flynn has struggled all year and Bernard Brogan is not the player he was; a fractional disimprovement in a forward like him, the loss of a half yard of pace, can make a huge difference. Denis Bastick may go, but if he does he leaves with an exemplary last few years to his career. Probably no other Dublin player has improved as much as he has, even if he had become more peripheral, and in no more commendable way has Bastick enhanced himself than in how he altered his discipline. He is a product of the changed Dublin environment where players took on that level of personal responsibility and discovered a humility which has now become standard. Michael Darragh Macauley was outstanding when he came on in the replay but the old Macauley of running the length of the field and fisting the ball over the bar is no longer there. They will need to find a stable midfield partner for Brian Fenton, with James McCarthy one option. Colm Basquel should also make a strong claim in 2017. The test for Gavin is to successfully introduce two or three players needed to give Dublin the impetus to drive on for a famous three-in-a-row.

The season ends as expected, with Dublin at the summit. One of the more memorable rumours it threw up concerned the prospect of Bryan Sheehan being selected in goal for Kerry against Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final. Sheehan had played in goal for the county minors but the story's plausibility was more founded on his place-kicking abilities and how he might give Kerry an advantage on restarts. That didn't come to pass but it was a sign of the times and the sometimes geeky obsession with kick-outs that it ever had an airing. Mayo's goalkeeping decision wasn't as drastic a call as that. Although, come to think of it, maybe it was.

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