It is hard to believe on the eve of an All Ireland U21 final, that despite the best efforts of Ray Dempsey, Tony Duffy, and Niall Heffernan on the sideline Mayo had failed to reach even a Connacht decider in seven years until this year. The lack of success at this grade was seen as a worrying indicator to the possible prospects of the senior team who are currently backboned by a strong cohort of those who won an All Ireland U21 title in 2006 and those who were latterly involved in the sides that won Connacht titles in 07, 08, and 09 as their careers enter the final few years at the top level.
When the post as the U21 manager came up for grabs last year, Michael Solan was considered a bit of an outsider for the job, he did not have that much management experience at a top level, bar a single year in charge of his home club, and he is not much older than some of the players in the grand scheme of things. But he went for it and he was rewarded with the position. He did inherit a crop of players many of whom had tasted success at minor level three years ago, but bringing that success on three years later is no guarantee and he has had to think his way out of and trust those on the field to get out of some hairy situations on the scoreboard in this championship run.
It has been a great few months in charge of this side, he told the Mayo Advertiser, but there will be time to look back on that after the job is done tomorrow "It's been a very enjoyable few months and these are a fantastic group of guys to have been working with and in terms of groups of lads they are pretty self sufficient and motivated, they are an excellent bunch. I wouldn't have looked at the last few months as anything but enjoyable it's a great level to involved at, and I suppose when it's all over we'll look back with fondness, but it's very much a case of enjoying it while it's happening."
Improvement needed in every line
As for what they have to do tomorrow to overcome a tough Cork outfit, Solan knows that improvements will have to be found in every sector. "We're just going to have to up our game pretty much from one to 15, we'll be looking for an improvement all across the board. Cork have some fine players, guys who have played national league football and they have some big physically imposing players there, but the only thing we can control is what we do ourselves, and our attitude and work rate that are in our control. We can't control anything that Cork are doing and how they set up. We'll look at them and target areas, but 95 per cent of focus is on ourselves."
When things turn against you on the field for a spell it is about ensuring that you ride it out as best you can and make sure you still have a chance to win the contest, and Mayo did that in their semi-final against Dublin, and that is something that Solan is very happy to have seen his charges handle when under pressure. "There's only a certain amount you can do, if you're a full back you're relying on the guys up the pitch to put the pressure on and put as much heat on as you can. A truism in the GAA is that every team gets a patch and it's how you ride it out is the most important thing, it came to pass for us just after half time when we had made a change, but we rode it out and we'd be more than happy with the way the we turned things around as the half went on."
Learning as they go
As for learning from that game, th
ere has been plenty of work done on looking back on what happened he told us. "We would have an awful lot of stuff to work on, some of those will be related to what happened after half time, some really not directly related to it all, we look back and assess all sectors of the team and aspects of the performance, that's the process we take and that hasn't changed at all because of one incident in the game."
The hardest decision that Solan and his management team have to make is to decide who from the panel of 32 get dressed for the match day 24 tomorrow, but it has led to plenty of healthy competition in training, he says. "It's extremely tough, we have serious competition for places in every line on the pitch and to make the squad of 24 for the match days that makes training very keen, and they are always pushing the other guys on and it makes the overall squad health very good."
While the championship ends tomorrow, bar a replay, the job does not end for Solan and his team who once the summer kicks in will be planning for next year already. "It doesn't really end, we didn't have the summer to look at lads last year, and all things going to plan that's what we'll be doing over the next few months for next year, and it puts us in a little bit of a more advantageous position now than where we were last year and we can go to club championship games and league games and start to have a look at lads, but that's very much not on the agenda yet for a few weeks."