Maligned Mayo should ignore the din and trust their instincts

Rochford’s ploy of putting O’Shea on Donaghy could be deemed a partial success

Stephen Rochford: the Mayo manager has been subjected to a barrage of criticism for putting O’Shea on Donaghy. But Kerry’s full-forward line were restricted to just  0-5 from play. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Stephen Rochford: the Mayo manager has been subjected to a barrage of criticism for putting O’Shea on Donaghy. But Kerry’s full-forward line were restricted to just 0-5 from play. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

It has been a ghoulish week for coverage of Gaelic football. For the second successive championship summer, Mayo’s manager Stephen Rochford has been widely pilloried and mocked for daring to make a tactical switch.

The latest reaction betrayed the prevailing scepticism and fear of trying anything original or different in Gaelic games.

And the tone of the commentary revealed a deep-down suspicion that there is a genetic impulse for self-destruction within the borders of the county; a disdainful sense that only they would try something this breathtakingly leftfield and flash. The howls of derision were shrill and instantaneous and underlined by a mean delight. Look! They did it again!

On Monday morning, a headline in the Irish Independent caught the spirit of the age in its scathing verdict on the management: “Tactically, Mayo are lions led by donkeys”.

It was one of those staggeringly insulting headlines you couldn’t quite believe even though it was there in front of you in black and white.

In a way, it was the inevitable conclusion to the free-for-all of mirth and derision aimed at Mayo’s sideline – and specifically at Rochford – which began almost as soon as Aidan O’Shea, Mayo’s notional full-forward, trotted to the full-back position to mark Kieran Donaghy, Kerry’s totemic full-forward.

Aidan O’Shea with Kieran Donaghy. The one high ball directed towards Donaghy in the absence of Aidan O’Shea resulted in Mayo’s worst fears: a goal. Photograph: Don MacMonagle
Aidan O’Shea with Kieran Donaghy. The one high ball directed towards Donaghy in the absence of Aidan O’Shea resulted in Mayo’s worst fears: a goal. Photograph: Don MacMonagle

The headline simply clarified a truism of recent years that when it comes to this Mayo team, it is open season all the time. People feel at liberty to say or write whatever they please.

Try to imagine that headline written about any Dublin football management – and the subsequent uproar. Or try to imagine Independent House applying the same headline to the Kerry football management. It simply wouldn’t happen.

With Mayo, to whom respect has always been rationed in Dickensian portions, it is different.

Prior to Sunday’s gripping semi-final, former Mayo midfielder and pundit David Brady speculated that Mayo might just try O’Shea on Donaghy. They needed to try and cancel the ominous aerial threat with which the ageless Tralee man has haunted a generation of Mayo full-back lines. The notion was ridiculed and dismissed but, minutes into the match, it was clear that he was the only analyst in the country to correctly call the match-up.

Tomás O’Se was one of the few who publicly acknowledged that while he had rubbished the idea, Brady had, in fact, called it right. Maybe Brady had a direct line to the thought process of the Mayo management but it’s unlikely. However, he knew that the national pressure on Mayo to “do something” about the full-back position had become extreme.

The scrutiny of Ger Cafferkey, back to full-fitness this summer after a 14-month absence was unrelenting, with Joe Brolly especially adamant that Mayo couldn’t persist with the same back line.

Singular boldness

It’s true that Brolly has been the Mayor Quimby of recent Mayo coverage, flip-flopping with outrageous impunity all summer.

After the Galway defeat, he declared Rochford “lost” and “indecisive”. Still, he backed them to beat Kerry in the lead-up to the All-Ireland semi-final and, struck by the singular boldness and originality of the Brady prophesy, reckoned in his Sunday Independent column that there were “sound reasons” for trying O’Shea at full-back.

Minutes into the game, it very quickly became clear that the vast majority of those in the Croke Park press box believed the switch instantly belonged to one of the Bad Ideas in which Mayo are alleged to specialise.

The move had an obvious comparison in Rochford’s eleventh-hour decision to replace goalkeeper David Clarke with Rob Hennelly for last September’s All-Ireland final replay.

