Jim McGuinness: Lack of cutting edge cost Mayo another tight game
Unlike some rivals, they lack a clinical game plan in attack when the game is on the line
Jonny Wilkinson kicks the winning drop goal to give England victory in extra-time in the Rugby World Cup Final against Australia in Sydney in 2003. Photograph: Dave Rogers/Getty Images
Even as Galway were celebrating what felt like a significant win in Salthill on Sunday, I found myself thinking about the closing minutes of the 2003 Rugby World Cup final between England and Australia.
Everybody remembers the coolness of Jonny Wilkinson’s drop-goal to win the final and place himself at the heart of one of England’s most celebrated sporting passages. But it was the minutes preceding it that made a lasting impression on me. It was 17-17 in extra time and excruciating pressure; England had never won a World Cup before and every pass and decision seemed huge.
But they were methodical and composed as they worked the ball steadily up the pitch, the seconds ticking until they got to where they wanted to be. Every one of those players knew what they wanted to do and to whom they wanted to get the ball for that once-in-a-generation shot.
Moreover, the audience watching around the world knew it as well. And England’s execution in those high-stakes seconds was flawless.
In Salthill, Mayo opened and closed the first half with two excellent scores in which their composure, decision making and execution was of the highest order. It was Mayo at their best. But deep into injury time, when they needed a point to rescue the day and two scores to win it, those same qualities were glaringly absent.
Twice, they launched critical attacks and both resulted in highly difficult, low percentage point attempts from Evan Regan. I would have absolutely no issue with Evan backing himself to take those scores on; it took courage, particularly when he had missed the first. But I would question where he ended up shooting from.
Those kicks weren’t in the scoring zone. And from Evan’s perspective, you had to wonder, what other option did he have? Who was showing for the ball? What was Mayo’s ideal outcome in those attacks? In whose hands did they want the ball? Who was their Jonny Wilkinson?
All of these questions can be reduced to one basic question. What is a functioning forward line? For me, it comes down to this psychological concept called Shared Mental Models. It basically comes down to all players on the field being clear about what the collective objective is. That’s why England 2003 popped into my mind on Sunday. They had that clarity of purpose and thought in abundance when they needed it most.
You can see its evidence in contemporary Gaelic football now, too, in the patterns that teams run. You can see it in Tyrone (in particular) and Dublin and Kerry week in and week out. When I was with Donegal, I was forever preaching to the boys that good teams will always give you a chance to beat them.
If you can identify their patterns of play then you can come up with a way of exploiting them. So there is an Achilles heel involved. But I strongly believe it is better to have a team with a deeply ingrained methodology of attacking for precisely the sort of situation that Mayo found themselves deep into the game on Sunday.
I am not saying Mayo have no game plan. It’s clear that they do; for me, it’s comparable to the kind of game Kerry developed under Jack O’Connor and Eamonn Fitzmaurice. For the past decade, Kerry like to move the ball quickly and smartly to the halfway line and will hand-pass it rather than kick it to that point.
It sort of went under the radar but, during my time with Donegal, Kerry were often second only to ourselves in terms of most hand-passes completed. They retained their image as a kick passing team because ultimately, they did want to kick the ball. But they waited until they reached the opposition 45 and then the pass they sought to make was usually a dink ball into Kieran Donaghy or Colm Cooper and then they had two and three runners coming through looking to take that ball.
I often see that template in Mayo’s play – but only up to a point. The striking thing about Mayo’s scores over the past five years is that there is no discernible pattern or source.
So after 50 minutes and a man down, Mayo were living off scraps but playing well. There was a screen shot of Stephen Rochford and I just felt he looked under pressure at that moment. By the 60th minute, they were four points down. And I was wondering what have they got now?
And part of me felt they would respond because for any limitations they may have, they have boundless courage. They always respond. They found a way to rescue the game. And coming down the stretch, there was just a point in it. And then I was wondering, who do they want to get the ball to now? Who is that player?
If there isn’t a go-to player, then your collective system needs to be operating at a very high level. For instance, Tyrone do not have Stephen O’Neill or Peter Canavan anymore. So their collective system is well-oiled and calibrated to provide whoever ends up with the ball with a reasonable scoring opportunity.
Look at what happened in Breffni Park earlier on Sunday. Monaghan needed a score late in the game and they worked the ball to Conor McManus, an out and out predator. Monaghan were operating along a principle of shared mental models. There’s the ball. So I need to go here. Y will be there. We want to put Z in this part of the pitch with the ball.
