Thursday 26 April 2018

Tomás Ó Sé: Knock Aidan O'Shea on his a*** and you knock the whole of Mayo

Eamonn Fitzmaurice will be wary of the running threat now coming Kerry's way but, with so many near misses in the county's recent history, can Mayo be trusted to overcome their demons?

The Mayo players have stuck together during what has at times been a difficult All-Ireland campaign and have earned a semi-final showdown with Kerry at Croke Park tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile
The Mayo players have stuck together during what has at times been a difficult All-Ireland campaign and have earned a semi-final showdown with Kerry at Croke Park tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile

Tomas O Se

I'd say Mayo's players are slowly getting sick to the teeth of this gig now, of listening to us pontificate on their struggles to bridge the gap to '51.

Outside of their own circle, nobody really knows why this year should - logically - end differently to any other. When you think of the most recent near misses (the finals of 2012, '13 and '16, the semi-finals of '14 and '15), three of those five battles went to replays, another brought a single-point defeat.

They've been so close, their story feels nothing short of cruel now. And every neutral, naturally, would like that cruelty to end. But will it?

There's a voice in my head saying that Mayo's performance the last day will have awoken the dog in Kerry. They were magnificent, no two ways about it. But something stirred in me watching them pour down the tunnel after that destruction of Roscommon. Something I genuinely hadn't felt since my retirement from inter-county. I just got this rush of blood, wishing to God I was still a Kerry player again, getting ready to play them.

Because everything about Mayo the last day gave the air of laying down a challenge to Kerry. There was such a self-satisfied energy rolling off their bodies, all I could think was, 'Jesus I'd love a crack off them after that!' Why?

The way I look at it, this Mayo team and their supporters have a big chip on their shoulders. They take criticism too personally. They're a bit precious and I suspect that that preciousness increases with every year they come up just short of winning the Sam Maguire. I suspect they feel they've been patronised a bit too much and that needles them.

I can understand that to a point. In recent seasons, they've gone unbelievably close, but just haven't been able to close the deal. That's galling. It's galling because they will feel, deep down, that they're every bit as good as the game's two big guns. That all that's separated them from an All-Ireland is the rub of the green.

It's made them edgy and, maybe, even a little difficult to like. But it also makes them incredibly united. The backing Mayo get from their supporters is nothing short of inspiring.

So they've no interest in any of us saying how heroic they've been in recent seasons, I can understand that. There's character in that group to burn and they've shown it this summer more than ever. Nothing seemed to be flowing naturally in their football until that replay against Roscommon but, when it came, it came in torrents.

I thought Stephen Rochford showed serious tactical acumen, giving the likes of Keith Higgins, Donal Vaughan, Tom Parsons and Kevin McLoughlin such licence to attack. They squeezed right up on Roscommon's kick-outs and they turned that middle third of the pitch into a real area of attrition, out of which they were always going to stride the winner. In the end, they demolished Roscommon, physically and psychologically.

I've looked back at that game and it isn't an exaggeration to say that Mayo could have scored seven goals. And, if I'm honest, that worries me as a Kerryman. Now Roscommon had bodies back, but those bodies had all the aggression of waxwork models. They were like rabbits caught in headlights.

But, accepting that, the running power shown by Mayo was a timely reminder of what they can do.

Kerry's style is to man-mark six on six - you have a man to follow, you stick with him. So I don't doubt Cillian O'Connor, Aidan O'Shea, Andy Moran and even Lee Keegan are probably going to be assigned specific man-markers tomorrow.

man-markers The worry I have with that is, if they're taking Kerry defenders into areas they don't want to be, who is going to track those runs through the middle of Higgins and Vaughan and Parsons and Seamie O'Shea?

I just think, sometimes, Kerry allocate too many man-markers, leaving them wide open through the middle.

Against Galway in the quarter-final, Tadhg Morley - Kerry's centre-back - was almost never in the middle. He just kept following his man and that could be suicidal against this Mayo team, unless midfield and half-forwards are getting numbers back. Because make no mistake about it, Mayo are better than anything Kerry have faced up to now.

I don't doubt that Rochford will be telling his players to run at Kerry, to draw people out of position. Mayo's greatest strength is their physicality and ability to open up teams from deep. If Kerry can negate that, if they can stop the Mayo runners at source, they will win. But that's easier said than done.

I'm not sure what plan Mayo have for Kieran Donaghy but, whatever it is, it will have to factor in the danger of over-focusing on 'Star' and not enough on James O'Donoghue and Paul Geaney. And that complicates things for Rochford.

It's incredible now to think how peripheral Donaghy was to Kerry's championship as far back as 2014, until those last few minutes in the drawn semi-final against Mayo. He finished with an All-Star that summer and here he is, three years on, playing better than ever.

