Irrespective of the result in Markievich Park tomorrow evening, you will meet the happy chap who will have consoling words for the losers along the lines “it's not the end of the world”, “you always have the back door”, and “anyway where were we going this year?” These platitudes may all be wonderful to the guy who hasn’t prepared for a match of this magnitude, but try telling that to the players or management of the losing side and I can guarantee you it will sound very hollow!
Sligo have made enormous strides again this year after their very impressive run last year. Kevin Walsh, their manager, has enormous experience as a player, and it would appear from afar that he has imbued his squad with a winning mentality. But, will they win this one when the pressure is on them to deliver? The fact is that, in the past, when the pressure was really on they have been found wanting. Allied to the pressure, I don’t think the tight confines of their own pitch really suit this particular team. They are a youthful side with lots of pace, particularly up front as we witnessed in this year’s division 3 league final. They relished the wide open spaces of Croke Park.
There is a notion out there also that the poor performance from Mayo in their league decider against Cork will have eliminated any hint of complacency that might have existed had the match been a close tight affair.
So what have we learned from Mayo’s league campaign? From a positive point of view Mayo’s management can relax in the knowledge that Chris Barrett is a competent classy defender and is guaranteed to do an excellent man-marking job on a pacey forward. Donal Vaughan has made enormous strides this year and has proved a real attacking option from the half back line. Seamus O’Shea offers huge energy and commitment, irrespective of whether it is from the half forward line or at midfield. On the downside, however, we just don’t appear to be producing many players of sufficient high quality. The modern game is very intensive and teams are very well organised, often defending in numbers.
I don’t know the team at the time of writing, but there are really only one or two positions to be decided. However, getting the balance right is crucial. It is essential that the midfielders and the half forward line are capable of winning ball. Primary possession is crucial in the modern game and I have a few reservations about Mayo’s ability to do this. David Clarke, in goal, will have to be a little more imaginative with his kick outs to ensure that we win a high percentage of them.
Management will play its role too in the winning of this match. I believe Mayo will have learned more from the heavy defeat in Croker. John O’Mahony has been forced to be bold with youth this year, which is a good thing. Kevin Walsh, on the other hand, has been presented with a different challenge and that was to keep his players focussed on this encounter.
It is important managers have a strategy in place to deal with issues as they arise throughout the game. The image of the team can often be seen in the manager’s face. John O’Mahony brings an air of authority and reassurance to his team. He has won at the highest level and has a proven track record. In fairness Kevin Walsh is but a cub in the game and it will be important that he retains his composure and is tactically aware when changes have to be made. Games at this level, more and more, are being played tactically, with managers needing continual adjustments to unlock defences. It is not that tactics are difficult, as the popular saying goes, it’s not rocket science. It might just be a little switch here or there, the movement of a player to a different position. The big questions for both managers tomorrow is, do players know what they are going to do with the ball, and what are they going to do without it? When the game is in progress managers are continuously scrutinising the match to see how their teams can get on top, or what can be done differently to swing the game in a team’s direction.