That collective thinking wasn’t apparent in Mayo’s play in that crucial last three minutes. And so the responsibility fell to a young player, Evan Regan, and he tried to do the right thing. There is no shame in that.
Up in Breffni, that same burden was placed on Conor McManus – one of the most experienced and cold-hearted marksmen in the game. And he delivered. Mayo may not have a forward of McManus’s calibre; few counties do. But they have an accomplished big-moment score getter in Cillian O’Connor and could surely have tried to work the ball to him. The on-field confusion cost Mayo and yet again, they finished on the wrong side of a one point game.
Overall, this was an absorbing game and one the championship needed.
Where does this leave both counties? It was a really satisfying day for Galway as a football county: a second consecutive championship win over Mayo. After winning promotion to Division One, this will really enhance their confidence and the sense that they are going somewhere.
There is an appealing mix to their forward line. Damien Comer is an old-fashioned battering ram full-forward, they have a marksman returned in Sean Armstrong and Kevin Walsh has lots of options on the bench. Shane Walsh reminded me in style and memory of Michael Donnellan, coming deep to collect the ball and then just accelerating through the crowd. You could hear the anticipation and sense his ability to electrify the crowd when he took possession.
I felt their kickout options were strange. Surely Galway are better placed than most teams with their height to take advantage of the mark? Mayo’s midfield pair of Séamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons are mobile and strong but not particularly tall. I thought Galway could have exploited this more.
They were rocked a little by Mayo’s first goal. Watching it, the first thing that came to mind was Colm McFadden’s goal in the All-Ireland final of 2012 when he was first to a ball that came back off the post. A lot of the older lads in the squad – Colm, Rory Kavanagh, Karl Lacey, Big Neil and myself all played under Brian McEniff.
And at every single team meeting, Brian would always say: ‘One final point lads. Watch the ball off the post’. It became a bit of in-house fun. Johnny McCafferty was in the squad in Brian’s last years and Brian would just say: ‘Johnny, one final point?’ And Johnny would reply: ‘Watch the ball off the post, boys.’ But in a weird way, it stuck in our minds. And when Colm scored that goal, I could hear Brian McEniff’s voice.
Mayo were sharpest to the ball on Sunday and as the half progressed, I wondered if Galway could survive without a five- or six-point lead at the break. There were question marks over the Galway defence too. They were well set up but don’t seem to handle pressurised situations too well. They tend to go over the line and give fouls away.
Gareth Bradshaw picked up a silly yellow card. There is a very fine line between intensity and discipline and at times, it seemed as if Galway’s keenness might hurt them.
Ironically, it was Mayo that caved in to that temptation. Keith Higgins’ red card was the most explicit example of how indiscipline hurts a team. It was the moment that entirely changed the narrative of the game. It cancelled out the notion that Galway would need a five- or six-point lead playing into the wind in the second half. And it has kind of derailed Mayo’s summer for now.
Inter-county championship football is about the ability to control yourself as an individual and to then collectively exert control on the game. That is what it is about. It is fine and well being revved up for battle. But if you can’t control yourself, you are no good to your team. Just because it is Galway in Salthill and a century of tradition and emotions are high, those factors aren’t an excuse for getting involved the way Keith did.
Would Galway have won had Mayo had 15 players in the second half? I am not entirely sure they would. I think they are very promising team and their attack makes them a proposition. But their propensity to give away goals is a big stumbling block to their potential to travel deep into the championship.
So I feel there is more work to be done and even now, on Tuesday morning , I believe Mayo are a better bet to appear in the last four of the All-Ireland championship than Galway.
But will they? There is a chance that this defeat could help Mayo. Their story hasn’t changed. They need to figure out a way to develop a more cutting edge attack. They are a charismatic team but there is no safety net anymore and time is not on their side.
If they meet a team like Tyrone or Donegal in the qualifiers, that may be all she wrote. My sense is that if Mayo progress in the qualifiers, they will do so in a way that isn’t particularly eye-catching. But if they can get back to the quarter finals, then you will see their true colours.
For me, it is vital they don’t leave themselves in a situation where they are making it up as they go along late in the game. If they take that lesson from Sunday’s defeat, maybe this might help them in the long term. But just to reach that stage of the championship, they must take a route of high risk.