I thought the Mayo team looked a little bit spooked last Sunday in Hyde Park and I really do not know why they appeared that way. Some might suggest that Conor Mortimer’s surprise departure from the squad placed a difficult burden on Mayo. I don’t believe it did. On the other hand I bumped into the Mayo manager in Castlebar last Saturday and could see he had the weary look of a man that had a belly-full of the Mortimer issue over the previous few days. I am sure he is sleeping a little more soundly since Sunday as his squad did just about enough to get over the line against a typically sticky Sligo challenge. As I stood to watch the presentation of the Nestor Cup, I engaged with a few Mayo supporters who were just as relieved that Mayo won the match. And I have to agree with their view which was that winning is the most important thing.
There have been a few big games in the past when I would have much preferred a victory ahead of an aesthetically beautiful performance. Those Mayo supporters were happy to have won a Connacht title as they would have found it very difficult to stomach a defeat to Sligo in a Connacht final. Very often a team that comes into a match as underdogs have the knack of making the so called ‘better’ side look slow and laborious. However, this Sligo side are no slouches and the modern Sligo team are both physically and psychologically a lot tougher than Sligo teams of yore. Kevin Walsh is a smart manager and had his charges well prepared. But the reality is after 45 minutes of pushing and pulling and no real flowing football, James Horan was in a position to spring Aidan O Shea from the bench. Kevin Walsh didn’t have such a luxury of having any player either on or off the field that came anywhere near the quality of the towering Breaffy man. O’ Shea was absolutely immense when introduced and had an immediate effect with the simple, highly intelligent twenty minutes of football he produced. Rarely do we witness a substitute grab a match by the scruff of the neck in such a manner but, not alone did he dominate the midfield sector in the final twenty minutes, he inspired all his team-mates into the bargain.
Now every Mayo player looked confident and assured and, all of a sudden, Mayo had moved into a different zone than their opponents. It is difficult to be negative after winning a Connacht title but we all know that last Sunday’s performance was very ordinary for long periods. But winning Connacht titles was never easy and I do hope that this Mayo team can improve considerably over the next few weeks, otherwise we will not progress too far. For some inexplicable reason there always appears to be a singular pressure on players to win their provincial title. Since the introduction of the back door Mayo teams have never embraced this particular route with any degree of success so the team probably played last Sunday with a constant a fear of losing.
Moran and Keane impressed from the off
However there were a few things to be pleased about. Barry Moran was terrific last Sunday. He has had a difficult few years with injury and, understandably, without a good run of games, his confidence had suffered. He went through several sticky patches but he persevered and has turned in two fantastic performances in the championship so far. Kevin Keane is another that played superbly. He has grown in stature and I now get the impression that this fella just loves playing at this level. He has improved beyond recognition in the last year. His two brilliant catches in the opening minutes were inspiring and, in the context of the game, certainly put down a marker. I am convinced Adrian Marren, Sligo’s man of the match in their victory over Galway, immediately realised that he wasn’t going to get anything soft here!
David Clarke, Ger Cafferkey, Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle and Keith Higgins all played well and the fact that they didn’t once, over the seventy minutes, give Sligo a sniff of a goal chance means that they can be happy with their respective performances.
But our centre back, Donal Vaughan’s form is a slight worry. He isn’t dominating the centre of defence like he did to such great effect last season and for me he is simply trying to do too much. I would much rather see Donal provide a greater presence in this crucial position and limit his forays into opposition territory. Mayo’s half back line is attacking with such wreckless abandon that I genuinely fear that we could be exposed in the wide open spaces of Croke Park.
As a unit our forwards didn’t sparkle to any great effect with the exception of Andy Moran and Alan Dillon. Cillian O’Connor’s confidence looked a little dented for some reason…perhaps it might have something to do with him being played at centre forward. In my opinion, and so many others, Cillian is an out and out corner forward and a good one at that. Kevin McLoughlin is a player who will empty the tank every time he plays, by getting on an enormous amount of breaks, but the jury is still out as to whether he is better coming on to the ball from a half back slot. We need more fire power up front to be a big threat later in the summer. I wonder could Aidan ‘O Shea be an option at 14?
Our minors definitely left a Connacht title behind them last Sunday. They were by far the better team in the second half but that old Achilles heel of putting the ball between the posts cost them dearly. I was close enough to the Mayo minor manager, Tony Duffy, to witness his frustration as time after time chances were spurned and wrong options were taken. Mayo dominated proceedings in the second half and should have closed out the game. It was hard to take as the losers of that game, Mayo, now face the difficult task of playing the Munster champions, Tipperary, who incidentally have ten of their last year’s All-Ireland winning side. The prize for the winners is the handier option of playing Kerry. Now how many times will I ever get to say that in the context of Gaelic football!!