By Anthony Hennigan
“Can I just make one point – and this isn’t going to go down well – but the whole idea of a review is asking the hard questions and the answer you’ve just given me seems like you’re defending.”
Gerry O’Malley was right. It didn’t go down well. The Ballinrobe delegate had touched a raw nerve of Liam Moffatt at last week’s meeting of Mayo County Board and the chairman issued a swift and stern rebuttal of any suggestion he was fighting the corner of the Mayo senior football management.
O’Malley was of the opinion that the Mayo team appeared tactically ill-prepared for last month’s All-Ireland SFC final against Tyrone and raised questions about the management’s overall ability to assess the strengths of the opposition and adapt a game-plan accordingly. Moffatt assured him that “significant analysis” had been done on Tyrone.
“I’ve no doubt all that analysis was done,” replied Gerry O’Malley, “but…”, at which point the Ballinrobe delegate was cut short by the chairman. “I will certainly ask questions in the review, you can be guaranteed of that,” stated Moffatt firmly.
Now, it’s not for me to put words into anyone’s mouth and it’s impossible to know with any great certainty what further point Delegate O’Malley was about to make until interrupted, but a couple of plausible endings to his sentence sprang to mind.
1. “… it’s the ability to interpret that analysis which is important.”
The point being that I can tune into Leaders Questions from Dáil Éireann but knowing what is said is very different to understanding what the speaker really means. Knowing that Tyrone beat Kerry is one thing, understanding exactly how they achieved it is quite another.
2. “… analysis is pointless if you don’t react to it.”
The point being that if you’re not inclined to alter the style or formation or tactics that you believe your team is best suited to playing – in other words, you’d rather let the opposition worry about you – then analysing the other team really doesn’t have much purpose.
And there’s no question but that in the eyes of some seasoned observers, Mayo’s performance in the final smacked of having not taken heed of the mistakes Kerry had made in losing their semi-final clash with the Red Hands, the responsibility for which is surely weighted more towards the management than the players.
“Never did I think this Mayo team could be so naïve as to approach this game the way they did. And worse again, to never waiver from that style when for so long it was apparent it was ineffective,” wrote former Mayo manager Pat Holmes in this newspaper after the final. He added: “Anyone who had watched Tyrone’s All-Ireland semi-final win against Kerry would have identified the single most important thing to avoid was take the ball into contact and yet that’s precisely what Mayo players did continuously.”
Jim McGuinness, the former Donegal boss, had sung a similar hymn during his punditry of the final for .
“[Mayo] kept doing what Kerry did. They kept running the ball, and they kept running the ball into trouble.”
And writing in the , former Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice had also identified a major flaw in Mayo’s tactics.
“Their style of play when going well is exciting and lifts the crowd but against the top teams that can block up the middle, turn them over and counter, it becomes a hindrance. They are attacking in numbers, not scoring and then are out of shape.”
All of that is only a sample of the criticism that came Mayo’s way from some well-respected sources.
The question now, of course, is will any of that meat on the bone really be chewed when the top officials of Mayo County Board meet with the senior team management shortly in their scheduled review of the 2021 season, and of the All-Ireland final display in particular?
We must take the chairman at his word and believe he will deliver upon the wish of the clubs and bring to the management whatever questions they feel have arisen out of this thirteenth straight All-Ireland final without a win, and fourth for James Horan, and that he will also return with some answers. But it’s going to be no easy job for Liam Moffatt, nor for Dermot Butler for that matter, even if the secretary insisted to delegates that “we’ll demand the answers”, and that he wasn’t interested in asking questions “with nobody saying anything” in return.
But Liam Moffatt, it’s worth remembering, served James Horan as Mayo team physio for four consecutive seasons, from 2011 to 2014, and he shared a dressing-room from boyhood for the guts of 25 years with Mayo selector Ciaran McDonald as together they ruled county, Connacht and Ireland with their native Crossmolina Deel Rovers, which is also the home club of Dermot Butler.
Who’s to know what sort of questions the clubs will decide to submit to Mayo County Board for this review or for that matter, how many of those questions the executive will deem fair and appropriate to be asked of the management team. But it would be an uncomfortable thing for Moffatt to have to eyeball James Horan and ask if it’s possible his tactics and team selection contributed to Mayo’s defeat or quiz him on whether he shunned mid-game advice from his selectors surrounding tactics or substitutions. Or to have to ask Ciaran McDonald if he was in agreement with all the tactical and personnel decisions taken in advance of and during the All-Ireland final and if not, which of those did he not agree with – and why? Or simply, does McDonald believe his opinions are valued and acted upon?
Nor will it be an easy thing to ask the other selector James Burke, who was a Mayo player under James Horan for some of the time that Moffatt was Mayo physio, what exactly was happening and what were the circumstances when the television cameras, and spectators located close to the sideline area, detected some unrest between the Mayo manager and the backroom team in the second-half of the All-Ireland final.
I mention McDonald and Burke simply because those two were identified by Dermot Butler at last week’s County Board meeting as being the subject of speculation about whether or not they have stepped away from their roles in James Horan’s backroom in the wake of Mayo’s defeat to Tyrone.
And then you have to ask yourself just how willing will James Horan and the rest of the management even be to involve themselves in a ‘Larry from Louisburgh wants to know’ type of review anyway. I doubt that was in his job spec when the manager agreed to his four-year term which is due to expire at the end of next year’s campaign.
And it is also unclear what the executive officers intend to do with any of the information they receive back from the management, in a bid to avoid any identifiable mistakes from reoccurring in the future.
When you take all that into consideration, it’s probably no wonder that Kilmaine delegate Kevin McDonnell suggested the County Board could perhaps do with some outside help if wanting to conduct a thorough and proper review of this latest final failure.
“We need to challenge [management] to say, what can you do better, what can you bring to help us get over the line, as a manager and to encourage the players,” McDonnell said.
“If someone has to be brought in to help with that process, then I would encourage it.”
It would certainly make some people’s lives easier, of that there’s no doubt.