Kevin McStay: Mayo can only be judged when it’s do-or-die

Donegal and Kerry poised to answer a lot of questions about their credentials

The Kerry team prior to the Mayo clash in Killarney. As an occasion, it was a wonderful advertisement for the huge potential of the Super 8s to transform the All-Ireland championship into a brilliant July travelling carnival of football.  Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

The Kerry team prior to the Mayo clash in Killarney. As an occasion, it was a wonderful advertisement for the huge potential of the Super 8s to transform the All-Ireland championship into a brilliant July travelling carnival of football. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

I had been dreaming of Sunday in Killarney from the moment I was informed by RTÉ that I would be working at the Kerry-Mayo game: the atmosphere, the view from Fitzgerald Stadium, and a sparkling day.

And then I ended up sitting in a studio in Montrose with Pat Spillane, 150 miles away from paradise. But even from there, we could feel the energy around the town. As an occasion, it was a wonderfully vivid and dramatised advertisement for the huge potential of the Super 8s to transform the All-Ireland championship into a brilliant July travelling carnival of football.

I think the Super 8s are a fantastic development. And it should be apparent that the principle of taking these Super 8 games to venues down the country is paramount. Roscommon and Ballybofey were terrific days out for both sets of supporters. And what happened in Killarney was significant for a number of reasons.

Clearly, the game did not live up to advance billing, mainly because Kerry were excellent and Mayo could not live with their pace and inventiveness. But even watching it and thinking about the game on Monday, it was hard not to review what exactly we had witnessed – and to question how much we can trust it.

In making historic comparisons, you might wonder if this, for Kerry, is 1975 revisited. Is the juggernaut coming? This young Kerry team were magnificent on Sunday and the result will bring them on a tonne. Does a Kerry man need more self-belief? Well, for an emerging side to take out Mayo in the manner they did was outstanding. The indication is that they are moving into Dublin’s slipstream; the empire striking back.

But we have to be a little conservative about their prospects because it is a bit like analysing the form of a horse. You have to look at the other ponies in the race. How hard was the field running? Was the ground too fast? Did the track not suit the horse in second place? Or – if the horse in question is Mayo – is it just past its best?

Well, that’s the big mystery about this week. The stats of that game are not merely interesting, they are startling. Just take Mayo’s first-half turnovers – I counted 13. But the type of error they committed fascinated me: eight foot-passes to Kerry men and one over the side line. Two kickouts: one directly over the sideline and one went straight to a Kerry player.

Two hand-passes went to Kerry players. Seven consecutive turnovers were kick-passes. This was a bizarre run of errors. How much pressure were the Mayo players under when they made these mistakes? Not much at all, it turns out. It just looked like a complete breakdown of their skills execution. You cannot build a winning platform when you are giving the ball away that cheaply.

Add in, then, that the Mayo kickout was completely dismantled: seven long kicks out lost in the first half which gave David Moran a plethora of “marks”. Mayo couldn’t get the ball moving with any speed in the middle sector of the field.

And then in the second half, they committed crazy technical errors – a double-hop; two pick-ups off the ground; three over-carries. It all made me wonder: how focused were they here? How concentrated were they? And they seemed a little bit unbothered to me afterwards. Going around shaking hands like gentlemen, not looking particularly perturbed.

Beating heart

James Horan sounded very ready to forget it. If you think about it, the idea they were going to outrun and out-tempo Kerry in their fourth consecutive championship weekend in a match that meant everything to Kerry was pushing it. Not to say they went out to lose intentionally, but the mood for do-or-die is set during the week. And maybe it just wasn’t that for James Horan’s team.

Mayo got a big rub of the green in that they are playing an emerging Super 8 team in Meath next week. In Killarney, they did not put in the effort and energy that would make you think that their championship life depended on the result. Why? Because it did not. The stakes were different for Kerry – the importance of not being bullied by Mayo; of minding the Killarney record, of making a statement . . . it was huge.

But maybe in the meeting room during the week, this game was just not uppermost in Mayo priorities. And once you set that tone, the savage edge that is vital to a winning camp – and is the beating heart of Mayo – becomes diluted

So this weekend will tell us a lot about Mayo. We have already learned about Kerry. I think it is safe to say they will qualify for the All-Ireland semi-finals and probably as group winners. A scenario could emerge where three teams are on four points in the group. But the smart money is on Kerry in pole position with Donegal in second place. However, Mayo remain a very dangerous team: written off – again – and believed to be vulnerable.

And this is what makes the Super 8s so intriguing. They are a little world of their own and the main objective is to end up in the surviving four teams. How managers plot that path is up to them. So we can’t be sure.

There is a sense, moving into the second round of games, of the elite teams plotting to make their move. And I think we saw the four best referees involved this weekend. These are the people who should be refereeing these games now. This is what happens in major sport. The best officials are brought forward as the contest intensifies. And I felt they did well except for the unfortunate beginning in Killarney which highlighted a general problem.

