James Horan’s use of Aidan O’Shea against Donegal is the key to Mayo’s ruthless streak
They’re a different prospect this year and could do a real number on Tyrone in Sunday’s semi-final showdown
Whenever I thought about Mayo over the years, one of the things I would always have said about them is that they were confident and flash. When the white boots came in, you could always be sure that one of the Mayo lads would be wearing them. There’d be a few bleached heads in there as well.
I used to look at them and kind of be amazed that they were let away with it. Not out of some big traditional stand I was taking or anything like that. I just couldn’t work out why a manager would let them basically paint a big target on their back. After they’d gone through a couple of tough experiences in Croke Park, you’d have thought they might change tack a small bit.
If you had a lot of success, then I could maybe see it. You’d be projecting confidence, you’d be puffing your chest out and showing the world that you knew you belonged. But when you hadn’t won anything outside of Connacht, it was tough for people to take you all that seriously. It just gave the opposition something to focus on. You think you’re a big shot? Well, we’ll see about that.
They always had good footballers; that was never in question. They always had really good scoring forwards like Ciarán McDonald who was as top-class a forward as ever came out of Connacht. Kevin O’Neill always played well when I saw him, Conor and Trevor Mortimer were fine forwards. James Horan himself was a serious player.
But somewhere along the way, Mayo just found themselves with an image problem. They were football mad, just clean football mad. They were the prime candidates for Up For The Match, full of craic and stories and songs. And the more the supporters got into it, the higher the expectations rose and the harder it was for the players to live up to them.
Short of taking the whole panel away to Iona island and only coming back to turn up for the games, it was always hard to see how Mayo’s players could deal with the madness that built up around them the closer they got to an All-Ireland. You could only build so strong a bubble to protect them. Players still had to go to work, they still had to walk down the street, they still had to go to Mass if that’s what they were into. They would never be able to totally escape the razzmatazz.
The big thing that has changed under Horan is their attitude. You can absolutely see it in their demeanour and in the way they carry themselves. Generations of Mayo teams and managers would always try to play down the madness. They’d make sure people saw them as underdogs and they’d try to come in under the radar. It’s no accident that their biggest wins over the years came when nobody fancied them. That’s how they liked it. That’s when they saw themselves as dangerous.
It’s so different now. When Horan was asked in the build-up to the Galway game this year whether Mayo minded being favourites, he just shrugged his shoulders and said it was about right. He expected to win, not because of over-confidence or anything flash. Just because he knew his team was better than Galway’s.
Horan has embraced that as the way it should be done. There’s no playing the poor mouth, there’s no attempt to dampen down expectations. You don’t hear a player or anyone involved with them saying they hope to do their best or that they’ll give it a good go. They’re a serious team who think they are All-Ireland contenders. And the difference now is that it’s believable.
Horan has changed their mindset by challenging his players. It’s as if he’s said to them, “Right lads, ye are favourites. Get used to it. We believe ye’re the best group of players in the country and it’s time for ye to believe it as well”. He is putting it up to them to perform, which they’ve done all the way through the year.
They take their ruthlessness from him. They’ve given a hiding to every team they’ve played in their four games so far and it’s not just because they’ve been the better team. It’s because they have kept the foot to the floor long after the game has been won. It’s nearly a bloodlust they have.
To me, it was best shown by what Horan did with Aidan O’Shea the last day against Donegal. Or rather what he didn’t do. Mayo were 20 points up on Donegal with 25 minutes left in the game and still he left O’Shea on the pitch even though he was on a yellow card. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one watching it and wondering why he didn’t take him off.
The game was won, they were out of sight. O’Shea had been excellent all through the game, even after he picked up his first yellow after just 10 minutes. Why wouldn’t Horan just take him off with 25 minutes to go – or even with 15 – and let the crowd rise to him and salute one of the great performances he’s ever given in a Mayo jersey? More to the point, why risk him picking up a second yellow?
It wasn’t like Horan didn’t want to use his bench. He made all five substitutions before the hour mark and replaced Andy Moran, Alan Dillon and Cillian O’Connor. He wasn’t shy about taking anybody off, no matter who they were.
But the more you think about it, the better you can see his thinking. O’Shea was lording that game. He was destroying the Donegal midfield every time the ball came his way. He couldn’t be stopped. He was the perfect tool for Horan to use to make a statement about where Mayo are going and what they’re about.
Make a statement
Horan wanted his team to make a statement against Donegal. He wanted them to give the All-Ireland champions a tanking. Nothing will make his players believe better than beating a serious team in a blow-out. This wasn’t shadow boxing, it was no time to be cute. Go out, beat them and beat them well.
Take O’Shea off and they still would have won the game. But it would have been obvious that they were only doing it in case he got a second yellow. Horan was basically telling to the next team that he picks up a yellow against that Mayo have no fear for him. They knew he would keep performing.
That isn’t always a given. We saw it the previous night in the Monaghan v Tyrone game. Darren Hughes, who had been Monaghan’s best player in the Ulster final, got caught for a totally undeserved yellow card for a tackle on Seán Cavanagh and he disappeared from the game after it. He admitted afterwards that he was rattled by it.
But that shows the distance between where Hughes is in his career and where O’Shea is. And to a certain extent, it shows the difference between where Mayo are and where Monaghan are.
When we look back at the end of the season, there’s a good chance that we’ll be looking at O’Shea’s performance against Donegal as one of those statement days in Mayo’s year.
Horan’s confidence in him didn’t waver. Mayo trusted him not to lose his cool and not to let himself be niggled out of a game. Instead they let him keep driving on, causing more and more damage every time he got on the ball. It was an absolutely ruthless signal to send out.
That’s why I think they could do a real number on Tyrone on Sunday. They look to have the complete package. They get scores from all around the pitch and they’re not relying on Dillon or Moran to dig them out like they were in other years.
They are mobile in every line and their defenders get forward a huge amount and are totally comfortable on the ball. They’re so assured of what they have that they sent Keith Higgins to play in the forward line the last day and didn’t miss a step.
I’m really intrigued to see what Tyrone come up with to stop them on Sunday. Mickey Harte always has a plan and it will be fascinating to see how he’s going to go about shutting Mayo down.
My worry for Tyrone is that their forwards just aren’t up to keeping pace with the amount that Mayo score. I wonder is there any possibility of them playing Stephen O’Neill in the half-forward line. Much as we all like to see the best forwards play closer to goal, in the modern game the use of sweepers has made it too difficult to get them into the game. O’Neill has only scored two points in the championship so far so maybe the lesser of two evils would be to have him out around the 40.
It has worked for Colm Cooper and it would give Mayo something to think about. Overall though, I can’t see them having enough to stop Mayo.