Teams rarely feel when the arc of their progression is on the downwards curve until it is already happening. Mayo may not have reached that stage but Saturday's brave coup by Galway has brought this team to the critical few weeks of its life span.
There were five debut players on the Galway team and they were coming into Castlebar with a callow fullback line and a debut goalkeeper. Not many people gave them much hope.
But as soon as the ball was thrown in, they won it, showed good intent and created a goal chance through Gary O’Donnell in the first minute. Now, they still looked tentative and dropped four or five balls into Rob Hennelly’s hands in the opening phase of the game. And the interesting aspect was that Mayo set up quite defensively and as a result Galway played possession football.
A few weeks ago, I referred to Derry keeping the ball for the sake of it against Tyrone. And Galway started out like that. But all of a sudden they began running hard lines and produced consistent off-the-shoulder support and they began punching holes in the Mayo defence.
There was a situation where Eamon Brannigan made a good thrust and then Damien Comer did the same and set up Gary Sice and Johnny Heaney. Now they were keeping the ball and recycling it smartly, waiting for strong runners from deep. I thought Thomas Flynn was exceptional from beginning to end in terms of the directness of his approach.
It all meant that Galway had settled within 15 minutes, whereas Mayo looked very flat. It was as if people were waiting for their team-mates to do something to kick-start the collective effort. And a few times Galway went down the barrel of the gun, running through the centre of Mayo’s defence. It was alarming to look at from a Mayo perspective.
Running to the wing
One of the elements I struggled to understand was Mayo’s reaction to Galway’s kick-out. Their strategy was strikingly traditional: they had their two big men in the middle, Paul Conroy and Flynn, running to the wing and Bernard Power pinging the ball out to them. It was a really simplistic, bold statement: these are our big men and we are going to out-fetch you.
There were no short kicks-outs or little chips to the half backs. They just put their faith in their midfielders.
I felt it should have been a relatively easy task for the Mayo management to identify and rectify that. All they had to do was break that ball and make sure the two Galway men didn’t get clean possession. It was too easy for Galway and after 25 minutes, we were looking at a very poor performance from Mayo. There was very little of the intensity or desire to win that we have come to expect from Mayo.
People are talking about this Mayo team as potential winners in September. Systematically, there was nobody in synchronicity here. Dublin, who are the template, are extremely well oiled and execute so slickly. Mayo just looked so far off that pace here.
And then one of Mayo’s old problems came to the surface: the absence of a marquee forward. I feel Cillian O’Connor is a marquee place-kicker but in terms of open play, I don’t feel they quite have a player comparable to Michael Murphy or Bernard Brogan or Colm Cooper. It was why I felt the switch of Aidan O’Shea into full forward last summer might have been the answer to their prayers. Used correctly, he could – and still can – ask serious questions.
That said, Mayo still kicked five points in succession in the 10 minutes prior to half-time and there was a moment where Mayo turned Galway over and for the first time the maroon players were jogging back rather than really committing to defence. There was no real sense that we were witnessing a memorable coup by the Galway men because their body language wasn’t good in that period. But for whatever reason, the fluency was absent from Mayo’s play and everything was sporadic.
Yet again, the Mayo half-back line showed the way to the overall attack. The team had scored 0-8 at half time from 20 efforts: top teams are operating at around 60 per cent, not 40 per cent. This lack of economy has become their Achilles’ heel.
And the longer the game went on, the more I felt that it was there for Galway. Once it was clear that Mayo were malfunctioning, then Galway had to throw off the shackles. Except, that is not an easy thing for a young team. It is almost like this fusion between the tactical set-up and the ability to just release and express yourself and be brave. It is the ability to fuse tactical demands and then throw caution to the wind within that framework that can bring a team to success. And Thomas Flynn led the way in this regard.
The funny thing was that Mayo’s tactical strategy on their kick-out was to chip the ball 10 metres over their 45 and 10 metres in from the sideline. Flynn identified what Mayo were going to do and he pre-empted it: he got in front of his man, won the ball, soloed down the flank and had the fearlessness and clarity of mind to think: I’m going to bury this.
After the goal, Paul Conroy kicked a brilliant point and the match turned with that flash 1-1. It sent a jolt through Castlebar because suddenly an alternate set of possibilities was there for both teams.
And for we neutrals, this was a great moment because it left Galway three points up with 15 minutes remaining. It was a perfect scenario in which to see if Mayo could respond to this moment of adversity in a match in which they weren’t firing and show the country what they are about. But they couldn’t respond.