Stephen O’Brien got past four Mayo defenders to score Kerry’s first goal. Aidan O’Shea was stranded in a one-v-two situation and was entirely blameless for the situation. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Stephen O’Brien got past four Mayo defenders to score Kerry’s first goal. Aidan O’Shea was stranded in a one-v-two situation and was entirely blameless for the situation. Photo: Don MacMonagle

That move dramatically backfired with Hennelly having a nightmare in broad daylight and ended with Clarke being restored to the goalmouth when Hennelly earned a black card after conceding a penalty. It didn’t work. Mayo lost by a point and the verdict was that Rochford and Mayo would be haunted by the decision for years. The argument was that he should have left well enough alone.

Rochford tried, in vain, to explain that he didn’t feel things were, in fact, well enough after the drawn game. Dublin were hammering Mayo’s kick-out. Hennelly was a proven goalkeeper who offered a different option. So they made the switch. If Hennelly had come in because Clarke had pulled a hamstring at training, nobody would have batted an eyelid. But because Rochford made the decision; because he acted with an independent mind and perspective, the switch was treated as a freak show.

The general consensus this week was that the Rochford’s use of O’Shea was also damaging and counterproductive.

“A bizarre decision,” said Colm Cooper on the Sunday Game. “A worse decision than changing goalkeepers last year,” tweeted Mike Quirke, the former Kerry midfielder. “Disastrous,” lamented broadcaster Matt Cooper. These are almost random examples.

Simply wrong

The broad agreement was that Donaghy was involved in 2-6 of Kerry’s total. That is debatable, to say the least. But the direct inference that O’Shea was therefore at fault for the same concession is simply wrong.

Look at both of Kerry’s goals. The first, in the 13th minute, began when Séamus O’Shea, fatally hesitating in possession at midfield, was instantly gobbled up by blue jerseys.

Stephen O’Brien got a hand in and the ball spilled to Anthony Maher, who looked up to see Donaghy ambling towards him, back to goal. Maher hand-passed to him and then moved to Donaghy’s right as a pass option. Keith Higgins instantly cut across to track him. O’Shea, standing ten yards off Donaghy held his ground, waiting for the Stacks man to advance.

The critical fault lay with four Mayo defenders who allowed O’Brien to sprint through them and create a two-on-one situation, which Donaghy read perfectly (It was bread and butter stuff to him). Any one of them could have tracked O’Brien and cancelled that option. O’Shea held his ground, blocked Donaghy’s path to goal and then tried to recover as O’Brien struck for goal. Nothing, however, about that sequence of play was his fault.

Kerry’s second goal also originated from a moment when Mayo had the ball, moving out of defence and in complete control. Higgins kicked a crossfield ball to O’Shea, who was waiting on the left wing. The pass was slightly overcooked and it skidded out of bounds.

Instantly, Kerry sought to play a high ball into Donaghy. Séamus O’Shea had stepped in to shadow Donaghy and he rushed in to contest the ball. He was “tight” to Donaghy; precisely how the entire country believed Aidan O’Shea should have marked him all afternoon. And he won the ball.

Mayo goalkeeper Robert Hennelly is black-carded by referee Maurice Deegan during last year’s All-Ireland final replay against Dublin. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Mayo goalkeeper Robert Hennelly is black-carded by referee Maurice Deegan during last year’s All-Ireland final replay against Dublin. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Watch the replay: Séamus O’Shea gets his fist to it. Donaghy doesn’t touch the ball at all. And look what happens. Kerry are suddenly in Fitzgerald-Stadium training rhythm now. David Moran has swooped in to clean up the mess, subtle as a waiter at the Ritz. A sublime solo; a decent shot; Johnny Buckley pounces on the rebound and scores a goal.

Imagine, for a second, if Aidan O’Shea had been marking Donaghy in the planned style, hanging back. Yes, Donaghy or Moran would have got the ball but O’Shea would have perfectly been positioned to challenge whatever was coming through the centre. The second goal was, if anything, the most explicit vindication of Rochford’s decision. The one high ball directed towards Donaghy in the absence of Aidan O’Shea resulted in Mayo’s worst fears: a goal.

Was Donaghy a big figure on Sunday? Absolutely. Did he turn O’Shea inside out for that nonchalant point? He did.

