Tuesday 23 January 2018

Joe Brolly: Mayo have to realise they are not being hampered by a curse - just shit defending

Developing a plan to defend against goals can lead to an All-Ireland

Michael Murphy, Donegal, celebrates after scoring his side's first goal as Kevin Keane, Mayo, watches on.
Michael Murphy, Donegal, celebrates after scoring his side's first goal as Kevin Keane, Mayo, watches on.

Joe Brolly

The Six Sorrowful Mysteries: The Agony in the Garden. The Scourging at the Pillar. The Crowning with Thorns. The Carrying of the Cross. The Crucifixion. Mayo's Croke Park torture.

We'll win nothing until the curse is lifted, say Mayo folk. It is difficult to see how old men dying will help them to win a football match on the third Sunday in September. There are a few practical steps that will.

They leak goals. There is a reason for this. In the second minute of the 2012 final, Karl Lacey kicked a long high ball into Michael Murphy. Murphy is standing on the edge of the square when it is delivered. He is there in the company of his marker. There is not another Mayo jersey in camera shot. In front of Murphy, there is a full 25 metres of space. He accepts the gift and Donegal have a first-round knock-down against a chinny opponent. It is hard to recover from first-round knock-downs.

A few minutes later, the fight is over. Paddy McBrearty takes a shot for a point which comes off the post into the arms of the Mayo corner-back. Only he drops it into McFadden's arms and the disbelieving forward puts it in the net from a few yards. Fifty-eight minutes to go and the game was already over. Because Donegal have a plan to prevent goals.

Wind forward a year to the 2013 final. Mayo are back having looked fairly awesome throughout the season. By the 16th minute, they are in absolute control. The score is 0-5 to 0-1 and Dublin are struggling badly. Then, Paul Flynn - in Ger Canning's words - "kicks a long hopeful ball in there". Bernard Brogan is standing on the edge of the square with only his marker. Amazingly, he has a full 35 metres of clear space in front of him. He sticks up his arm and flicks it into the net. You might say to yourself, 'That's exactly what happened last year', and you'd be right. A nervous Dublin were up and running, courtesy of another entirely avoidable goal, of the kind that would send Jimmy McGuinness to a darkened room for a week.

Bernard Brogan: His display in Sunday's final makes him a contender for Footballer of the Year

In the 50th minute of the second half, the complexion of the game changed briefly when Andy Moran scored a Mayo goal. Mayo were bouncing. But Mayo do not know how to defend a lead. Another disaster four minutes later, when Dublin simply walked the ball through their danger zone and Brogan, unmarked this time, flicked it into the empty net. Game over. Not a curse, just shit defending.

Mayo's problem is obvious. They have no plan to defend the area in front of goal. Their half-backs attack incessantly, with no particular rules. So there is a big gap between the full-back and half-back line. Mayo's defensive rampart is along the mid-line. Once the opposition is past that, they are running or kicking into clear space. What happens then is that Mayo's half-backs have to turn and start running towards their own goal, with their backs to the play. Meanwhile, their full-backs are left isolated man to man, trying to follow the darting runs of top-class full-forward lines.

Against Galway a fortnight ago, it was clear that nothing has changed. They were in control of the game approaching half-time. Then a poor pass was kicked straight to the Galway centre-back, standing inside his own '45. No danger there, you might think. Certainly not if it was Donegal or Kerry or the Dubs. But it's not. It's Mayo, so it's pandemonium. Their half-backs, midfielders and half-forwards are strung out all over the pitch. One handpass goes to Gary Sice who is running towards the Mayo goal with his man running in his wake. He keeps going. Mayo men are chasing their own men with their backs to goal. Sice picks his spot and Galway are suddenly ahead. One can only feel sadness.

In the second half Mayo recovered to go six points up, twice. Then, another goal, virtually identical to Brogan's second in the 2013 final, Mayo defenders running towards goal with their backs to play as Galway ran through, finishing with a handpass to the unmarked forward on the far post and a flick to the net. It is a universally known training drill. I use it with my under 16s.

Rewind to the All-Ireland semi-final series against Kerry last year when Mayo blew leads of seven points three times. Because they leaked ridiculous goals. Shit, shit defending.

They are a brilliant group of players, well capable of winning an All-Ireland. Creating a defensive structure to prevent goals is not a complicated process. When they lose possession, their half-backs, midfielders and half-forwards need to turn, ignore their men and drop back into a defensive shell, with at least one sweeper protecting the goals a la Mark McHugh. This way, they will be facing the attack as it reaches the danger area, rather than trying to get a glimpse of what is happening over their shoulders.

Think Monaghan, or Donegal or Kerry or this season's Dublin. Look at how quickly Dublin have learned from their Donegal debacle. Why can't Mayo's management do the same? They are made for this type of game. Their full-backs and half-backs are brilliant, powerful ball-carriers. So they can turn over possession and break out at speed in threes. Then they can deliver long ball to O'Shea on the edge of the square with O'Connor playing off him in the manner of Star/Gooch or Murphy/McFadden. Alternatively, they can carry it through and work the score, something they are very good at already.

Keith Higgins' battle with Kerry's James O'Donoghue was one of the outstanding memories of the season. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

In the second half of the drawn game against Kerry last year, they gave the greatest exhibition of hard-running football I have seen. Then blew it all by allowing Kerry to score a last-minute goal. In the same way that Brogan and Galway's Danny Cummins were unmarked on the edge of the square, so Mayo left James O'Donoghue alone to blast the killer goal. James Bloody O'Donoghue, the most dangerous predator of his era.

It makes no sense. Here's how to solve it. Primary defenders stay touch tight, until their man goes outside the scoring area. Play a full-time sweeper off the square. When they lose possession, the half-forwards and midfielders drop back into the scoring area, ignoring their markers. As Kevin Cassidy said to me once, "Joe, when you've got 12 defenders inside the '45 and maybe 10 attackers, the chances of a goal are very remote."

What is required to win an All-Ireland nowadays is cold, winning football. At Jimmy McGuinness's first meeting with the Donegal squad in 2011, he gave each player a copy of the system. Rule No 1 was 'No Goals'. Twenty one months later they were All-Ireland champions.

After the sorrowful mysteries comes the resurrection. There's no curse. Just shit defending.

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