Mentally, he's an incredibly strong character, a great talker, someone who likes to get things out in the open. It hurts him desperately when he doesn't play, but that hurt would never be communicated in a sour way. That's why he's a brilliant character to have around the training field and you can see that he's managed to get himself into fantastic shape this year.

The worry for Mayo here - as they will know better than anyone - is that two good balls in to Donaghy could be enough to win this game.

Magnificent

His goal against Galway was magnificent, because he had two defenders pulling out of him, yet kept his composure. That's the price you pay for being a big man, men like Michael Murphy and Aidan O'Shea and Eoghan O'Gara are fouled every time they get the ball too and, as often as not, they won't get the free. But what people don't appreciate with Donaghy is his awareness. He has lightning-quick hands, but he has an awareness too that other players don't.

I believe Maurice Fitz has been doing a lot of one-on-ones with the Kerry forwards and I know for a fact, because Donaghy himself said this in a recent article, that Maurice has gone in marking him under a high ball, pulling and dragging out of him. And you know, if Maurice Fitz doesn't have a positive effect on a Kerry forward, nobody will.

So Donaghy was terrific the last day, as were Paul Murphy and Johnny Buckley and David Moran. Those four especially were right at the pitch of the game.

But that's not something you could say for some of their team-mates. It looked to me as if some of the Kerry players were only half tuned in against Galway. That said, it was a dead, flat game all-round and I think that gets into people. James O'Donoghue was certainly well held (he will be one with a point to prove tomorrow) and there were a lot of holes in the defence that, I suspect, mightn't be there in an atmosphere of greater urgency.

I know it's a cliché at this stage and, from Mayo's viewpoint, an infuriating one... but their lack of natural scoring forwards might well come against them again here. They have pace, energy and work-rate, but they don't have that explosive, marquee forward. I'd say, quite often, they accumulate as many scores from their backs as their forwards.

Personally, I believe they carry a much greater attacking threat the closer Aidan O'Shea is to the opposition goal, but I'm not convinced we're going to see that.

So it's those runs from deep that they'll be depending upon and, from a Kerry viewpoint, there's no point in trying to meet those runs when they're already coming through your front door. You've got to stop them at source. Sometimes it's a simple slip pass that frees everything up and that's where you've got to nail the tackle. It could be in their half-back line, but that's where the problem starts. If you don't make the hit there, alarm bells are quickly ringing.

Tracking runners from deep is such a fundamental of the modern game now and it's where the Donnchadh Walshes and Michael Geaneys and, maybe more than any other player, the Johnny Buckleys come into their own. In my opinion, Buckley is the best forward in the country for over-turning possession in contact.

My suspicion is that Mayo will play a sweeper in front of Donaghy because I don't believe you can leave him one-on-one with a defender. Rochford will know that Kerry are a different animal to Roscommon here and he'll know too that Fitzmaurice will be looking for his team to go to a higher gear tomorrow than anything they've reached this year.

The sloppiness of Kerry's performance against Galway will have given Eamonn Fitz a whip to crack in training since.

It seems to me that Aidan O'Shea never loses a throw-in and he really set the tone the last day, catching Anthony Nolan's throw and running straight at Roscommon right from the off, winning a free. Well, that's the moment Kerry need to be ready for tomorrow. The throw-in. Stop O'Shea doing what he seems to do every other day, don't let him put down that early marker.

Knock him back on his arse and you knock the whole of Mayo.

In one sense, I think they have nothing to lose here. They've been pretty much written off this year but now, suddenly, have found momentum. For whatever reason, it's taken them time to get into the right head-space and they know they have a right chance of getting to the final. But there will be a familiar question rattling around their heads.

Is it the end for this group if they lose?

Collateral

Personally, I don't think so. We say it every year that they can't afford another defeat and, always, they come back for one more shot. That said, there have to be scars. There has to be collateral damage from all the near misses and they know, deep down, that it's a massive ask to beat two of Kerry, Dublin and Tyrone if they're to bridge that gap to '51.

But that's precisely what they must do now.

I would ask the question, if Kerry hold Higgins, Boyle, Keegan and Durcan scoreless tomorrow, how in the name of God are Mayo going to accumulate a winning total? I can't see it. I've said it before that I think Mayo probably have the best half-backs in the country. But imagine if those half-backs had the Dublin forwards to deliver ball in to? Or the Kerry forwards?

That said, Kerry need to show up here. When they're not quite at it, they can look very average. There's still question marks hanging over this team amongst Kerry people and the league and Munster wins will mean nothing if they're not bringing Sam home next month. Harsh I know, but that's life for a Kerry footballer.

People talk about the pressure on Rochford but, trust me, there's a fair bit on Eamonn Fitz too now. He needs seven or eight big players to stand up here. I think they will. Apologies Mayo, but another winter of being patronised lies ahead of you.

Irish Independent

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