Sunday 19 November 2017

Liam McHale fears Mayo might have missed best chance

Former star insists only a 'top class' display can trump 'talented' Dubs

Dublin and Mayo midfield legends Brian Mullins and Liam McHale at Dublin sponsors Vodafone's All-Ireland final preview special at Paddy Cullen's bar yesterday
Dublin and Mayo midfield legends Brian Mullins and Liam McHale at Dublin sponsors Vodafone's All-Ireland final preview special at Paddy Cullen's bar yesterday
David Kelly

David Kelly

Some Mayo folk spend their time fretting about the past. As if there wasn't enough to worry about in the present.

The danger to Mayo's famine-ending quest lies before them, not behind them. Liam McHale, one-time 'chairman of the boards' and supreme ruler of the skies, offers a furrowed brow when presented with the prospect of a full-blown assault from Dublin on Sunday.

Particularly as he cannot be sure if Mayo will be similarly locked and loaded. Too many question marks, you see. First up – the gamble on Cillian O'Connor and the most luckless shoulder in Gaelic football.

"You can't carry him, for sure," says Ballina man McHale, remembered by many for being plucked from a throng of brawlers to be sent off in the 1996 final; recalled by many more as a supreme dual basketball and football star.

"I believe he played an A v B game in Johnstown House last weekend and came through that, but that's a whole lot different compared to what will be coming at him on Sunday.

"You're as well to start him. If you don't start him and he comes on and goes off again in five minutes, you're after losing two subs.

"It's unfortunate that we didn't get this operation done last May or June. He'd obviously be a concern. His fitness would take your confidence away."

Then there are the concerns about Andy Moran's recovery to something resembling his remorseless old self.

"Andy is way off what he was last year and the year before. So, they're our two top forwards. And if they're below par, it's going to make it that bit more difficult for us."

There are also problems at the back of the house. McHale was critical of the management 12 months ago for allowing his club-mate Ger Cafferkey to swallow a pile of punishment as Donegal rampaged in the opening minutes of the final.

A year on, McHale is fearful of a repeat unless remedial action is planned. He feels Keith Higgins will offer more in defence, but he is wary of talk about a sweeper system this late in the day.

Concede

"I'd like to think we'll be a little defensively minded," he offers. "The game has to be tight at half-time. We can't afford to concede early goals. If there's a point or two in it at half-time either way, that would be fine.

"There's been talk there might be a sweeper employed. But if you employ a sweeper, you can't play a high line.

"Then you've two full-forwards against three backs, and the Dublin guys will be too good for that. They'll just walk the ball up the field.

"James (Horan) and the boys have to be careful what they do. The high line and the tackling brought into that by Donie Buckley, for example, has been very impressive this year.

"We've blown teams out of the water this year because of the way we defend. When you break up the play in your opponents' half and get steals, it's easier to score because you have an overlap straight away and you're bearing down on goal. We've been brilliant at that this year.

"But if we play a sweeper, we won't be able to do that because the numbers won't match up. I hope we don't play a sweeper. I'd like to see our half-back line sticking a little more, not running too much at the Dublin defence.

"I'd prefer to see them kicking a little more, so they can hold their positions and defend the full-back line.

"We didn't defend the full-back line for 25 minutes against Tyrone and we looked very ordinary. We conceded too many easy scores and Ger was isolated at times.

"If we do that against Dublin, we could be in trouble and could find ourselves being behind a lot very early on."

As he sees it, it's better for Mayo to put their best six backs on Dublin's six forwards and, if their passing is accurate enough, they can hope to tie down the Dubs' free-running wing-backs, as Kerry did for a good stretch of the semi-final.

"In Mayo, no disrespect to Ger Brennan, but we'd prefer if he started centre-back because we can match up Alan Dillon with him.

"If Cian O'Sullivan goes into centre-back and Denis Bastick goes into midfield, in my opinion, we then have to put Dillon into the full-forward line because those three guys will kill him athletically and we don't want our best ball-player running around chasing fellas in our own back line.

"I don't know if Keith (Higgins) should be in the forwards. He's our best back or second-best back; Cafferkey is a great stopper. Considering the forwards Dublin have, I think Keith should be matching up with Paul Mannion or Bernard Brogan.

"I'd have no issue bringing in Mickey Conroy or Cathal Carolan with Keith in the backs, as I don't know if he gives us a whole lot in the forwards. I don't think James will do it though."

In summation, McHale counsels a whole pile of caution.

"Last year was a great chance (to lift Sam Maguire). I still think they have a chance and I'd be reasonably confident.

"But this is a really good Dublin side with some very talented young players in it. It's going to take a really top-class performance from Mayo to win it."

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