Thursday 23 November 2017

Joe Brolly: Half-baked long-ball game and incompetent sweeper system doomed Mayo

A dejected Cillian O'Connor, Mayo
A dejected Cillian O'Connor, Mayo

Joe Brolly

As soon as the director said, "And we're out" in the studio yesterday, the three of us reached for the laptops to write today's pieces. "I'll race you" I said to Pat Spillane. "I seriously doubt it," he said. "I wrote the first three quarters of mine yesterday." Which tells you all you need to know about The Sunday World.

Even for Masters of Disaster of Mayo's stature, yesterday's events were shocking. When they went four points up in the 54th minute, people watching the national broadcaster must have thought that finally, they were going to ruthlessly close out a big game. Meanwhile, I was looking down in horror at the vast open prairie leading to Mayo's square, feeling queasy and thinking, "Oh dear, oh dear."

Just about the time Cillian O'Connor showed extraordinary concentration and grit to kick the goal that would have won the game for Kerry, Tyrone or Donegal, an enormous thought bubble like the cartoon comics materialised in the skies above Croke Park, with the words 'Oh Jesus, Jesus, Jesus' in it. Mayo panicked, because they do not have strategy for holding a lead.

Just as they do not have a strategy for preventing goals, nor one for scoring them. Hoping for the best is a tactic that invariably results in the worst. And so the inevitable unfolded.

I spoke with Pat Holmes after the drawn game last week and suggested his sweeper was in the wrong place. "A sweeper's job," as Jim McGuinness said to me before throw-in today, "is to sweep at the feet of the full-forward." What he meant was that the sweeper's job is to protect the square. Instead, Mayo's full-time sweeper ran about along his 30-yard line, drawn to the first Dublin player he saw like a moth to the flame. Both Dublin goals resulted from this in the drawn game.

For the first, Colm Boyle rushed out to Paul Flynn, collided with his own man Jason Doherty, taking him out of the game and allowing Flynn to run unhindered through the kill zone. For the second, he decided to track Flynn's decoy run away from the danger area, thus leaving an empty bridge for the grateful Dubs to cross.

Mayo learned nothing from last week. Nothing. Their strategy for Stephen Cluxton's kickouts remained a mystery. The 'sort of, maybe, not really, should we, oh maybe we shouldn't, ah go on, oh we better not push up' strategy is not one I am familiar with. As one inter-county manager said to me outside the stadium beforehand: "What the f*** are they playing at?" In this curious vacuum, Cluxton thrived. Of 19 kick-outs, only one was kicked long and it was the only one he lost all day. 18-1.

The second part of Mayo's strategy that continued to malfunction was the fixation with kicking long to Aidan O'Shea. Like last week, he was left isolated, expected to work miracles. Dublin had dealt most effectively with his threat by ensuring there was always a sweeper at both the Dublin left half and right back positions, so that Mayo could not rake in the diagonal balls that O'Shea needed. Denied these positions, Mayo continued to kick long anyway, up into the air and straight down the field. It was excruciating to see it unfold.

Those first two were not, however, fatal. The angel of death was in the third sorrowful mystery: the non-sweeper. Three laughable goals in nine minutes. These were foreshadowed in the first half when Philly McMahon was so surprised to find himself 21 yards out clean through on goal that he panicked and popped it over the bar instead of handpassing it to the free man outside the keeper to flick to the empty net. Which is why at half-time I said this is a disaster waiting to happen.

In truth, it is better they're not in the final. Kerry would have ruthlessly picked them apart. Eamonn Fitzmaurice has rehearsed his tactics and system so that it is automatic. Everyone knows precisely what everyone else is doing. Chances are ruthlessly despatched. When the foot is on the neck it is kept there until the body stops moving.

Mayo, meanwhile, with a half-baked long-ball game and an entirely incompetent sweeper system, still almost got to another final. I salute their courage and skill. Like this team's previous defeats in Croke Park, it is not the fault of the players. Without engrained systems of play, victory is impossible.

Watching Mayo's doomed crusade over the last five years, one can only recall the French commander's words as he watched the heroic, catastrophic charge of the Light Brigade: C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas le football.

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