The view from Mayo: 'Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results'
After Connacht SFC semi-final defeat to Roscommon, manager James Horan must be brave and trust in quality of youth
Few would have foreseen a Roscommon win in Castlebar last Saturday, given the Rossies' bad track record in the championship against their local rivals.
Mayo were coming into this derby match on a high from their league final victory compared to Roscommon's lull of relegation. However, the ravenous Rossie outfit outworked and outfought Mayo all over the field.
It was the perfect build-up for Anthony Cunningham and his back-room team. They had clearly done their homework on Mayo and set up accordingly.
They set Mayo up for a fall by using their strength against them - by dragging out the Mayo half-backs, leaving two thirds of the pitch as space for their full forward line and runners to exploit to devastating effect.
Mayo either didn't respect Roscommon enough or have reverted back to their naive man-marking that they pursued in James Horan's first term, which was so famously exploited by Donegal in 2012.
Roscommon's defensive 12-man formation dragged the Mayo half-backs up the field in an attempt to break them down, leaving Brendan Harrison and Keith Higgins exposed on Conor Cox and Cathal Cregg respectively, with Cox clinical on the scoreboard.
Cunningham's side made great use of the early long kick on the counter into Cox and Cregg, as there were acres of space in the Mayo half due to the Mayo half backs pushing up fully.
Roscommon attacked at pace and played the game on their terms, leaving Mayo running towards their own goal all day. A sweeper would have at least cut out the early ball into Cox and Cregg.
In terms of an attacking plan, Mayo didn't do much wrong, with their execution letting them down on numerous occasions.
Diarmuid O'Connor's missed goal opportunity shows where they could have overcome Roscommon's blanket defence if they had done more of it, perhaps by letting Aidan O'Shea test out the Roscommon fullback line under a few high balls.
Darren Coen and Evan Regan were the best players at overcoming the Roscommon defensive system, with their movement and ability to create space allowing them to let fly with accuracy throughout the game. They found pockets at the sides of the defensive unit and were patient enough to work opportunities from them.
Once Reagan and Coen were substituted, Mayo's shots came from players running from deep, which was spectacular when Boland was able to crack two amazing points with the outside of the boot, but also predictable and easy for Roscommon to defend against for the most part.
Kevin McLoughlin ran into a wall in the second half and was unable to pick out Boland, as Mayo were manufacturing an overlap. What was needed at this stage were early and accurate kicks into the corner forwards to keep Roscommon chasing back.
Mayo were also hampered by their inability to find a replacement free-taker for the recovering Cillian O'Connor. McLoughlin's miss was atrocious but he cannot be used as a scapegoat to excuse Horan's management team deciding to take off Evan Reagan, their only left-footed free kick taker.
The biggest Mayo failing though, came in goals. People spoke of Rob Hennelly's Croke Park redemption in the league final and that he was an all-round better keeper than David Clarke. Clarke was famously replaced by Hennelly for the All-Ireland final replay in 2016.
Hennelly showed all his old failings (bar the high ball) in the Roscommon match.
The miscued kick out for Ultan Harney's goal was a carbon copy of the goal that got him dropped from the Mayo starting 15 in 2016. In that year's Connacht semi-final he kicked the ball out to Tom Flynn with the intention of finding Tom Parsons and the ball rattled the back of the net, propelling the tribesmen to their recent betterment over Mayo.
That year the justification of Hennelly's selection was his 'superior kick outs' compared with Clarke. But would Clarke kick a ball out that would lead to a certain goal? Forget about it.
Perhaps Hennelly was selected for frees in the absence of O'Connor but with three misses from three compared with Darren O'Malley's exemplary record of two 45's and a free for Cunningham's men.
Hennelly cannot be blamed for being left one on one with the likes of Cathal Cregg baring down on goals though and it is clear that Mayo didn't work as hard as the Rossies all over the pitch.
Whether it was Keith Higgins standing off Cregg or Aidan O'Shea and Higgins leaving it to Matthew Ruane to try and chase down Fintan Cregg's winner from seven yards behind, Mayo's work-rate was nowhere near where it needed to be.
Too often was Harrison left one on one with the dangerous Conor Cox with Mayo players jogging back casually to mark space rather than support their corner back against Roscommon's marquee player. Where was the intensity and bullish defending from the league final victory against Kerry?
Roscommon took the Mayo half backs in particular for a walkabout. Paddy Durcan aside, the likes of Keegan and Plunkett were left in no mans land on a number of occasions as Roscommon runners broke through the Mayo lines without being tracked.
The will to follow a man from post to post was simply not there for a lot of the players and it gave the 2017 Connacht champions the perfect platform to grow into the game.
