Thursday 14 December 2017

‘It’s not a matter of where we are going, it’s how we get there’

Christy O'Connor

After Mayo defeated Kerry in their opening league game last month, Ger Cafferkey was interviewed by TG4's Micheál ó Domhnaill before he was presented with the man-of-the-match award.

Mayo won by six points and had kept Kerry scoreless for the final 42 minutes, but ó Domhnaill's opening question focused on the long winter Mayo had endured since September's All-Ireland final defeat and the inevitable soul-searching which accompanied it.

"I'd say that the team is asking itself questions," said ó Domhnaill. "Can ye push on and go another step this year?"

Cafferkey was politely firm, but almost dismissive of the suggestion that Mayo had just emerged from another winter mired in disappointment and recrimination.

"I don't think anyone is asking themselves questions," he replied. "James Horan has brought a new emphasis on constant progression. No one is asking themselves can we push on. It's a fact that we are going to push on."

Despite all the harrowing disappointments, there has always been an essential optimism deep in the core of Mayo's collective football self. They have stoically kept coming back, but the long road back this time around hasn't been blocked with the same obstacles that impeded their journeys after the 2004 and 2006 All-Ireland finals.

TRAUMA

For a start, the players weren't affected by the same mental trauma from those hammerings. This squad might not have the same flair of the 2004-06 group, but they are a more balanced outfit.

Their spirit and togetherness is more comparable to the 1996-97 side, while their age-profile and ambition, along with the confidence gained from the incremental progress of the last two seasons, can firewall their hard-drive from the viruses of doubt which wrecked their chances in the past.

Mayo's poor start crippled them in September's final, but the statistics from that game still underline the positives they can take into this season. Absorbing those lessons during this league campaign will be even more critical.

Donegal went into that final having conceded just nine points from frees in total against Tyrone, Down, Kerry and Cork. Yet Mayo managed to win nine scoreable frees, nailing six. Mayo also won the kick-out statistic 24-14. Mayo even had 54 attacks (possessions inside the opposition 45-metre line) compared to 43 for Donegal.

Those attacking stats were broadly similar to those from the 2009 final, when Cork had 54 attacks to Kerry's 39. Yet Cork couldn't break down Kerry's blanket defence in the same way that Mayo couldn't force a way through Donegal's massed rearguard last September.

Donegal's two early goals were decisive, but Mayo still only managed one more scoring attempt than Donegal (25-24), despite their greater share of possession.

If you examine Mayo's record over the last two seasons, there is a slight trend emerging. Anytime they have come up against massed defences – Donegal in last year's league and championship, Sligo in last year's Connacht final, Tyrone in this year's league – they have struggled to break them down.

Despite the perception of Dublin's defensive system under Pat Gilroy, the Dubs were far more efficient at the back in 2011 than they were in 2012, and Mayo blitzed them in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Mayo's struggles were really evident against Tyrone three weeks ago. They won 80pc of the overall kick-outs, but Tyrone played with two sweepers for most of the game and Mayo kept kicking the ball in to them. With that level of possession wasted, Mayo managed just two points from play in 66 minutes.

Mayo have certainly developed a more defensive style and a harder edge to their game, but they have still never compromised the open and attractive style of attacking play that has invariably been their hallmark. They remain one of the purest footballing teams in the game, but they need to develop different systems of attacking play if they are to go to the next level.

Mayo tried a big man – Barry Moran – at full-forward during last year's league. It worked very effectively when they roasted Dublin in the restaged game in Castlebar. Mayo bombarded Moran with 11 long balls and the tactic opened up huge space for Conor Mortimer and Michael Conroy.

Aidan O'Shea is central to Mayo's plans at midfield, but the marriage of his footballing skills and physique at full-forward could give them even more of a cutting edge against massed defences.

Looking at the team for tomorrow night's game against Dublin, Mayo have been that bit bolder in selection by naming O'Shea at centre-forward. With Barry Moran, Jason Gibbons, Danny Geraghty and Seamus O'Shea all options for midfield, the alternative of packing the half-forward line with big athletic men, or putting O'Shea at full-forward, is available if the need arises.

Mayo have one of the best ball-winning middle-eights in the country and they have been experimenting in the half-forward line with Lee Keegan and Richie Feeney.

Keegan is still best served in the half-back line because of his foot-passing ability, but Feeney has emerged as a serious option at No 11 after a season on the bench and falling between the stools of being considered a half-back or half-forward.

Wherever you look, Mayo have attacking options. Jason Doherty's form for DIT was really good, while Cillian O'Connor will soon be back from injury. Andy Moran will be back for the championship.

The arrival of Donie Buckley as coach should refine their attacking play even further. He has the mindset of an obsessive American football coach who pours hours into dissecting the opposition's game plans and patterns.

Yet one of Buckley's main areas of expertise is tackling. Mayo had to improve in that aspect of their game because too much of their tackling last year was over-zealous.

To date, their statistics in this area have improved. Although they conceded 1-4 from frees against Tyrone, they coughed up just three scoreable frees – all missed – against Kerry.

The Dubs will offer a different test, but with their pace, this team is the first Mayo side that is actually suited to playing in Croke Park. Ed Coughlan is one of the top strength and conditioning coaches in the country and last year's All-Ireland final showed that Mayo were as fit as Donegal.

Following the team holiday to Miami in early January and the training ban which only allowed them to collectively return on December 29, Mayo may be behind other teams in fitness.

Thus, with their early championship date against Galway on May 19, the most important focus between now and then is surely a mix between survival in the league and tactically developing and evolving for the summer.

When ó Domhnaill asked Cafferkey four weeks ago about Mayo's targets for the season, the full-back said that the "target was obvious."

Cafferkey didn't even have to say it – it's always been about an All-Ireland for Mayo. And tests like tomorrow night in Croke Park are signposts along that journey.

"It's not a matter of where we're going, it's how we get there," said Cafferkey. "Everyone has their own personal targets and ways to improve. We focus more on performance than outcome. But it's how we can improve, more than the outcome, if you get me."

Loud and clear.

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