Jim McGuinness: Touch of anarchy could be Mayo’s secret weapon
Connacht men will need to bring something different if they are to dethrone Dublin
The Donegal players were inspired as they listened on the radio to Michael Carruth win an Olympic gold medal in Barcelona 1992. At the end of that week, the county won the All-Ireland final.Photograph: James Meehan/Inpho
Dublin are on the threshold of confirming their status as one of the great teams. But Mayo are seeking a first All-Ireland in 65 years despite having one of the strongest and most consistent sides in the country over the past five years. Who have starred in more thrillers than Mayo? Beaten in the 2012 final by Donegal. Lost by a point to Dublin in the 2013 final. They came back and lost the 2014 semi-final to Kerry after two incredible games of football. Then they lose the 2015 semi-final to Dublin, again after a replay. Without question, they are a seriously talented football team. And they ‘deserve’ an All-Ireland for moral courage.
But it doesn’t work like that. The cold fact is that Mayo have been there on a number of occasions. And they haven’t found a way to win it. And here they are back again, playing a deeply formidable team. So it seems to me that they have to bring something new to the table. But all weekend, through the back of my mind I was wondering: what? What is left to try? To be honest, I didn’t have the answer. Then I realised what I was thinking about wasn’t so much a system or a new tactic. It was a state of mind. I believe if Mayo are to win on Sunday, they have to introduce an element of anarchy to the day.
Are Mayo a different team now than they were in the 2012 final? And if so, how? What are the significant strides they have made? If they are simply as good as they were then, you have to conclude that that won’t be enough. Clearly, Kerry did so many things right in their semi-final and they ended up nearly upsetting Dublin in a pulsating game. But they still came up short. And the match ended with a resounding show of force and composure and skill by the All-Ireland champions. Now, you can make a convincing argument that Mayo have more legs than Kerry at this juncture. If you allow that, then surely you have to allow that Kerry showed exceptional nous in how they went about creating and completing scores. They manufactured scores that Mayo may not be able to replicate. So again: how do Mayo get over the line?
For me, they aren’t radically different to the 2012 or 2013 Mayo model. Kevin McLoughlin is a sweeper designate for Mayo and that is a new departure since 2013. But Dublin are doing that themselves now so Mayo aren’t going to catch them cold that way. And Dublin are a more sophisticated side now.
What Dublin do in a masterfully unspoken way is that they put it up to teams by giving them opportunities. Look at Dublin’s scoring average. No matter how you play them, you are going to have to get your own scores. The question they ask of all teams is: what can you bring that will enable you to outscore us? They put the ball in your court. These are the questions – and that’s without even talking about what Stephen Cluxton.
We have spoken enough about his influence and it’s generally accepted that he gives Dublin an advantage other teams simply can’t meet. You just have to live with it and try to disrupt it.
Of course, the trouble with playing Dublin is that you can work to perfect one element but in order to actually beat them, you have to do all things well all the time. If you match them on one level, they can hurt you in other ways. Everyone knows about their individual strengths and their potential to kick scores beyond the abilities of most teams. They can bank on their own kick-outs; they are now pushing up with unprecedented aggression on opposition kick-outs, but worst of all for opposition teams they are operating on a very high level for 80 minutes. There is noinjury-time drop-off.
Beating them is not insurmountable but it is extremely difficult.
If this final runs along anticipated lines and stays true to the form of the championship, then I envisage a match in which both teams start well and play in bursts. Maybe Dublin edge ahead and provoke a response – perhaps even a goal – from Mayo. And then Dublin go through another dominant spell and Mayo respond again. And suddenly we are in the last quarter and both teams run their bench.
And when all those bursts are added up, it produces a scoreline which has Dublin marginally – but irretrievably – ahead: maybe by three or four points.
And Mayo will have competed and lost honourably. But that’s no good to Mayo. Plaudits for losing a brave All-Ireland final: they have enough of those.
That’s why I feel that the Mayo management and team must impose a different pattern on this game. They have to create an environment in which Dublin are not allowed to execute what they want to do when they want to do it. But how?
In a practical sense, one thing Mayo can do which Kerry couldn’t is run the ball with extreme aggression and purpose. Kerry went for precise, conscientious kicking. They kept the ball away from the Dublin defenders really well. They competed with Dublin’s kick-out by pressing up. The one thing they didn’t do is support with extreme intent off the shoulder.
My true instinct is that what Mayo need here isn’t really anything you can draw on the board in the training ground or practise on the field. This weekend took me back to my first All-Ireland experience in 1992, as a teenager on the Donegal team that met Dublin – who were huge favourites. The whole country thought they’d win it. That was an Olympic summer as well and a day that is etched in my memory is the Saturday a week before the final when Michael Carruth was boxing for his gold medal.
