Thursday 12 December 2019

Leaderless Mayo left with more questions to answer

Derry 2-15 Mayo 1-16 (Allianz NFL Semi-Final)

Kevin Johnston, No. 5, Derry, turns to celebrate after scoring his side's second goal as Brendan Harrison, left, and Shane McHale, Mayo, look on
Kevin Johnston, No. 5, Derry, turns to celebrate after scoring his side's second goal as Brendan Harrison, left, and Shane McHale, Mayo, look on
Aidan O'Shea, Mayo, in action against Niall Holly, Derry
Ciarán McFaul, Derry, in action against Keith Higgins, Mayo
Mikey Sweeney, Mayo, in action against Dermot McBride, Derry
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Every Mayo defeat these days is presented in terms of the psychological damage it has the potential to inflict on them, so maybe some perspective is required here.

It was a league semi-final, their championship begins in New York in three weeks' time, so having to factor in a final between now and then may be slightly more inconvenient than they thought.

But that still can't dress up the fact that for the second time in just over two weeks Mayo failed to exploit an extra man for more than a half of a match in Croke Park. It was a bad one to lose, one that will grate for a few weeks and cause them to ask harder questions of themselves than ever before about how they are playing the game.

No wonder James Horan, who had spoken openly about winning a league title back in November, promised to review just about everything afterwards.


Inevitably, psychological fault lines will be seized upon in the analysis of where it went wrong for them, an inability to close out a game they led by three and two points at different stages of the second half, coming so soon after Dublin's revival.

But Mayo's loss was more down to fundamental structural failure than any weakness of the mind. Even with an extra man they left far too many gaps around their half-back line which their opponents were only too happy to exploit.

When Derry ran directly at their vaunted half-back line, their progress, through Enda Lynn, Mark Lynch, Sean Leo McGoldrick and even substitute Emmet Bradley late on, was staggering.

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How was McGoldrick, a half-back of such perpetual motion, able to brush off Colm Boyle so easily in the build-up to the second Derry goal on 51 minutes from half-back Kevin Johnston that restored parity (2-9 to 1-12)?

The reputations of Lee Keegan and Boyle have soared on the back of some wonderfully enterprising attacking play over the last couple of seasons but, in one-on-one situations that put them on the back foot, they were devoured here.

Lynn ran penetrating lines all afternoon until the last 10 minutes, while Lynch's power put Derry on the front foot so often. Only Donal Vaughan in the second half on the left flank provided a solid defensive screen across this line.

In attack they struggled with Derry's swelling of defensive numbers, especially after Fergal Doherty's dismissal.

A second yellow card after a late tackle on Aidan O'Shea in the build-up to the Mayo goal removed one of Derry's primary ball-winners and leaders on 25 minutes. Derry are entitled to question the first yellow 10 minutes earlier when Doherty appeared to pull Jason Gibbons in a tussle for possession from a kick-out.

But his absence gave them an even keener competitive edge and underpinned their strategy of drawing Mayo on to them and hitting them on the break. Their policy of ultimately not challenging any of Mayo's 14 second-half kick-outs paid off.

Derry are no strangers to league finals over the last couple of decades and have been champions four times (1995, '96, 2000 and 2008) since their only All-Ireland success in 1993.

The league has so often been fertile ground for them and a progressive spring that yielded wins over Dublin and Kerry has once again embellished the reputation of Brian McIver, banned from the sideline for his verbal interaction with a fourth official against Cork

in March. Lynch has been a revelation in this league and he franked that form here, especially in the last quarter when he kicked a couple of important frees to keep his side in touch and then fired over two from play on the break that gave them a three-point cushion in added time after Bradley and Lynn had broken Mayo resistance.

The boy wonder of Derry football after his impact as a 16-year-old in the 2002 All-Ireland-winning minor team, it has taken him a long time to fulfill that potential at this level.

Chrissy McKaigue surely laid down the sternest case as Derry's most effective player and he is developing into a full-back of real substance.