But he also finished with 0-1 to his name and a Kerry full-forward line capable of destroying defences combined for 0-5 from play. Donaghy’s wonderful overhead kick to Peter Crowley was another example of his influence in open play. But he had to go out around midfield to get the ball, miles from the Mayo small square. Mayo and Rochford clearly decided that that was the lesser of two evils.

Zero frees

O’Shea, as full back, gave away zero frees (on an afternoon when his specialist-defender colleagues were clumsy) and had no turnovers. He tried to help the defence whenever he could – witness the block-down on Shane Enright’s close-range shot which led to a point for Cillian O’Connor at the other end of the field. And neither Donaghy nor O’Shea were particularly influential for the last 20 minutes of the match.

Overall, the experiment could be classified as a partial success or partial failure. But it wasn’t the wilfully dumb decision for which Rochford was castigated. At half-time on Sunday, Pat Spillane pointed out that Mayo had gifted Kerry five handy frees. This was true. When Mayo review Sunday’s game, they will acknowledge that they gifted Kerry two goals from needless errors and six points from clumsy frees. Those were critical failures lost in the pandemonium over one positional switch.

On Sunday evening, The Sunday Game’s Ciarán Whelan declared that full-back was a “specialist position” but offered no alternative name to replace O’Shea. Beside him, Dessie Dolan suggested that maybe Séamus O’Shea should be thrown in there. The conflicting propositions caught the intensity of the debate. Meanwhile, the Kerry bus was already below in Tralee and its management were free to discuss the pluses and minuses of the day without any similar background din.

Why does any of this matter?

The best reason is to be found hidden in an absorbing interview Colm Parkinson did with Rochford after the match on Sunday. Parkinson has made a brilliant transition from Gen-X disenchanted ball player to energetic radio-man and he manages the rare trick of being irreverent while always respectful of players and managers.

You can hear this in his polite pushing on Rochford, who demonstrates extreme forbearance as Parkinson delivers a light lecture on the strengths of Lee Keegan. But it is when Parkinson jokingly suggests that Rochford is going to have to take a few days off work to think through tactics for the replay that the house of cards comes down.

“Well, I will probably be considering it if my boss listens to the GAA Hour,” Rochford laughs “You might put in a word.”

And you remember then: this guy has a job. This is a part time thing! He is the very thing that he was being indirectly lambasted for from the early stages of Sunday’s game: an amateur.

It is hard to pinpoint the year when Gaelic games managers developed a siege mentality against media coverage. But it’s a while ago. The real shame of the PR-ification of Gaelic games, combined with the paranoia of too many managers, lies in the swift elimination of the enduring importance of Gaelic games: the people who play it and the stories they tell; the chronicling of their life experiences. The trade-off has been closer and often damning analysis of the actual games.

Nationwide fascination

Uniformly, managers insist that they never read or listen or watch anything in the lead-up to big games. In Rochford’s case this week, you hope that is true.

Still, they can’t cocoon themselves from society. Ireland is small and it is talkative and the intense reaction to the O’Shea switch will be keenly felt by Mayo as a county. The sustained push for an All-Ireland by this remarkable team has led to a nationwide fascination in their pilgrim’s progress.

That fascination is molten this morning as the faithful gather around Croke Park and anyone with a passing interest in sport arranges their day around the three o’clock throw-in. And the big question hasn’t gone away.

Donaghy is six days older now and just as dangerous. The reaction to the O’Shea switch has left Rochford in an incredibly exposed position. If he doesn’t persist with O’Shea at full back, it will be interpreted as an admission that he made the wrong call last week.

The truth is that he may decide to move away from it because Kerry will have had six days to work on ways to exploit it. But if he opts to stick with the O’Shea-Donaghy move and Kerry win, it will be dressed up as another act of self-sabotage by Mayo.

The most overused line in the whole furore was that Mayo were “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.

Piercing.

It will take exceptional strength of mind for Rochford and his backroom to remember that they couldn’t give a rat’s ass for either Peter or Paul. It will take true character to close the door of the Mayo dressing room and shut out the din and continue to go their own way, regardless of what the outside world thinks. Fortunately for them, they are pretty good at that.

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