And the interesting thing was that Galway didn’t quite take the game by the scruff of the neck either. Instead, they created energy from the scores they got rather than working like demons and then getting scores. The game itself was sporadic but you would see this surge of Galway energy after every score. I suppose the point I am making is that Galway weren’t fantastic in this game. But they did keep working and they had belief in themselves. The three full backs did really well and Gareth Bradshaw’s leadership was crucial.
Galway are now well placed: they have the tradition and the belief and a very good manager. I think Kevin Walsh intuited what Mayo would do defensively. They didn't panic in possession; they injected pace when they took on the Mayo defence. There was a synergy there even if it didn't always come off. You could still see the trends in terms of what they were trying to do.
Bernard Power’s kick-outs were terrific and he gave them a platform to attack. A novice full-back line got out in front of their men and triumphed against a very experienced Mayo forward line. So even if it wasn’t a perfect performance you could see enough of Kevin Walsh’s fingerprints on the consistency of the performance to make you feel they are well coached.
And that will increase between now and the Connacht final. And a good dry day could make for a terrific match because Roscommon and Galway are exciting teams and are very evenly matched.
But the big question arising from the game is: what the hell happened to Mayo? Where they complacent? Certainly the intensity and focus wasn’t there. Nor the ruthlessness . They still haven’t sorted the number three position and their forward line will come under further scrutiny now.
They are ranked as the number two team in the country but I didn’t see that on Saturday night. The management team obviously don’t have intercounty experience and this will come into sharper focus now. The county hasn’t won the All-Ireland title in 65 years so these provincial championships, whatever anyone says, are a source of comfort to the supporters. You only realise how much you appreciate something when it is gone.
That dose of hard reality might be beneficial to this group as summer progresses. They aren’t Connacht champions for the first time in six summers and they are still searching for that All-Ireland.
I feel that there are critical gaps in how Mayo play the game. To win an All-Ireland you need to be operating at a very high level across a number of sectors: intensity, discipline, leadership, focus, the execution of gameplans (plural), accuracy on frees. You need to have these boxes ticked simultaneously.
And I think Mayo’s problem is that they tick a lot of these boxes all of the time but not all of them at the same time – or at the right time of the season. This is still a very talented group of players. The question is: how do they react to this? Can they prove everyone else wrong?
I was surprised by how acquiescent Mayo were – in their home stadium, too. I felt there was a softness there which wasn’t evident before. It looked to me like they felt they were going to win the game anyway and then they conceded 1-1 and when it was game-on, they weren’t equipped to respond.
Aidan O’Shea, their totemic figure, played between 14 and the middle of the park on Saturday night. It didn’t work well because they didn’t get enough possession around the middle and the quality of the ball going inside was at times substandard. I would play Aidan full forward in open play and at midfield for the opposition kick outs. I would have another big man alongside him at full forward so that if the best opposition full back is marking O’Shea, then who is going to mark Tom Parsons or Seamus O’Shea or Barry Moran? Mayo need to use their height advantage.
Then I'd have a real sniper – Cillian O'Connor or Conor Loftus hovering around their feet looking to pick off easy scores – the kind of points that Conor Mortimer used to habitually score without anyone really noticing. It's funny, Conor was a polarising figure in Mayo football but he had that natural scorer's knack for picking off simple scores. And he was busy.
On Saturday evening, a lot of Mayo scores seem to be kicked from difficult angles and from far out. And you wonder if that is a consequence of how they are being coached? Is that what they are being asked to do going out onto the pitch? Should they be slicker and more selective or make one more pass to enable easier scoring chances? These are the little gaps in certainty that add up in the end; the things that Dublin, for instance, had ironed out by the first night of the championship.
I am confident Kerry will get up to that level of detail. The question for them is whether their age profile can keep pace with Dublin. Going into Saturday night you would have said Mayo were best placed in terms of physical attributes and depth to match Dublin.
So this is potentially a defining moment in this chapter of the Mayo story and its attendant heartbreak. They have to prove everyone wrong now and push on with their credentials. Or else this becomes the moment where the concerted effort over the last few years, which has brought them so close to winning an All-Ireland on a number of occasions, starts to fade. The key thing is: how do they react to this?
It is a tantalising question. And it won’t become immediately evident. The big quest is still there for Mayo but they are on a different road now. So how will they respond to what has been a serious jolt to their collective conviction and ambition?
The thing is, they could potentially get to the All-Ireland quarter finals before they themselves truly discover the answer to this.