Subscriber OnlyGaelic Games

Dean Rock: To get their hands on Sam Maguire, Mayo need to find more scoring forwards

Mayo’s inability to have several top forwards playing together has been their Achilles heel for years, and Kevin McStay needs to solve that

Jogging down to take my position for games against Mayo, it was usually Keith Higgins or Chris Barrett trotting over to make sure I wasn’t short of company for the afternoon.

It was the same for all the Dublin lads around me, none of us were left on our own for very long. We knew Mayo believed they had the defenders to matchup with our forwards, they backed themselves in tight man-to-man situations and were quite comfortable for it to become a straight duel.

The question which hung over Mayo at that time was whether they had the necessary talent at the other end to score heavily enough to win big games. And it remains the Mayo question.

One of the first games I attended after retiring from intercounty football was Dublin’s league fixture against Mayo in Castlebar. The atmosphere was always great when we played Mayo, so I wanted to experience it as a spectator.


Mayo won the match, but what struck me most was how very little has changed with them – they still have a back six that could match any other defensive unit in the country.

Indeed, I’d argue that from number one to nine Mayo are strong, but there remains a feeling there’s still something missing up front.

Ryan O’Donoghue is Mayo’s go-to man in attack, he is an excellent player, but all too often it appears he is their only forward capable of posting a large return – and that lack of a broader scoring threat makes it so much easier for the opposition to devise a defensive approach.

O’Donoghue registered 0-7 against Dublin that night, two months ago, but there wasn’t another starting player throughout the entire Mayo team that managed to score more than a single point.

O’Donoghue’s efforts were enough to see Mayo win that game, but he needs a better supporting cast if they aspire to win the All-Ireland.

During that era when Dublin and Mayo seemed to be meeting in All-Ireland finals or semi-finals every other year, one area we felt there was an advantage for us was in our defensive matchups with Mayo’s forwards.

We believed there were probably one or two Mayo guys you could slightly drift off, which enabled us to get a double-up on one of their key forwards, whether that be Cillian O’Connor or Andy Moran.

There weren’t as many score-getters in Mayo’s half-forward line compared to ours, which meant our half-back players could potentially move off their men in certain moments to get double-ups and cut space for the scoring forwards.

Mayo’s inability to have several top forwards playing at the same time has been their Achilles heel for many years now, and Kevin McStay has to find a way to solve that issue.

I think they are the best of the rest – after Dublin, Kerry and Derry, Mayo are leading the chasing pack. It’s just that one extra score-getting forward they are lacking.

Jack Carney is an excellent player and Jordan Flynn has tonnes of ability, but for me the key to Mayo getting their attack humming is what they can get out of Tommy Conroy this summer.

Conroy has been named to start against Roscommon but I actually would have held him because I feel right now his best role for the team – and himself – is to come in off the bench.

The worry from a Mayo perspective is that Conroy, who suffered a cruciate injury in 2022, just hasn’t been able to rediscover his form. He featured in all seven of Mayo’s league games this season, starting five and coming off the bench in the other two, but his return for the campaign was a solitary point against Derry.

Obviously, after a bit of a disappointing league, he would have been hoping for a confidence boosting start to the championship against New York to kick-start his season, but Conroy didn’t get on the scoreboard in the Bronx, a game in which Mayo scored 2-21.

Mayo really need to get him shouldering the scoring burden alongside O’Donoghue, and this weekend is his latest chance, but I feel it might be easier achieved by Conroy coming in off the bench as games start to open up.

Cillian O’Connor’s absence from the 26 certainly limits McStay’s options, but with everybody to choose from I’d start O’Connor because I’m not sure he’s a guy who can come on and change a game, but rather he can contribute a lot more to the team in bringing control early on.

O’Connor still has a huge amount to offer Mayo, on and off the pitch. He can help the younger guys like Bob Tuohy while at the same time using his experience in those tactical opening stages of games to give calmness to Mayo’s play.

Everything is at the forefront of the brain for players at the start of matches but the tactical side of things can wane a little bit as bodies and minds tire, that’s when a player like Conroy could excel.

An impact role would also provide him with a better opportunity to rediscover his form. He came off the bench at half-time in the All-Ireland championship clash against Cork last June and scored 1-1. Every team needs an injection of energy during games, particularly when players are fatiguing.

Conroy’s overall impact could be greater coming in for the last 25 minutes than if he had started and played the first 45 or 50 - though with O’Connor not involved this weekend it possibly tied McStay’s hands as regards his starting attackers.

The beauty of being a forward is, even if you are finding it difficult to find form, all it takes is one ball inside, one score, and everything can change. One confidence-building performance is all it takes to turn your season around.

Mayo might actually have timed their run better this year than in McStay’s maiden season in charge. They went all out for the league in 2023 and it felt in the second half against us in the All-Ireland quarter-final last year that they were just devoid of any real ideas, they lacked that bit of energy. We played really well in that second half, but it seemed Mayo were dead on their feet by that stage of the season.

McStay will have learned a lot from his 2023 experience, so I would be expecting a victory for Mayo in the Hyde on Sunday.

But when you look at the overall picture, it is impossible not to wonder, are they closer or further away from the All-Ireland? For much of my Dublin career, the consensus would have been the three main contenders were Dublin, Kerry and Mayo.

Right now, the pecking order seems to be Dublin, Kerry, Derry. So, have they gone further down the ladder? They probably have.

But Mayo showed enough flashes during the league to indicate they will, as ever, be competitive with all comers this summer. They are live All-Ireland contenders.

They have the defenders, but do they have the forwards? It’s not a new question, but Mayo will need to come up with a new answer if they are to get their hands on Sam Maguire.