The big news of Conor Mortimer’s withdrawal from the Mayo squad earlier this week did not take me by surprise.
I was speaking to Conor before the Leitrim match when I became aware of his unhappiness over his non-selection for that game. He genuinely felt that he was playing well enough to justify selection for the opening round of the championship. I suggested that he keep his head down, say nothing, and continue to work hard. In fact, I sent him a text and advised him “not to pull out of the squad” as it would tarnish his reputation and might be construed by the GAA public as being selfish. But he felt he wasn’t getting a fair crack of the whip and I can only assume that he informed either James Horan or some member of the management that he wouldn’t be travelling to Sunday’s final when he was informed, yet again, of his non-selection for Sunday’s encounter against Sligo.
Conor should have waited till after Sunday
My views on this issue are as follows. I think Conor’s timing is wrong. He should have waited until after Sunday’s final to bow out. His announcement and the timing of it has become ‘the’ story this week and it must surely be music to Kevin Walsh’s ears. The focus for the last few days has been on the 30-year-old and Mayo’s all time top scorer walking before a Connacht final.
For James Horan and his management team it is a disaster. More than likely they will have been hounded since last Wednesday by the media looking for a comment. It is not what they need before a match of this magnitude. The players, particularly the older lads in the squad, will have been discussing the merits of his decision and that is not what a manager wants his players to be focusing on before, what I feel will be, a real test from Sligo.
I think the Mayo management are not without blame on this one. They are undoubtedly aware that Mortimer is a big fish in Mayo football circles. They must have been aware of his unhappiness over the last number of months. In fact when he was dropped on a number of occasions throughout the National League it was evident in his body language that he wasn’t a happy camper. The management should have addressed the issue back then. They should have outlined how they envisaged his role in the team for the season ahead. Might they just be using him as an impact sub?! Had such an exchange taken place back then it would surely have prevented the current scenario.
It is an unnecessary distraction just days before a Connacht final. Incidentally, Mortimer is the second Mayo player to leave the squad following sub goalkeeper Robert Hennelly, who quit the squad two weeks ago. I suppose the reality is that playing inter-county football or indeed any sport is a choice of pleasures. The modern game really does dominate your entire lifestyle and if it isn’t fun, why should you hang about?
There is still a football match to be won
The next staging post for the Mayo team is to show us that they are not content to be plucky, gallant and brave and all those other self deluding tags that have absolutely no currency when it comes to bridging the 61 year gap since Sam crossed the borders of this county. Winning is what it is all about, not performance, nor progress, nor learning, nor blooding new players. It’s all about the here and now. We have, arguably, the most professional line up of gurus, coaches, and statisticians so we should have as good a chance of being in the shake up in the latter stages of this championship as any other team in the country.
Mayo is no longer a side in transition. A win on Sunday will bolster the confidence and self belief of the side. Lose and the huge issue of self doubt will be all over the side like a rash. However, I think this side has the desire to drive on. Mayo are one of the top outfits in the country and in my opinion are a notch ahead of Sligo. But this is championship and all you have to do is look at the surprise results we’ve witnessed to date in the campaign so far (not to mention the shock of the year with Galway hurlers victory over Kilkenny ).
Yes, Mayo will have to be wary on Sunday but when you compare the form of both sides over the last year, Mayo are well ahead of Sligo. Understandably, Sligo will not make the same mistake of two years ago when they played in that years decider. Having disposed of both Galway and Mayo in earlier rounds, they arrived in McHale Park cock-a-hoop and Roscommon, sensing their oppositions vulnerability, walked away with the big prize. No. Sligo will be smarter this time round.
The starting 15
The team announced shows just one change from the opening round against Leitrim. Enda Varley gets the nod ahead of Alan Freeman. The word is that most were expecting either Michael Conroy or the aforementioned Conor Mortimer to start as both have been in sparkling form in the A Vs B matches that are the final trials, so to speak, ahead of championship matches.
Whatever your views are on the selection, I still think Mayo are a better side than Sligo. But I am a little worried. I discovered during the week, through a conversation with a former Galway player, that Kevin Walsh is meticulous when it comes to analysing strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. He obviously knew the Galway side very well, but his game plan for that game worked a dream. Of course the Galway defence played into his hand, particularly the Galway half back line which really left their inside full-back line completely exposed. On Sunday it is crucial that Mayo don’t fall into that trap. The last thing a full back line wants to see is huge space in front of them. Mayo cannot afford to have Donal Vaughan, Colm Boyle and Lee Keegan playing with reckless abandon by flying up the field at every opportunity.
To be fair Mayo’s defence on most occasions has looked very robust throughout the year. Those new boys, Kevin Keane and Lee Keegan, have grown in stature and in practically all of the games I have seen them play they are definitely good enough to cut it at this level. But you have to put those games into context. It can be easy enough to look resolute, tough and strong in league football and against ordinary opposition (Leitrim ), but when you come up against the big boys, so called good defenders can, all of a sudden, look quite flaky when put under pressure.
Sligo’s full forward line in particular looks exceptionally strong, very quick, and undoubtedly talented. Adrian Marren was very good against no less a full back than Finian Hanley in Pearse Stadium in their surprise victory over Galway. Mark Breheny and David Kelly make up Sligo’s most formidable line of their team. On the other hand, Ger Cafferkey and Keith Higgins are two of Mayo’s best players and Kevin Keane hasn’t put a foot wrong so far, so I would think that if these lads do their job and get plenty of assistance from a half-back line that defends close to them, Mayo will prevail.
Were Mayo forwards allowed anything like the freedom afforded to them in their win over Leitrim, we all could sit back, relax and enjoy a nice day out in Hyde Park. But that won’t happen. Sligo have plenty of experienced wily old heads that will ensure space is at a premium. Mayo would be a better side if they had just one or two more top class forwards. Unfortunately that ‘go to’ man isn’t around so we have to do with what we have. I am a little concerned however that Mayo’s bench looks a little threadbare. Mayo are missing the experienced duo of Pat Harte and Peadar Gardiner, and also Aidan Campbell. With Conor Mortimer now out of the equation, I hope that we don’t have to empty the bench to see us over the line in this one.