Mayo’s new double act shuffle deck and unveil hidden trumps

Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly have equipped county with a new level of tactical flexibility

 

There is an appropriate symmetry in Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly being the joint-architects of the innovative tactical plan which has been the most eye-catching element of Mayo’s championship summer.

If the relocation of Aidan O’Shea, who brings both wrecking-ball strength and subtle football craft to the full forward role has been the most talked about change of Mayo 2015, then the question mark over where, how – and if – Barry Moran will be used against Dublin will fill much of the conversation around the city pubs over the weekend.

But there have been significant differences all over the field. The storming half back line which evolved for Mayo under James Horan was the defining aspect of their style of play. Keith Higgins was a sometime-member of the trio but was rehoused wherever Mayo needed him most.

But the sight of Colm Boyle and Lee Keegan advancing at speed with the ball came to typify the positive, exciting nature of Mayo’s play. Mayo’s defence backed themselves and trusted one another to cope with one-on-one situations and if their commitment to attack left them exposed at the back sometimes, then so be it.

Keegan’s smoking contribution against Donegal in the quarter-final, when he pitched in with 1-2 and effectively killed off the contest with his chipped goal early in the second half, marked a clear continuation in that policy. But Boyle played a slightly more conservative game than in previous years: he still applied the punishing burst of speed and supported the attack but he did so sparingly. That wasn’t coincidental.

Although Mayo cruised through their Connacht final with ominous ease, there was something jarring about the 2-11 they conceded even as they went about building that eye-opening 6-25 total of their own. It offered substantive proof that Mayo were still too open in the last third of the field. It was something the squad was conscious of as they turned their mind to the All-Ireland series in Croke Park.

Handy scores

“I think we did, yeah,” Boyle said when asked if they addressed the Sligo performance. “I think we sat down as a group of defenders the week after that and we all spoke about it. We weren’t happy with how we coughed up some handy scores on the day.

“Sligo forwards played well considering the amount of ball that was actually being fed in but we weren’t happy. They were two sloppy goals and it followed on from the Galway game where we felt we gave away a couple of sloppy goals as well. It’s something we talked about alright. I’ve been trying to hold a bit more. That doesn’t say I’m not allowed to go [forward] if it opens up. It goes for everyone on the pitch. The lads are always encouraging us to attack and someone else will cover.”

Using Moran as a defensive sweeper specifically to try to blunt the potential havoc Michael Murphy could cause was a bold statement by the Mayo management. Moran is 6ft 4ins tall and for a decade has played the role of traditional, ball-winning midfielder. As he cheerfully admitted during the week, he essentially had to learn the position during training.

For the Mayo managers, it was a step into the unknown. They couldn’t know how well their strategy was going to work until the match actually started – and Donegal’s encouraging opening spell must have given them some nervous moments.

“There is always risk involved in doing things like that,” Noel Connelly acknowledged at Mayo’s press evening, which took place on a dismal night in Breaffy last week. “The physique of Barry was probably one of the major factors in deploying him in that situation.

“Over the years we have seen Donegal play a lot of high ball into Michael Murphy and he’s extremely good under a high ball. Defensively, one on one, we wouldn’t be deploying him in that position but where there was aerial ball we thought he would be the ideal guy in that situation.

“Barry is a very intelligent footballer, very good presence on the field and knows how to play the spaces as the ball is coming up the field. In terms of that you couldn’t have a better guy to play it, he’s a smart footballer.”

Masterstroke

In retrospect, the match went so swimmingly for Mayo that the Moran decision was lauded as a masterstroke by Holmes and Connelly. As has been their style all year, they have downplayed their significance in what is happening. They know from long experience how swiftly public mood can turn.

Both men were playing in the Mayo defence in the 1997 All-Ireland final when an early injury to Dermot Flanagan required on-the-hoof surgery by John Maughan. Holmes drew the shortest of straws that day; regarded as a versatile and crafty man-marker, Holmes also had the height to counter Maurice Fitzgerald and so he had thankless task of shadowing the Cahirciveen man on an afternoon when he gave perhaps the greatest of individual September displays.

That defeat in a consecutive All-Ireland final – Mayo unquestionably should have won against Meath in 1996 and, Fitzgerald’s supernova turn notwithstanding, could have won in 1997 – heightened the fatalistic streak that runs through Mayo’s long wait for an All-Ireland title.

