Last Saturday’s victory over Westmeath certainly wasn’t a vintage performance from Mayo. For the second week running, Mayo posted more than 20 scores and never looked like losing the game as they always kept their dogged opponents at arm’s length, but the overall showing was less than inspiring on a greasy Cusack Park surface.
Having demolished Down last week, it was disappointing to see Mayo revert to an age-old habit of playing to the level of their challengers rather than ruthlessly disposing of teams who are of an inferior standard.
Mayo definitely do not live by the maxim of ‘never give a sucker an even break’ and the concession of a sloppy early goal meant that Saturday was never going to be a comfortable afternoon.
Mayo remind me of my beloved Manchester United in that they rarely do things the easy way. Against the best in class, both teams will produce barnstorming performances that will rival any formidable foe.
Mayo can go toe-to-toe with Dublin and United quite regularly prevail over Manchester City, but matches against so-called minnows such as Westmeath or West Brom can become dogfights and tit-for-tat battles.
Westmeath adopted a blanket defence strategy and had impressive performers at both ends of the field, particularly in their full-back line where Kevin Maguire and Boidu Sayeh did decent marking jobs on Mayo’s biggest threats, Cillian O’Connor and Tommy Conroy.
Mayo’s full-forward line is now perceived as the team’s strongest line so the O’Connor, Conroy and O’Donoghue triumvirate will have to get used to playing with a packed defence around them. Indeed, Mayo’s best attacking play came from accurate long-range shooting which lessened the impact of any deep-lying sweepers.
Paddy Durkan, Conor Loftus, Eoghan McLaughlin and Matthew Ruane all nailed boomers from downtown. The ability to shoot precisely from distance is a key weapon in any big team’s arsenal when lesser opponents look to sit deep, stifle and smother.
Worryingly, Mayo created only one goal chance when Diarmuid O’Connor scuffed wide in the second half. At the other end of the field, once they sprung Mayo’s high press, Westmeath looked dangerous when running at Mayo’s defence and created some gilt-edged opportunities late in the match that could have proved costly.
In Paddy Durcan, Mayo had the game’s outstanding performer and, perhaps, the most outstanding half-back in the country at present. It is interesting that Durcan has been moved to centre-back this season as he has assumed the Mayo captaincy.
I think number 6 is the ideal position for a team’s captain to be positioned, right in the thick of it, orchestrating his troops from the centre of the battlefield.
Durcan looks at home there and can play it any way you like: a leech-like man-marker (as he has displayed against some of the game’s greats including Ryan McHugh, Sean O’Shea and Ciaran Kilkenny) or a raiding half-back chipping in with two or three points a game.
On Saturday in Mullingar, we saw both sides to Durcan’s game as he dominated his position and stroked over three beautiful points.
I remember the first time I ever marked Durcan, in a club championship game in Shrule seven or eight years ago. At one stage I went to tackle him and will never forget the outrageous dummy he threw me – he twisted my blood and put me sitting on my behind!
I was astounded that a defender could have such dancing feet.
He has the ultimate snake hips and along with Dublin’s Brian Howard has the best step in the GAA right now. Durcan and Howard are solid units with powerful legs, backs and chests but they frequently embarrass challengers with the most balletic movement of their feet.
One aspect of Mayo’s game that has been very impressive in the first two rounds of the league has been the kickouts, for and against.
Robbie Hennelly seems to be kicking very few long but is executing short and mid-length ones to great effect. Mayo had nearly a 100 percent retention rate of their own kick-outs and that augurs well for the bigger challenges that lie ahead later in the summer.
Mayo also successfully pressed high and regularly rumbled Westmeath’s kick-out as the Lake County never looked comfortable going short. By forcing them long, Mayo could flood the middle with their tall midfielders and wing-forwards and more than broke even on the opposition’s restarts.
Hennelly is in good form at the moment and made two crucial interventions in the second half that could have changed the complexion of the game had they gone in.
Hennelly has always been an excellent keeper but his confidence has taken knocks at different times over the years. In the last few weeks though, he has looked calm and authoritative and is primed for a good season.
The area of the field which will be causing James Horan most concern will be the half-forward line. For the second week running, Horan replaced all of this line before the final whistle. Granted, this area of the field is an attritional and physically-taxing one but you just get the impression that Horan isn’t fully happy with productivity here, given how early he hooks underperforming players in this zone.
This may change when Aidan O’Shea returns, but currently there is no guaranteed starter in the half-forward line.
Every other line of the field has a selection shoo-in but it is all up for grabs from 10 to 12 over the coming weeks. Bryan Walsh’s impressive second-half cameo should, however, see him given a starting berth versus Meath on Sunday.
Although he was quiet enough from play and well marshalled by his direct opponent, Cillian O’Connor’s free-taking is exemplary. He kicked eight last week versus Down and seven this week – I cannot recall him missing one so far this year. A left-footed free taker is redundant as O’Connor is as good, if not better, from the right as the left. He has every sort of kick in his bag; inside of the foot, outside of the foot, low-drill, etc.
Saturday’s game showcased two of the best exponents of free-kicks from the hand in the land when O’Connor and John Heslin went gunslinging. And while Heslin is good, O’Connor is in a different free-taking league as was evident at the weekend.
Kicking frees from the hand is fraught with potential difficulties and pitfalls, and is not an exact science, but O’Connor and Dean Rock are ahead of all-comers and as close to a sure thing as you will get in this vital department.
Apropos of nothing, and for fear of being labelled Gok Ron, I really don’t like Mayo’s new shorts! The red band at the bottom looks gaudy and is a bit of an eye-sore. I watched the match on Saturday with my Dad, who made the astute observation that teams should wear changed shorts if there is a clash of the main colours.
We watched the game on a modern HD widescreen TV but it was difficult at times to decipher between the two teams, both wearing dark coloured jerseys and white shorts, as the rain tumbled down from the murky sky. By contrast, in Division 3, Tipperary wore their classy Bloody Sunday commemoration jerseys and even their training kit shorts so as to avoid a colour clash with Wicklow.
UEFA insist that shirts, shorts and socks of teams competing in the Champions League be of contrasting colours. Spectators would not be the sole beneficiaries, as surely being able to quickly and easily identify your colleagues would also advantage players. Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Clive Woodward both employed peripheral vision coaches to gain the extra one percent.
There would also be a huge merchandising opportunity for Mayo GAA’s kit and commercial partners if there were alternate shorts being modelled regularly by the county’s stars – just not ones with a red stripe!
Speaking of fashion icons and striking models, I was delighted to see my ex-teammate Tom Parsons land a plum job as CEO of the GPA this week. You could not meet a more personable or affable guy than Tom and he will be the ideal leader for the players’ union. Off the pitch, it’s great for Mayo to have someone at the top table of the GPA.
On the pitch, the next few weeks are about Mayo getting back to the top table of the National League.