Mayo counting on defying expectations against Dublin
They have a knack of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat – and vice versa
Barry McHugh of Galway scores against Mayo at Pearse Stadium in Galway earlier this month. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Mayo have become the great shape-shifters of league football. You could take almost any season since the James Horan era began, and any game within that period, but let’s go back to the spring of 2011: Cork are the All-Ireland football champions and, up in Croke Park, Dublin and Mayo are playing out an absolutely schizoid league game. The visitors trail by 4-04 to 0-2 after just 23 minutes of play; precisely 23 minutes later they level the match at 4-8 to 3-11 before some sort of calm descends and it finishes 4-14 to 3-11. League games aren’t trustworthy in the heat of the moment but they always leave clues in retrospect, so consider what then Dublin manager Pat Gilroy had to say about what he had just witnessed.
“Come the summer, if we went out and defended like that, we wouldn’t be mapped. It’s no big deal. We’ll sort it out. It’s pure laziness. That’s what it comes down to. If you don’t protect people they will kill you. It was a good lesson for us- at the right time of year.”
That win set the Dubs on a path to reaching their first league final since 1999(!) but, more importantly, it helped to solidify Gilroy’s conviction that whatever house he was going to build required the foundations of a solid defence. That September, they won their first All-Ireland since 1995 on the strength of a turnover which created a late goal from nothing and a winning point from Kevin Nolan, a wing back.
Mayo weren’t Mayo then: there was no sign this team was about to redraw the borders for championship drama and euphoria and heartbreak. Horan was just in the door; the county hadn’t appeared on the All-Ireland stage since the dismal September experience of 2006 and nobody was expecting very much. But in that league season, they began to exhibit a trait that has remained constant. When it comes to the spring competition, they are steadfastly unreliable. In 2011, they disguised themselves perfectly, waiting until the very last round to secure their second win and stave off relegation by wiping Monaghan’s eye in Iniskeen.
Crowd on the move
But, by the end of the season, they had regained the Connacht championship, knocked Cork out of the All-Ireland and all of a sudden had the look of a crowd on the move. By the following year’s league, they were at it again. How do you legislate for a team that just flatlines against Donegal, going down 1-17 to 1-7 against 14 men and then turns up in Castlebar a fortnight later and demolishes Dublin, the new All-Ireland champions, by 0-20 to 0-8. What do you do with a run of games, in 2013, which follows an emphatic opening win against Kerry (1-15 to 1-6) with insipid defeats to Tyrone, Down and Kildare? It’s less a form line than a code to be sent to Bletchley Park for breaking.
“We have got out of jail over a number of seasons,” agrees Alan Dillon, who is on his first season as a spectator after a brilliant career with the county which spanned 14 seasons.
“We had a big game against Roscommon in 2016 and that set us up for the last game against Down. Cillian [O’Connor, Mayo captain] bailed us out the year before down in Cork.”
2016 was Stephen Rochford’s first year in charge. On the first day out against Cork, Mayo weren’t really up to anything and fell by 1-18 to 0-12. A week later, they hosted Dublin in MacHale Park and were transformed in a match notable for its salt: just 0-9 to 0-7 in atrocious weather and 70 minutes of heavy tackling. Dillon agrees that Mayo’s patterns make no real sense, but feels that they are partially attributable to geography. Simply put, over half the squad is in Dublin or elsewhere throughout the league.
“Mayo have to do midland sessions sometimes so it is hard to have consistency in tactics and training. It is difficult to get to that standard of play in the national league, but you can see it coming when the evenings get longer and more football is being played. You kind of see a difference in style and pace. That is one thing that has been a problem in recent years: with the numbers in Dublin, we have had to move some sessions to Athlone.”
The headlines after that 2016 loss to Dublin said that Mayo were staring down the barrel of the gun. It got worse: the following weekend, with the country distracted by a general election, they went to Donegal and were beaten the third time in succession. Right then, it looked like Mayo were in crisis mode.
But one of the reasons for that is that, ever since 2011, they have been engaged in championships that haven’t felt like campaigns as much as rocket launches.
Body and soul
All-Ireland final replays; defeats, Limerick 2014, last year’s back-door Oregon trail, the unbearable closeness of their finals: it’s not just the squad but the entire county that has needed to take stock of body and soul. Each year, they have known who they are and what they need to do. It means that they don’t need too much out of the league other than to play it and see what happens.
