Jim McGuinness: Muddling through won’t do for Mayo in the final

If they go missing for a full 35 minutes, would Mayo survive against Dublin or Kerry?

Mayo’s Colm Boyle and Lee Keegan tackle Tipperary’s Michael Quinlivan. There is a price to pay for taking all those tackles. Every heavy hit softens you up to some extent. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

Mayo’s Colm Boyle and Lee Keegan tackle Tipperary’s Michael Quinlivan. There is a price to pay for taking all those tackles. Every heavy hit softens you up to some extent. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

 

The big question for many people going into last Sunday’s game was how Tipperary would approach the psychological task that lay ahead of them. Would they come in confident? Would they be able to carry a strong mentality as a Division Three team going in to play a Division One team? Would they believe in themselves?

The answer to all that was yes. The bottom line is that early on in the game, they really went at Mayo. Ultimately they lost the game but in bringing such a strong mentality to the table, they showed that they can have a big future at this level. The potential is there, that much is obvious.

A big part of the platform Tipperary established early in the game was Evan Comerford’s kick-outs. When you have a top-quality goalkeeper who can find players without having to all the time go short, it’s a huge advantage. By consistently finding his men with long kick-outs and three-quarter length kick-outs, Comerford was able to take a huge amount of opposition players out of the game.

If you are able to find men at that distance, then you have an array of options. If you can then make sure that your runners make themselves available off the shoulder of the man catching the ball, then you can make incisions. That’s what was happening early in the game. Comerford was varying his kick-outs – some short, some medium, some long – and his accuracy is what gave Tipp the platform.

That has been a feature of their campaign. Against Galway, the game got to the 66th minute before he lost a kick-out. I watched that game and thought to myself that here was a player who could push Stephen Cluxton in terms of being the best goalkeeper in the country in the same way that Paul Durcan did for a few years.

You can judge how accurate he is by the fact that he doesn’t necessarily take quick kick-outs in order to catch the opposition napping. Against Mayo in that early period, even though they squeezed the space, he was still able to find really lasered-type kick-outs that hit his man consistently.

In fairness to Mayo, they identified this. Rather than trying to push up on it, they tried to lock on to it and give no out ball. That made things more difficult for Comerford and put a bit more pressure on him. They started forcing him into the same kick-out a few times in a row – long and out to his left, where Mayo were able to attack it, get onto the breaks and win possession. It was an experienced team turning the screw.

Lee Keegan was given the task of going into the full-back line to pick up Michael Quinlivan. I found that an interesting choice because obviously he is a huge player for Mayo in terms of influence going forward from the half-back line. He managed to marry both sides of the game as the day wore on, which just goes to show his quality.

Once Mayo got a foothold, one player who was exceptional for them was Andy Moran. He was doing something you see Dublin’s inside forwards do a lot – running across the front of the goals from one side to another. These weren’t just the usual, 15-20 metre runs that forwards tend to make. They were 35-40 metres, diagonally from wing to wing. Runs like that are lung-busters.

But by making them, Moran was really stretching the Tipperary full-back line. His movement was a constant irritant to them. And then, to top it all off, once Mayo had established some measure of possession, he started picking off points from different positions. He came out to the 45 to kick a long one, he dropped off around the square and read where the ball would fall and knocked one over from close in. The variety to his play in that period made him incredibly hard to keep tabs on.

The nine-minute period before half-time was absolutely crucial. Mayo got on top of the Tipperary kick-out and stopped their attacks at source. I felt in this period, Tipperary needed to stretch the game and give it a bit more width. They needed to be able to recycle quicker and switch the play. But instead, they went into contact a lot of the time.

Second Captains

I wouldn’t be too hard on them for that. It showed that these players were trying to be brave in possession and to do the right thing, to be positive and not go into their shell. But the possession stats at half-time told us that the tackle count was 25-12 for Mayo. Was this because Mayo’s tackling was far superior to Tipperary’s? I don’t believe so. More likely, it was because Mayo were more clever in possession, recycling the ball instead of taking it into contact and trying to break the gainline at the right time.

And, crucially, they had the right people trying to break the gainline – Aidan O’Shea, Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle and these guys. Players with the strength and power and conditioning to break those tackles.

As a consequence, Mayo were much stronger at the end of the first half than Tipperary were. There is a price to pay for taking all those tackles. Every heavy hit softens you up to some extent and so Mayo were the fresher team as half-time approached. That was certainly a factor in how comprehensively they outscored Tipperary in that period.