The throw-in for Gaelic football matches and at half time has become completely mangled by foul play. There is never any action taken or any sense of urgency as to how horrible it looks as a spectacle. And there is an increasing problem at the end of games, which have become cluttered with maybe-injuries and cynical fouling. People will have to sit down and figure this out. It can be done.

Other sports do it – I go back to basketball, my other sport when I was young: they seem to be able to come up with rules very quickly to cancel out manipulations. Would no black-card replacements in the last 15 minutes be a solution?

The other looming problem is the instant foul when possession is lost: the equivalent of the choke tackle in rugby. It is not a black card, it is a tick. It looks like a harmless foul but it completely disrupts the play of the counter-attacking team and has to be stamped out.

Top referee

But, in general, the teams are really well served by the referees at this level. There was one moment when David Gough went in and consulted with his umpires for the Dublin penalty against Cork. He indicated it, awarded it and cancelled it and overturned his decision: a fantastic piece of refereeing. A few people wondered if he was entitled to do that. Well, he has that power and he can consult loosely in order to establish matters of fact. But that is the quality you would expect from a top referee: it requires a combination of ability and humility to do that.

So in all, the GAA is on to something special here. They have come up with this progressive concept and now just need to fine tune it. In Roscommon, the buzz around the streets on a sunny Saturday was just special to behold as a big Tyrone contingent arrived. It was novel – and for the local businesses, the commerce was welcome.

Walking around, you got the sense of a different kind of game; the sense of the All-Ireland moving into this elite phase. And if the GAA can just commit itself to bringing the neutral round out of Croke Park, these games can become real spectacles and economic bonanzas for towns like Portlaoise or Clones or the other country venues that are ideal theatres.

My feeling before the weekend was that Roscommon knew they had a real chance – if a lot of things went right for them. They didn’t get the start they wanted. They were edgy and took a full quarter to settle. They gifted Tyrone two early scores through a fumble and a non-challenge for an aerial ball which was won by Niall Sludden. Still, there was only two points in it at half time.

The missed goal chances have been a recurring theme with this squad in recent summers and are a matter of concern. But it was the bread-and-butter of the two missed frees by Conor Cox, which he would expect to get, that really hurt them. Nonetheless, Diarmuid Murtagh got the first point after half-time and the terms of engagement shifted. Now, the opportunity was genuinely materialising for Roscommon: trailing by one, 48 minutes played; the crowd fully invested.

Now, this is where the top teams come into their own. This is where they manage things so much better than the rest. Roscommon seemed to accept that they were close but didn’t drive on to win it. In the recesses of their mind, they may have been pleased that at least the outcome was not going to be as harrowing as last year when they met Tyrone. And in a 12-minute spell on Saturday, Tyrone kicked 0-5 and moved away.

After that, their peerless game management kicked in. They are the best I have seen. There is a coldness and calmness about the way they just take the life out of a game in which they have control on the scoreboard. They faced down a crisis; away from home, not going well, a point in it.

Lucky break

And they manufactured and executed a few frees with no daft shooting and fellas getting injured and substitutions coming in, a card here and there. This is where the top teams excel. Once they get six points up, you are not getting a lucky break. They will choke the life out of the game. Your chance will be reduced to very lucky break off a high ball.

So the close-out is pedestrian and the crowd falls quiet and eventually the other team is out of the equation. Roscommon did well to keep it to four points – a dramatic improvement on last year. But really asking the question is the next big jump for them.

And that task will not be easier next week in the “neutral venue” of Croke Park against the All-Ireland champions who are suddenly buzzing with life – and returning stars. So how can they move it on?

Well, with next season in mind, the aim for this Roscommon group must be to get their best players together at the one time. I still think they missed five of their best players, including their best forward, best midfielder and best defender on Saturday. This is maybe why they couldn’t ask the big question at the critical time.

So with Donegal and Kerry poised to answer a lot of questions about their credentials next weekend, the view has hardened that Dublin will be very, very difficult to stop. It wasn’t so much their dismantling of Cork as the casual way in which Jim Gavin slipped in the news that Diarmuid Connolly was back in the fold. Jim surpassed himself in his understatement here.

For the young lad on the other end of the microphone to either fail to realise or adhere to strict orders not to acknowledge that he was getting one of the GAA scoops of the summer was a joy to behold. And look, for Gaelic football fans, it was a good moment. It’s no real risk for Dublin.

They have a perfect sequence of games to see how Diarmuid can reintegrate with the team. It all seems to be falling perfectly into place for them. Diarmuid Connolly provokes a lot of strong opinion. But one thing is certain; he is a brilliant player. And I am glad to get a chance to see him finish his career on what may be a gilded year in the history of Irish sport. He has been a huge figure in this chapter of Dublin GAA history. He deserves to be with them over the coming weeks, which promise to be special.

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