“That’s probably a fair assessment,” says Dillon.
“Some individuals need it more than others in terms of their development. It is important to give those players a chance that you have the experience there. We had a strong 25 in 2011-13. Now, it is becoming apparent that the eight or nine players missing this season does significantly weaken our team. That is a concern. You see other teams: Kerry have come with their young fellas, Dublin are seamless in how they integrate new players. That is still a small worry from the outset that we aren’t getting to those performance levels just now.”
This weekend, nothing has changed. You can read into Mayo what you choose. After grinding out an opening day win in Monaghan, Mayo have looked a world away from the team that stormed through last August and September. In losing to a young Kerry team under lights in Castlebar, they were second to every ball, wasteful in possession and didn’t really look up for the fight. That lethargy remained when they played Galway, prompting James Horan to note that he was struck by “the lack of energy” within the team in that game.
“There would have been an expectation that Mayo would struggle in the league this year,” reckons John Casey, the explosive forward on the famous Mayo teams who came desperately close to the All-Ireland in 1996 and 1997.
“But that has been the case for many seasons and this year, on top of being in the All-Ireland again and players on holiday, I didn’t see us beating Monaghan on day one. I probably did expect something from Galway. And there you go: when you expect something from Mayo in the league, the opposite happens.”
Casey has watched Mayo closely and, like Dillon, he isn’t concerned so much about the overall league table as the sense that Mayo aren’t bringing players through in a way that is comparable to other All-Ireland contenders.
“You see Dublin with [Colm] Basquel, [Brian] Howard, [Niall] Scully: we don’t have players who are making that impact. So it is going to be the same group. We may only have one championship debut in 2018. That is a slight worry.”
The only word from the Dublin camp this week is that Diarmuid Connolly might well feature in Saturday night’s game. In Mayo, it seems certain that Paddy Durcan and Brendan Harrison are set to add to the squad’s extravagant injury list. Not featuring in that loss to Galway were Lee Keegan, Tom Parsons, Séamie O’Shea, Donal Vaughan, Chris Barrett and Keith Higgins. All of these players started in last year’s All-Ireland final. Cilian O’Connor is suspended for tonight’s match after his red-card infraction against Dublin. It is likely that Mayo will be without nine of the players who started that game in September. Dublin, meantime, are brimming with youth and an abundance of options: it looks like precisely the wrong time for Mayo to be facing them.
But then, Mayo have been there before as well. Just last year. On March 4th, big things were expected of Rochford’s team when they arrived in Croke Park for a Saturday night game. Dublin were in the midst of The Streak; there was talk of it becoming burdensome and they fielded just seven of the All-Ireland-winning team. And they pulverised Mayo on a score of 1-16 to 0-7.
“We didn’t win enough 50-50 ball or breaking ball. Men ran by us,” was the sombre appraisal by Stephen Rochford that evening. “We didn’t work hard enough. That’s only a reflection of how hard Dublin worked. They pushed us off the ball, they turned us, they ran at our goal and we didn’t have the answers.”
If those laments sound familiar, it’s because they are in keeping with the admissions Rochford made after both the Mayo and Galway games this year. He is a dab hand at revealing slightly less than nothing regardless of the result but, on the opening day of the league, he couldn’t help looking pleased by the bonus of two points wrung out of the Monaghan soil. That may yet be the game that saves Mayo’s league bacon because just now, Mayo are in the usual mid-league funk.
“One out of three,” says Dillon.
“Not so good but usually we come good in the last two league games when the stakes become higher. I imagine what Stephen Rochford would be looking for is the players not getting to the pitch of the game. How will they cope with an experienced Dublin team? Those will be the key indicators as to whether the players are ready for the tests ahead. We are at home and we should be actually going at Dublin on the front foot. And that is what I am looking forward to seeing: how will Mayo go at Dublin in the first half.”
Losing on Saturday won’t be fun but it won’t be a disaster either. For Dillon, last-gasp league scenarios became the normal part of spring. John Casey often does radio commentary for RTÉ and Midwest, and has lost count of the number of occasions when Mayo were the odd score and a few minutes from relegation.
“I remember against Down, they decided to bring their A game and the supporters gasping and thinking: we are going to be relegated here. The more they are written off they defy that expectation. But that has been Mayo in the league: all over the place.”
And never that far away.