Saturday 24 August 2019

Pat Spillane: 'Mayo warriors are far from the finished article but improved forward play makes them serious contenders'

Read Pat Spillane every week in the Sunday World

Kerry and Mayo will be shown live on RTE on Sunday
Kerry and Mayo will be shown live on RTE on Sunday

Pat Spillane

As a proud Kerryman I’m always down when the Green and Gold are beaten.

However, last Sunday I experienced a different sensation. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t disappointed that Kerry’s heroes were beaten by Mayo, for the simple reason that no-one could begrudge this Mayo team a victory in a national final.

What can you say about these Mayo boys? They are warriors, resilient, full of character, they’ve had so many falls yet they get back up and go again.

Although there was just a breeze blowing towards the Canal End last Sunday, as distinct from the howling gale in Tralee, the league final was a replica of the contest between the counties a fortnight previously.

Mayo played the final on their own terms, just as they had in Tralee. They bullied Kerry physically, but within the rules, and they controlled midfield, where Kerry were horsed out of it, in the second-half especially. The men from the West were also strong in the tackle and their athleticism and running from deep was magnificent.

But was there anything new? What could give Mayo people hope of a summer of Sam?

Well, there was their forward play, where a team that has run the ball a lot in recent seasons has now added good kicked passing.

The youngsters looked like big-time finds during the league; Matthew Ruane, Ciarán Treacy, James Carr and Fionn McDonagh were all introduced with success and there is Cian Hanley to come back from injury. All these lads are already big, strong players with good engines.

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There is also the simple issue of getting the win. I think it was a vital monkey off Mayo’s back.

James Horan’s mix-and-mend approach on his return as boss has worked superbly. He rested veterans at times and introduced youngsters and it all came together to give Horan something for the summer he never had for previous All-Ireland campaigns: a bench that can make an impact.

The 2019 league gave Mayo two fine statistics: they have not lost to Kerry in the league at either Tralee or Killarney in this decade and they have not lost any of their last five matches against Kerry in Croke Park.

Make no mistake about it, they are the prime danger now to the Dubs’ five-in-a-row bid.

But are Mayo the finished article for an All-Ireland? No, far from it. And while I said that I admire their improved forward play, it still remains the Achilles heel of the Green and Red.

They missed five good goal chances against Kerry, kicked 10 shots short and booted 11 wides. In the first-half a week ago, Mayo had 55 per cent of the possession, yet went in four points adrift. Even allowing for the strong breeze against them that was not good.

And after 45 minutes they had converted just eight of their 22 scoring chances in the decider. They just could not put Kerry away. That was their weakness, a weakness even a Dublin team a little on the wane will not show later this year. Give Dublin 22 scoring chances in the first 45 minutes and 17 of them will result in scores.

What about Kerry? The thing is we do highs and lows to extremes in the South-West. When we win a few matches an All-Ireland is just over the horizon, lose one and it is all doom and gloom.

For me, Kerry are now in ‘glass half-full’ country. With a new manager in Peter Keane and an obvious rebuilding job to be done with the quality Kerry youngsters, the supporters would actually have been happy to just stay in Division 1.

Indeed, getting to the decider was a huge bonus. Do you realise that four of the starting forwards from the league final played in the 2016 All-Ireland minor final?

At best, four Kerry players held their own against their markers – Stephen O’Brien, Tom O’Sullivan, Peter Crowley and David Clifford – and Clifford had the chance to palm home what might well have been a winning goal with a few minutes to go.

Despite being well beaten across most of the pitch, Kerry could still have won the game. It’s small margins, because then this would have been a very different article coming to very different conclusions.

What I can stand over is that after each of Kerry’s wins in the league, I wrote here that there were as many negatives as positives to be taken out of every game. And those negatives jumped up to bite the Kerrymen in the final.

Yes, yes, Gaelic football is a fluid game nowadays, but you need your backs to be able to defend, and Kerry’s were just bamboozled by runners last Sunday – all three goals came from a spare man taking a pass as he romped through unchallenged.

For the second goal, it was an ummarked Mayo man who kicked the ball forward to find Diarmuid O’Connor being marked by the Kerry centre-forward Sean O’Shea on the edge of his own square. Where was the entire full-back line?

Kerry need to be protecting the opposition’s scoring zone. Too many of our defenders were poor when run at directly. There’s work to be done, but can Kerry, in what seems will be a cakewalk of a Munster championship, find a man-marker in the form of Philly McMahon or Jonny Cooper? To me, one is badly needed back there

Maybe I should do the Lotto this week. In last week’s column, I highlighted the fact that Kerry would not go far this year if Sean O’Shea kept contributing half their scoring total, and most of them from placed balls.

Well, with Lee Keegan doing a marking job on him, O’Shea got no score from play last Sunday. His fellow starting forwards were all over the shop, scoring a mere 1-2 from play in the game.

David Clifford kicked a point from play in the 17th minute and the next time any Kerry forward scored a point from play it was substitute Paul Geaney in the 69th minute. Dear God.

It wasn’t just the basic art of scoring that let Kerry down. For one thing, there was far too much aimless kicking of the ball in at full-forward Tommy Walsh, who had no support beside him. For too long Kerry were like an ace gunslinger with no bullets in his gun.

Too many Kerry fans are holding tight to the belief that David Moran’s return to fitness will save the day for the midfield.

Yes, the Kerins O’Rahilly’s player will bring physicality and ball-winning ability to that area, but David can no longer go the distance for 70 minutes, on a hard surface, in the huge space that is Croke Park.

We’ve known that for a while and nor, after two cruel knee injuries, does he have the pace to live with the likes of Ruane or Dublin’s Brian Fenton as they rampage up and down the pitch.

And finally for Kerry, and not for the first time in Croker in recent years, senior players didn’t turn up. There’s work to be done when the players come back from their clubs at the end of April.

Mayo are back dining at the top table, if not yet at the top seat, but Dublin have shown a few cracks, Tyrone have started to attack, Kerry have begun to bring through their young players, and Galway, with Corofin’s players now available and the likes of Damien Comer and Paul Conroy fit again, offer great possibilities.

We might yet have a good summer of Gaelic football to come.

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