Monday 19 March 2018

Tommy Conlon: Mayo's rebuilding effort is coming together as the stakes grow higher

Mayo boss Stephen Rochford
Mayo boss Stephen Rochford

Tommy Conlon

They were far from great last weekend but, perhaps more usefully, they were different. For the day that was in it, Mayo parked the familiar high-octane high-emotion type of performance that has made them such a charismatic outfit in recent seasons.

The downside of these performances was that they were an open book - and too often an open team when facing the big guns with everything on the line.

This year, under new management, they haven't been as easy to read. One reason is that the shock defeat to Galway in mid-June immediately reduced their visibility. Another is that their form through the qualifiers had been erratic and underwhelming. What were they at, and were they coming or going? Was this team irrevocably on the slide after five hard years of tilting at the great windmill?

The believers were waiting for a spark that would see them properly ignite; some sign that they hadn't lost the irresistible mojo of their prime years. What they revealed, against Fermanagh and Kildare and Westmeath, were fragments of form, bits and pieces, spasms of power amid longer interludes of mediocrity.

So they didn't come charging at full speed into Croke Park last Saturday, but rather shuffling their feet. The expectation therefore was that if they had a big gear left in them at all, they would need to hit it for a team as dangerous as Tyrone.

But they didn't do that either. Instead of storming into it, they managed their way through the match. They navigated the rapids with chart and compass rather than with off-the-cuff improvisations. They were visibly thinking their way through it, playing to a rehearsed strategy. They picked a team and played a game with the Ulster champions specifically in mind. Tyrone were not going to play with abandon and so Mayo were not going to either.

The result was a big-time championship match that engaged the mind rather than stirred the blood. The result was prolonged periods of stalemate possession game as each side tried to pick their way through massed defences.

At other times Mayo tried to go over the Tyrone defence rather than through it and this tactic, when it worked, produced direct football and good scores. Such as in the 13th minute when Kevin McLoughlin carried the ball out of defence and hit Alan Dillon with a 30-metre foot pass.

Dillon, in midfield, didn't take a solo or a hop: just one look-up and bang - long and high into Aidan O'Shea on the edge of the square. Two Tyrone jumpers contested it in the air with O'Shea; the big man simply scattered them with his bulk and power as he batted the ball down to the waiting Andy Moran. The point was a formality for Moran - back to his best as a mobile, ball-winning targetman.

McLoughlin looks to be settling well into the vexed position of sweeper. His changed role is emblematic of a team that has been searching for a different identity this season. Maybe their struggles earlier this year were just growing pains as they tried to bed down a more conservative formation and cerebral match attitude.

Seen in this light, their wretched performance against Galway in June might be the equivalent of a reliable scratch golfer suddenly posting scores of 10 over as he tries to remodel his swing.

The great challenge for Stephen Rochford, his coaching team and his squad was to keep winning while fumbling their way through this transition. They have too many players with heavy mileage on the clock to lose a season to reinvention. Any rebuild will take time, but Mayo have had to rebuild on the hoof and without the safety net of next year. They've had to live in the house while simultaneously digging the foundation and putting up the walls.

And the project is far from finished. They had a hefty portion of luck through the draw, meeting opponents not strong enough to exploit their patchy form. They were just about far enough down the road to deal with Tyrone. Just about: their last 10 minutes were almost disastrously skittish. They left the door open repeatedly for Mickey Harte's men to find an equalising score.

But they survived and last Saturday's match may well be the cue for a quantum leap forward. Maybe, just maybe, they are timing their run perfectly along the rails. Most of their big players produced big performances - the best indicator of any team coming into optimum form.

They will face a vibrant, fearless side in the All-Ireland semi-final next Sunday. But Tipperary will also be naïve and probably over-matched against an outfit as physically powerful and mentally battle-hardened as their opponents.

If these have become familiar Mayo traits, they also last Saturday looked more flexible and adaptable than in previous years. Rochford customised his selection and formation for the Tyrone challenge. He will presumably do so again, in particular to address the attacking class and imposing height that Sweeney and Quinlivan will bring to the Tipp full-forward line.

So Mayo will come with a plan, and probably the same thoughtful, considered approach that was on show against Tyrone. But the team's powerful emotional energy has been a formidable weapon in recent years too. One imagines that this will need to be harnessed also in the weeks to come - the best of the old with the best of the new.

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