Brian McEniff pushed back our training session so the boys could listen to the fight on the radio. And I have this memory of a line of cars parked at the Four Masters pitch and all the players inside them, spellbound by the commentary. All the doors were open in all cars so everyone was connected to each other and to the moment. It was a gorgeous morning. It felt like a really significant sporting moment for Ireland and it was a very emotional, moving sort of experience to listen to it.
And it meant that everyone was wired going onto the field for training. This was during the last few training sessions and it meant that the senior guys were pushing for places. Gaelic games are all about the team, yes. But there are times when the individual instinct takes over. Boys were desperate to play. This was a team full of great friends who had never been to an All-Ireland final before. They didn’t know if they’d be back. So there was a feeling that this was a once-in-a-lifetime game. And that morning, in the A versus B game, there was an edge that I had never seen between these boys before.
Brian Murray and Anthony Molloy went at it a few times. Squared up and boxed. A few rows broke out between Joyce McMullan and Donal Reid. And then came this challenge from John Joe Doherty on Declan Bonner. The pair of them were going for a ball and John Joe came like a train and he absolutely flattened Declan. What I will always remember is Declan lying still and John Joe not even turning. He just went back to the corner and stood with his hands on his hips staring straight up the field.
I am not suggesting that Donegal won that All-Ireland there and then. But I do believe that a different mentality came into that squad that morning. As it turned out, Martin Shovlin had to relinquish his place on the morning of the final with a neck injury and Brian went with John Joe. And John Joe played very well too. So he made all those weeks in his life count. They all did. They knew they had to make it count. Boys like Matt Gallagher, Noel Hegarty, Manus Boyle: there was this realisation: when will we be back in a final?
I do feel Mayo have to bring some of that into Sunday. They are on the threshold of something special. They have played in two All-Ireland finals and they know what they are about. But this is not just another game. If you win a Connacht final, then yes, you have another game. If you win a quarter-final, then yes, you have another game. But if Mayo win the All-Ireland final on Sunday, then those players have achieved something that in a will change their county. That’s more profound than winning a football game.
I suppose my advice for Mayo now is: don’t be cautious and safe. You know, die in a blaze of glory before that happens.
I suppose what I am talking is a mindset which is bordering on obsessive. This is not a game of football. This is a defining day in their lives. They need to bring this almost desperate sense of: we can’t be beaten. The worst thing they could do is just go on being themselves and hope that will be enough to do get them over the line. History would suggest it is not. It has to be something left-field. That intensity, combined with savage discipline and real sharpness and confidence and expression on the ball and then that powerful off-the-shoulder support game at which they excel. That is how I see the way through for Mayo here.
Did I ever see that in Mayo before? How about the semi-final drawn game in 2014 when they tore through Kerry with 14 men? There was a beautiful madness to that. Why not tap into that?
I know there is a danger that if Mayo do try something new – pull a rabbit out of the hat – it may throw their own team out of rhythm. Trying something different can add pressure. But the pressure is there anyhow. You are talking about a team which is tasked with doing something that all Mayo teams since 1951 have not managed. There is pressure anyway.
So I feel that the first thing Mayo have to do is to play with a serious, serious edge. Become unreasonable. Not go out with the: let’s do everything we can here. It has to be a fierce last stand of all they are. You know: let’s make our mark here. Let’s make this be our day. That means they run themselves into the ground.
I have watched Mayo in the past few years and I have seen situations where instead of having eight defending, they could have 11 or 12 if a few more just bust themselves to get back. That has to happen – all day long. They don’t concede a goal. They just don’t. They aim to hold Dublin to 0-16. Is that achievable? I think so. I think it is. Then they be brave and smart and sharp on the ball.
If that is the mindset – to contain Dublin and go put scores on the board and express themselves – then this could be a very feisty and competitive All-Ireland final. Dublin don’t have to change. They simply have turn up and play their game.
It is up to Mayo to impose new terms. But if Mayo can bring a brand new dynamic, which Dublin weren’t planning for, along with that real borderline approach, maybe, then maybe the individuals that Dublin are missing this year will become a factor.
So I’m talking about trying to create anarchy. What’s the alternative? When you look at all the Dublin processes in isolation, they are really smart ways to play the game. Then you layer over that with all the really fine players available to Jim Gavin. Then you have their fine coaching system. Then you have younger players trying to get the jersey: it becomes an obsession.
So all of that projects the team forward to what it has become: this omnipotent force. And if you are going to take that force on, it can’t just be about giving it a good rattle and hoping for the best.
Hope as nothing to do with it. Mayo have to bring a lot of things with them from the west but first and foremost is an absolute bloody-minded belief: 2016 is going to be our year because it must be our year. Sunday is going to be our day because it must be our day.