The subtle force of his presence stalked Alan Freeman first and then Andy Moran near the end, neither player managing to score from play in his company.

Freeman is one those players from whom improvement is essential if Mayo are to press on but against such tight policing he was unproductive and that has to be a concern in the absence of Cillian O'Connor.

The deployment of both Kevin McLoughlin and Keith Higgins is sure to feature on Horan's review ahead of the summer campaign. McLoughlin has switched in to corner-forward for recent outings and was highly effective against Dublin but was largely anonymous here and replaced after 48 minutes. Higgins was withdrawn 10 minutes later.

McLoughlin's presence around midfield, sweeping up breaks and picking out colleagues with accurate left-foot passes, has been one of Mayo's strengths over the last two seasons. In that role he might have given McGoldrick much more to think about.


Higgins' expressed preference is to play half-forward and a first-half point on the run illustrated some potential for that, but are those rare flashes worth it for what he brings to their overall defensive effort?

Mayo weren't helped by an injury which forced regular full-back Ger Cafferkey off after 32 minutes, leaving them without their entire full-back line from the All-Ireland final last year as Tom Cunniffe had cried off beforehand through illness and was replaced by Shane McHale. Yet the weaknesses exposed by Derry did not have their source in a such makeshift full-back line but rather the territory in front of them.

One of the positives of Mayo's league campaign has been the ongoing development of midfielder Jason Gibbons and that continued here. He picked off at least four kick-outs cleanly, got back to make an important block and finished one of Mayo's more penetrating moves by fisting a point for a 1-12 to 1-9 lead prior to Derry's second goal. But he was still substituted when he appeared to be going better than O'Shea.

Admittedly O'Shea took a heavy knock from Doherty along the sideline as he poked the ball for McLoughlin in the build-up to Moran's goal that cancelled out an earlier effort by Derry's Caoilin O'Boyle on 13 minutes which propelled them into a 1-3 to 0-4 lead.

Moran's neat step back inside put Mayo back in front, 1-5 to 1-4, but it was Derry who took momentum in at the break as they led by 1-8 to 1-7.

Jason Doherty had set up Mayo's last two points of the first half and got on the mark himself to push them back into the lead just after the restart, 1-9 to 1-8.

They looked to have found a groove when Gibbons left them three clear but a smart save by Thomas Mallon from Vaughan halted momentum on 49 minutes. Johnston's goal restored Derry belief but when the game was there to be won it was Lynch who seized it. Mayo simply didn't have a leader like him.

ScorersDerry: M Lynch 0-9 (5fs), C O'Boyle 1-1, K Johnston 1-0, SL McGoldrick, C McFaul, E Lynn, E McGuckin, E Bradley 0-1 each. Mayo: A Freeman 0-6 (5fs, 1 45), A Moran 1-1 (0-1f), J Doherty, M Sweeney 0-2 each, J Gibbons, L Keegan, K Higgins A O'Shea, E Varley 0-1 each.

Derry – T Mallon 8; D McBride 7, C McKaigue 9, O Duffy 6; K Johnston 7, G O'Kane 7, S L McGoldrick 8; F Doherty 4, P Bradley 6; C McFaul 6, M Lynch 9, E Lynn 8; B Heron 6, E McGuckin 6, C O'Boyle 7. Subs: N Holly 6 for O'Boyle (45), A Devlin 6 for Heron (51), E Bradley 7 for Bradley (60), A McAlynn for Johnston (65), C Kielt for McGuckin (65).

Mayo – R Hennelly 6; S McHale 6, G Cafferkey 6, B Harrison 6; L Keegan 7, C Boyle 6, D Vaughan 8; A O'Shea 7, J Gibbons 8; K Higgins 6, A Moran 7, J Doherty 7; K McLoughlin 6, A Freeman 6, M Sweeney 6. Subs: K Keane for Cafferkey (32), E Varley for McLoughlin (47), T Parsons for Higgins (58), S O'Shea for Gibbons (62), R Feeney for Doherty (69).

Ref – P Hughes (Armagh)

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