"What we do need to concentrate on is being at our very best in June, July, August, and September, and whatever we have to do to be in the best shape we can be, that's what we have to concentrate on," said Noel Connelly on a wet and cold evening last November when he and Pat Holmes sat down to meet the local press for the first time after their appointment as the new Mayo senior management ticket. This coming Sunday is last Sunday in August, and things have gone exactly to that plan so far. If they are to keep going until September then the next step is to get over Dublin on Sunday.
Looking back on their league campaign and the workload they put on their players in the early stages of the year, Connelly explained their rationale behind what they did coming off the back of four tough years. "Mentally [the] players need to recover, as much as the physical side of it. They needed a little rest. We did train but not as hard as other counties did in the league and we feel they are probably benefitting from that now at this stage in the championship."
When it was put to him that was an unusual approach for a new management set up, he added: "I know. There is a bit of that. And I suppose we got a bit of slack in the papers after the Dublin result and the Donegal result and maybe not winning the final round game. But look, we used it as a breeding ground for maybe bringing younger players in. We wanted to stay in division one but we weren’t too disappointed when we didn’t make the semi-final. We wanted to be in full health coming into the championship and that is the way it has turned out.”
When asked was there a need for them to reinvigorate the players, he responded saying: "There is a bit of that in it. We looked at it and felt that even though they had four or five years, the age profile was still good. We had worked with most of them at u21 level and knew the calibre of guy that was there. We didn’t feel these guys were torn to shreds from the four years. We believed in them and we still believe in them. They are winners and want more success and if they want that, we can only be happy with that.”
No need to rip up the foundations
The group of players that they inherited had reached four successive All Ireland semi-finals and two All Ireland finals under James Horan's tenure, so there wasn't much need to rip things up and start again, the former Mayo captain says. "We weren’t going out to reinvent the wheel. We just thought if we could introduce a few new players to the squad that, if they were called upon, could do a job for us — the likes of Patrick Durcan who has come into defence this year. Tom Parsons is doing well and Mark Ronaldson did really well in the Connacht championship. So we knew the body of players that were there and we thought if we could add a few to help the squad, it would be great.”
The return to fittness of Tom Parsons has been a welcome addition for Holmes and Connelly and the Charlestown man has grabbed his chance with both arms this year, but that hasn't surprised the Hollymount-Carramore man. “I won’t say our predecessor didn’t see it. I suppose Tom over the years has been away, he has been injured. Touch wood he will get a free run over the next couple of weeks. We knew him from u21 level, his capability in the air. He has trained really hard and is in the best shape of his life and we are lucky to have him.” Parsons return has allowed Mayo to deploy their newest and most successful weapon to date, moving Aidan O'Shea back into the full forward line on a permanent basis for the first time since his debut season as a 18-year-old under John O'Mahony in 2009. “Yeah, Aidan is a big guy and is in good form at the moment. He is enjoying his football there at number 14. He is a tough guy to mark once he gets possession and for a big guy he is very skillful. He has both feet and any fullback who has to pick him up has a job on his hands. We hope he can continue his form into the semi-final but he is one of six forwards going well for us at the moment," said Connelly.
This year has also seen a changing of the guard, with neither Alan Dillon or Andy Moran nailed on starters in the championship, when fully fit. Something that only a few years ago would have seen many question the leadership abilities on the field, but both men have taken these changes on the chin and played their roles fully, Connelly added. “Alan and Andy are two huge players within the squad. They are very vocal and experienced and are key men to our set-up. Andy was very disappointed to lose out the last day but he always gives it 110 percent – as does Alan. So new leaders...you can talk about Tom Parsons the way he is going on the pitch. Aido is relishing his new role at full forward. Cillian is a very sound fella as well with a lot of experience, so we feel we have leaders throughout the field.”
Pulling a rabbit out of the hat
In their quarter-final win over Donegal, Holmes and Connelly threw in a curve ball before throw in by dropping Barry Moran into the starting 15 and deploying him as a sweeper in front of the full back line, a call no-one outside of the camp saw coming. But it proved a massive success with Moran dropping back to add some height in front of a line that had been under pressure from high balls in previous years, and with Moran pushing up on kick outs it gave Mayo three big men in the middle of the park. While it worked out well, Connelly admits that it was a gamble. “There is always risk involved in doing things like that. The physique of Barry was one of the major reasons for playing Barry there. Over the years we have seen a lot of high ball played into Michael Murphy, as he is very good under that, so we thought he would be the ideal guy to put in that situation. We are happy with the whole outcome. I can’t say any more than that. It is what we asked him to do that. He is an intelligent footballer and knows how to play the spaces when the ball comes up the field.”
Deconstructing the Dubs
As for the Dubs, this year's league encounter saw the metropolitans run riot in MacHale Park. But with where Mayo were at, at that stage of their preparation for the year, he's not reading that much into it. "Well, we didn’t legislate for what happened that night. We had got two points in Derry and had a six day turnaround. We didn’t train particularly hard in the league, given that they boys had been on the road for four extremely tough years. Now, Dublin came to Castlebar that night wanting and needing two points and they came with a huge intensity and we just weren’t up for it on the night and they blew us away. We are not going to dwell on that too much. We are looking at it from the point of view that we hadn’t really trained that hard and we would hope to be in a much better place in two weeks' time.” As their last championship meeting in the 2013 final was so long ago now, he's not paying that much mind either and concentrating on the present. "We will be focusing more on the way that Dublin have changed their style and gone more defensively. They probably learned their lesson from the Donegal game, so we have to focus on this year’s championship and their league form. We are under no illusions as to what lies ahead but we hope we are ready for it and can put in a huge performance. If we do that we feel we can do well.”