Sport GAA

Thursday 14 November 2019

The Couch - Mayo's hard labour edges them closer to mountain top

Ger Cafferkey: Conscientious defender
Ger Cafferkey: Conscientious defender

Tommy Conlon

In this their fifth year pushing the rock up that punishing mountain, a team which seemed close to the limit of its potential has evidently found a few yards more of progress.

Mayo's all-out quest for the All-Ireland has been publicly observed with mounting admiration across the country. But their drive for the ultimate prize has somewhat obscured the day-to-day reality of their work. On the training ground, in the gym and at their team meetings, the absolute commitment is to the grinding business of consistent self-improvement.

Starting in the rubble of their 2010 championship campaign, they have sought to construct a house that's built to last. They have listened and learned. They've taken themselves seriously. They've become better footballers and fitter athletes. They have made themselves mentally stronger.

They have won big games and lost big games. But, season by season, they've laid down another layer of hardcore experience, like geological bedrock, in the foundation of the edifice. It has been hard labour, shouldered by a mature collective striving to do everything incrementally better.

But for all that they gave in body and soul to the realpolitik of the process, it was all supposed to culminate in the fantasy world of glory. The great undertaking had to have an end result. It had to have the catharsis of victory on All-Ireland final day.

So when Kerry eventually wore them down over the course of that epic semi-final struggle last year, the Mayo project looked to have reached a harrowing anti-climax. It had been four years in the making - and four years is a life cycle in sport: growth, achievement and decline. Where would they go from here? Was there still some room left to improve? Were there any inches left to find?

James Horan, the architect of this formidable unit, walked away. If they couldn't find any new players, and if some of those honourable veterans decided to walk away too, then Mayo fans were looking at a period of transition rather than continuity. We would find out in 2015 if the rock was back nearer the base of the mountain.

In July they became the first Mayo side to win five Connacht titles in a row since 1910. But a lot of people were looking at the 2-11 they'd conceded against Sligo more than the 6-25 they'd scored. Frailties in defence that had characterised the Horan era were still apparent.

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And so, to Croke Park last Saturday for their quarter-final showdown with Donegal. And lo and behold, here was evidence of fresh learning, of more homework duly studied and absorbed. Finally, at last, team management had introduced a measure of protection for their overexposed full-back line.

There is hardly a more conscientious defender in the game than Mayo's full-back, Ger Cafferkey. But he and his colleague, Tom Cunniffe, have been put through the wringer in recent years.

One might argue that Cafferkey, in particular, could do more to help himself. He may well be the most scrupulous full-back in history. But he clearly needs to have a few less scruples when it comes to imposing his will on a forward. The messy business of buffeting, nudging, holding and generally harassing a player is meat and drink to any member of a full-back line. Cafferkey is innocent of these wiles to an almost saintly degree.

When Kevin Keane replaced him on 70, the contrast in attitude was immediate. With a high ball dropping in around the house, Keane went grappling with Michael Murphy, the Donegal totem whom Cafferkey hadn't laid a hand on all afternoon.

(Murphy didn't get near the ball and took his frustration out on Keane. When Keane retaliated with a slap to the face, Murphy went straight to the umpire looking for the letter of the law to be applied. Keane received a straight red; he will miss the semi-final barring a successful appeal. Donegal were a beaten team at this stage - not one of Murphy's finer moments.)

Anyway, Cafferkey and Cunniffe had at least one screening defender to keep them company all afternoon and it made a hell of a difference. Barry Moran seemed an improbable choice as sweeper - and it still might prove to be the case. A sweeper needs speed to cover the ground, and a defender's habitual ability to read incoming danger.

When the match was in the melting pot early on, Cunniffe and Cafferkey were still left exposed and struggling to cope in one-on-one situations. Donegal kicked four wides in the first eight minutes, which meant Mayo were coughing up chances while the new formation took its time in bedding down.

Collectively, however, there was evidence too of a fresh pragmatism in the Mayo mindset. Lee Keegan's goal after half-time would, in previous years, have triggered the attacking floodgates. Instead, they set about draping a wet, heavy blanket over the contest. They funnelled back in numbers, Aidan O'Shea supplemented the cordon around midfield and gradually their defence became more heavily populated. No defender was left in a one-on-one situation; it was two tacklers for each Donegal forward. Mayo spent most of that second half lowering the shutters.

With the game over as a contest, it was a useful rehearsal for the challenge that's coming down the tracks in two weeks' time. Dublin will stretch their new defensive fabric to its seams. But, five years on, this Mayo team continues to learn and grow.

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