In the immediate aftermath, Maughan drew criticism for choices he made that afternoon. Without the dramatic switch in mood and urgency that Maughan had introduced as manager, there would have been no 1996 or ’97 finals for Mayo. “And of course I have heard that we have lost games because Maughan didn’t change X, Y or Z,” he said in an interview with The Irish Times in the spring of 2004 – just a few months, in fact, before he managed Mayo to their first final since ’97.

“But hey, you dance with the girls in the dance hall.”

That observation held through when Connelly and Holmes took control of the Mayo squad this autumn. They weren’t out to erase all trace of James Horan’s thinking and influence from the blackboard: it would have been foolhardy – and impossible.

Younger blokes

“We weren’t going out to reinvent the wheel,” Connelly said. “We just thought if we could add a few younger blokes to the squad that, if they were called upon, could do a job for us. The likes of Patrick Durcan, who has come into defence this year. Tom P [Parsons] is doing well and Mark Ronaldson, although he didn’t come on the last day, did really well in the Connacht championship.

“So we knew the body of players that were there and we thought if we could add a few to help the squad, it would be great. That’s what we have done and we’re happy with that.”

Nonetheless, the Moran-as-sweeper move was unanticipated and, by Gaelic games standards, radical. And it wasn’t as if Moran was working his role in isolation. Boyle’s stay-at-home policy was partly dictated by the ebb and flow of Moran’s line, dropping back when Donegal were in possession and moving ahead to make himself available for kick-outs alongside Séamus O’Shea and Parsons.

“We were working on that for a couple of weeks,” Boyle said. “It worked out okay on the day. It can be difficult because you can find yourself ball-watching maybe and not looking at what’s happening around the place. The main thing is to keep the concentration when you’re doing it. It might look easy but sometimes you can lose yourself and be out of position.

“A lot of how well it worked was due to the pressure the boys were putting on out the field. The amount of times Tom Parsons and Séamie O’Shea, Jason Doherty, Diarmuid O’Connor turned ball over and slowed the ball in the Donegal attack coming out it made it easier to cut down the space at the back because the ball had slowed up further up the pitch.”

It is highly unlikely Moran will be used in a similar role but naming him in a position that would make him one of the tallest corner forwards in championship history will keep Jim Gavin guessing.

Whether Mayo even run with their selected team is up for debate: Moran was a late inclusion for the quarter-final, with Andy Moran losing out, and it could be that Holmes and Connelly plan to spring a similar surprise for Dublin.

If Barry Moran does indeed start, the most conservative outcome would see him placed around the midfield area, helping the overall Mayo pressure on Stephen Cluxton and Dublin’s peerless menu of on-the-money kick-outs.

Still, Mayo have an embarrassment of riches in that sector as it is. In addition to reigniting Parsons’ intercounty career, the management had a look at Donal Vaughan – named at full back now but cut from the mould of hard-tackling, attack-minded half backs – in the midfield position over the season. But it is possible Holmes and Connelly have another curve ball in mind for Dublin.

Proposition

They might elect to drop Moran into the full forward role every so often to enable Aidan O’Shea to drop out the field. They might position both Moran and O’Shea among the Dublin full back line just to see how the full back line responds to that proposition.

Over a relatively quick period, Mayo have evolved into a more complex puzzle for opposition teams. Donegal did not see the Moran gamble coming down the tracks: all of their focus went into coping with Aidan O’Shea.

The reinvention of O’Shea has rightly been lauded but is sometimes forgotten that the Breaffy man was also used in that position when John O’Mahony was last in charge of Mayo. O’Shea was not long out of a supersonic minor career then in which he played not so much centre forward as centrifugal force.

He looked disheartened at times by the positional leash of the number 14 role but he was a young, inexperienced player then – and was in nothing like the physical condition into which he has developed.

O’Shea has spoken of his preference for an outfield role but the returns at 14 have been so rich this summer that he may be changing his mind. Certainly, his role among the forwards has silenced the old gripe about Mayo’s over-reliance on Cillian O’Connor for scores.

“It is something that has been labelled at us and I think it is unfair,” Boyle said. “If you look at the scores in the Donegal game, Jason Doherty hit three, Kevin McLoughlin had two, Diarmuid is always chipping in with a couple of scores, so I think that it is a label that is unfair to the other players.

“I think Aidan is getting to like it. I think we have players who can play in certain positions. In the past we tended to line out as we were from game to game. We have maybe moved on from that and try to mix it up a bit now.”

So far, the card-shuffle has worked perfectly and all eyes will be looking out for their latest trick.

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