The other big talking point was Robbie Kiely’s black card, which was a disastrous call from Tipperary’s point of view. I was really looking forward to seeing Kiely play in this game because of the way he put himself about against Galway. He is tenacious, he’s a seriously good tackler both in his timing and in his physical hardness in contact. Against Mayo with all their physical attributes, I felt he was going to be a key player.

For me, the black card call was totally wrong. I felt he had his hand on Jason Doherty’s back, an awkward tackle, at worst a pull on his jersey – which isn’t a black card offence. As he fell, he and Doherty got tangled up – again, not a black card offence. I didn’t see a deliberate drag down and I didn’t see a deliberate trip. It was never a black card.

The black card, if you back to its origins, was brought in to prevent a player wrapping his arms around an opponent and dragging him to the ground. You know a cynical foul when you see it. A cynical foul is not a player having his hand on another fella’s back as he’s falling.

It’s a free, yes. Punish him with a free that will be a certain point. Punish him with a yellow card that he will have in the back of his mind for the rest of the game. But to remove him from the pitch on the basis of a rule that is so difficult to define is totally wrong.

This was the biggest game of this young fella’s life. The biggest game Tipperary were involved in for the guts of 90-odd years. I don’t think people really and truly understand the lengths that players go to get themselves to this level, the sacrifices they make in their personal life.

To miss basically the whole of an All-Ireland semi-final because of a split-second decision like that is deeply unfair. Is it possible for a referee to differentiate between a free-kick, a yellow card, a black card and a red card in the blink of an eye? I’m not so sure.

It ruined the game for him, obviously. But as well as that, I think it took a huge chunk out of the Tipperary game plan. Robbie Kiely has that bit of strength and punch to him and he would have made plenty of incisions running off the midfielders. And clearly, his absence left a big hole in the centre of the Tipp defence which Mayo exploited for their first goal. Mayo’s dominance of the period before half-time showed them in their best light.

Their big men stepped up. Lee Keegan came forward and scored and incredible point. Aidan O’Shea stepped up and showed leadership. Keith Higgins and Andy Moran were prominent as well.

But even so, you still felt that there was something in the game for Tipperary at half-time. Mayo had gone so long in the first half without making an impression and if Tipp could come out with the right attitude, recapture what they’d had with their own kick-outs and be smarter with the ball, they could come back at Mayo.

The Tipperary response was very manly in the way they went after the game. Their defenders played from the front and were looking to get out ahead of their men every time and punch the ball away from them. The first 10-15 minutes after the break absolutely belonged to them and they totally controlled it.

The way they attacked the game in the second half proves to me that this is a team with a future. If they can get everyone back onside again, if they can regroup over the winter, there’s a team there with an excellent goalkeeper, a strong defence and good enough forwards to be a team that belongs on that stage.

Mayo were struggling, absolutely. They hadn’t scored in 17 minutes before Colm Boyle’s long shot and were looking a bit rattled. Cillian O’Connor took a quick free inside looking for a goal at one stage when the more level-headed play would have been to kick the point and get the scoreboard going again.

But Conor O’Shea’s goal finished the game. People will focus on the scuffed shot from Evan Regan and say it was lucky – and it was. But to me, the mistake in that goal was the kick-out that was aimed at Barry Moran. It was the one blot on the game from Comerford because Moran had caught an identical kick-out shortly beforehand in the exact same area of the pitch. Moran is a huge man and he will dominate in the air if you give him a chance to.

That kick-out needed to be away from him. You can’t legislate for an unlucky break but you can play the percentages. You have to say this about Mayo, however. They don’t do panic. Tipperary dominated 20 minutes of the first half and 15 of the second. That amounts to a full half of football in which Mayo were outplayed and yet they kept their heads and they kept believing and kept playing. That is what makes them so formidable.

But let’s be honest, the barometer is Dublin and Kerry. Would they survive in an All-Ireland final where they go missing for a full 35 minutes? I would suggest that would be a very tall order. They are going to have to put at least 60 minutes together to win an All-Ireland final against either of those teams.

It’s one thing flipping the switch against Tipperary, a team that is used to playing in Division Three and still isn’t just at the right level of decision-making and slickness to punish them heavily. You can say the same for the gaps in performance against Fermanagh and against Tyrone. But if you go missing for long stretches against Kerry or Dublin, the game could be out of sight. It won’t matter what switch you flip.

It’s funny, they’re going into the All-Ireland final with their least impressive campaign of the last five years behind them. Maybe it’s written in the stars altogther – they’ll probably go and win the All-Ireland on the back of it!

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