The manner in which Roscommon turned over the Mayo attack and explosively went on the counterattack left the Mayo players visibly crestfallen all over the pitch.
Moran's block down and the subsequent Rossie reply was a real blow when Mayo were trying to put the game to bed. Roscomon's willingness to do the hard yards and get the extra yard on Mayo helped them hammer home in the final quarter despite Fergal Boland's valiant efforts.
Enda Smith's point after coming on was an uncharacteristic blunder on the part of Lee Keegan who usually leaves the biggest names in Gaelic football scoreless from play.
But the team as a collective just didn't match the intensity and conviction required to win a championship match of this tempo. Similarly to the Cork Hurlers in their dismal display against Tipperary, Mayo will have to go back to the tackling, blocking and warrior attitude that has served them so well in the past and fix the holes in their porous defense.
That lack of hunger and attitude was most notable in the scoring statistics. The players who performed the best were those who are fighting fro a permanent place in the starting 15. I don't buy that Mayo had no yearning to win Connacht, or that they were content building through the back door.
They didn't perform because a lot of the team are comfortable on the starting 15. Higgins, O'Shea, McLoughlin, Doherty, Keegan and O'Connor account for half the team and barring injury, it would be very hard to see any of them losing out on a starting team.
If you look at the five in a row seeking Dublin team you would do well to find a player guaranteed a spot. Anyone with a less than 100% shot success rate in a training session will get the boot for the following championship match. Just look at Dean Rock losing out to Cormac Costello for the Louth game.
The fact that Mayo took off their top shooters in the match and kept on the likes of McLoughlin and Keegan and Higgins, who were all having bad days in front of the posts was beggars belief. Reagan would more likely than not have slotted the last free of the game.
Coen was unselfish all day in front of the posts, taking on the responsibility and knowing when to pass to the man in the better position.
If Mayo are to improve their execution in front of posts then there needs to be real consequences for those who are not performing up the fiield.
McLoughlin, Higgins and Keegan should have been substituted for the tried and tested providers like Ciaran Treacy, Conor Loftus and Brian Reape. These boys have shown throughout the league that they are all about finishing and shot efficiency.
McDonagh interestingly enough is a left footer, so he too may be useful in the dying embers of the game at the 21 yard line as he is clearly full of confidence from his league exploits and will be a vital addition in their qualifier campaign.
Trust the youth
The anxiety and fear that left a lot of the Mayo elder statesmen like rabbits in the headlights should have been dealt with from the sideline.
The Mayo bench boasts a big crop of talented young players who have won All Irelands, some at club (McDonagh) and others at both minor and U21 (Conor Loftus, James Carr). These players needed to be brought into the game sooner to make an impact as they are tried and tested winners.
The victorious Mayo U21 team of 2016 player with such confidence and intent. Loftus, Ruane, Plunkett, Carr and O'Connor all had a chemistry and ruthlessness that a lot of the older crop seem to be missing due to their fear of failure.
The U21s looked defeat in the eye countless times in their victorious campaign and refused to heel. In the showpiece, Liam Irwin (who isn't even on the Mayo squad) was magnificent from placed frees off his left foot.
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results and would be a mild way of surmising the current state of Mayo football as they lick their wounds from the Rossie coup.
In a previous column, I tipped Mayo to be there abouts to challenge Dublin, and I still stand by that. However, Mayo must learn from their mistakes and stop letting teams compete with them.
Horan must play his most potent forwards. Athleticism will only get you so far. Players who are able to kick game winners need to be in the melting pot going down the home straight.
If they need to they can let the likes of Paddy Durcan roam forward as one route for attack, but that must be balanced by a player or two dropping back to protect their fullback line.
Let the young guns take the responsibility up front. Boland in particular showed that he can produce in scoring positions. It wouldn't have been so easy for Roscommon to build if Plunkett or Keegan were cutting out early ball into Cox and Cregg.
The half backs have been one of Mayo's greatest assets over the past decade but they have, yet again, been used against the team. The Mayo half backs must play their positions and spend time safeguarding their own "D" rather than infiltrating the oppositions.
Who would you rather shooting from 40 yards out, Darren Coen or Lee Keegan? With five sublime points from play I know who I'd be choosing.
The Mayo management and veterans must trust the youth of the squad. They have proven that they can kick this team on, if given the chance. Fostering a culture of competition is this squad is vital if they are going to progress through the qualifiers.
Select the performers and give youth it's day. The starting 15 in four weeks will make for intriguing reading as we see if Saturdays blunders result in changes to personnel.