Quite possibly the most intriguing tactical ploy used by Mayo in their All-Ireland quarter-final hammering of defending champions Donegal was the deployment of Keith Higgins – normally a defender – on the half-forward line.
At least it seemed, at face value, like a tactic designed to counteract Donegal’s defensive setup and gave the Ulster county something different to think about.
But we might all have been guilty of reading too much into it, according to the man himself. “There was nothing too major in it – James (Horan, Mayo manager) just said go out and play wing-forward. Against Donegal positions mean little anyway sometimes. There was no major strategy other than to go out and play it as you see it, I suppose. It didn’t go too bad.”
It didn't. But it wasn't long before Higgins had to take up a defensive role again, although not through any fault of his own. "I didn't see Tom (Cunniffe, corner-back) getting injured and James Nallen came on and said 'Go back to corner back', and I was thinking 'Jeez, what did I do wrong now?'
“I was enjoying it – you had to be with the way the game was going. Some days it could go well and other days it could backfire.”
So said Higgins at a Mayo press briefing ahead of Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone, where he revealed that the decision to push him up the field for the quarter-final came as a bit of a shock.
"He (Horan) said it had been something he had been thinking about, but it was going to be a big challenge or going to be a different challenge for me that would take a bit of getting used to. I don't think it went too bad."
A laidback character, Higgins seems like the sort of player who could do a job in any position (and, don't forget, he's one of the top hurlers in the county as well). If he's feeling any of the pressure that might go with Mayo being favourites going into the semi-final, he hides it well.
“To be honest, it’s not something we’ve taken too much notice of. A lot of lads are smart enough and mature enough to know that what the bookies say doesn’t make an awful lot of difference when you get out on to the pitch. We just focus on ourselves. That’s all we’re going to do – that’s all you can do.
"It's going to be a tough battle. A lot of their games have been televised this year so we've seen a good bit of them. They're a good team – there's no doubt about that. A lot of their players have two or three All-Irelands in their back pockets.
"You can't buy that sort of experience. One of two young lads have come in this year too and they're going very well, while Stephen O'Neill is a forward who can be one of the best footballers in the country if he gets the chance. It's going to be a tough game, but we won't focus on them too much. We'll focus on ourselves and try to get another performance. That's basically it."
One of the messages to come across loud and clear from the Mayo camp this year is that the focus is largely their own performance.
The repetition of the message is replicated by repetition on the training pitch, it would seem, as the Mayo players work hard on the key skills of the game in a return to basics approach.
Is repetition the key to success? “Maybe,” says Higgins. “Sometimes you hear about training sessions (in other counties) that are awfully complicated but at the end of the day you have to go back to basics, go back to what you do in a football game – that’s hand passing or kick passing – and keep working on the same skills so that when you have to do it in a game it’ll come off. It’s repetition more than anything, yeah.”
“It’s been well documented that Donie (Buckley, coach) has been working on our tackling. Again it’s nothing too major or radical – it’s just about getting back to basics and getting the simple things right. If you get that right then you get tackles and then turnovers, and you’re doing yourself a lot of favours when it comes to game day.”
Higgins summed up the Donegal win: “The overall performance was probably the most satisfying part of it, to be honest. The margin of victory was an extra bonus really. We were looking to get the performance and at the end of the day we got that.”