By Aonghus Ó Maicín
Let the latest chapter in the grand old western derby be scribbled into the annals. In the first staging of Mayo-Galway rivalry at the Connacht GAA Air Dome last week, Galway emerged victorious.
Of course it’s not something Mayo will spend too much time coming to terms with, particularly if they reverse the result in the opening game of the championship, but it is a chance spurned given they now return into the thorny briers of Division 1 with only a single game in the tank.
From here it doesn’t get any easier. In the coming weeks they’ll become nomads, drifting throughout the country without ever embracing the familiarity of home. But you work with the cards you’re dealt.
Regardless of the situation, James Horan will need to adopt a radical approach in 2022. It will be his eighth season in the gig and therefore it most likely represents his final chance to break the tradition of disappointment that has so often accosted his county. For the first time in a decade, that vociferous Mayo support has been infected with angst and frustration during the winter that followed their team’s summer exit.
They’re beginning to bay for blood and without some revolution of sorts on the field, Horan will be first up to become a victim of their scorn. As pointed out on the podcast following last year’s defeat to Tyrone, All Ireland-winning managers usually claim their first title within their first three years in an inter-county job. No manager this century has managed to break that trend. Last year Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher led the Ulster champions to All-Ireland glory on their first attempt and that was by no means an anomaly. And so the desire for a change of direction in Mayo will only increase as the season progresses.
Mayo not only need to find a new gear in 2022, they need to rewrite their own playbook. They need to readdress their own philosophy. If some of the same actors hang around for another crack at it, they need to be assigned new roles in the play. But from the evidence of Mayo’s first game in Bekan’s new facility, they have plenty to improve upon if they’re to bounce back from last season’s gut-wrenching climax.
It will go down as a four-point loss. But the sting in the tail is that this could have developed into a very nasty-looking result for the All-Ireland finalists had the Tribesmen been more clinical with the opportunities. There were at least four goals that should have been plundered by the men in maroon and the sight of some very heavy Mayo legs in the last 15 minutes suggests it really should have been more. A lack of composure and, at times, barely believable misfortune meant Mayo were always allowed to harbour ambitions of constructing a comeback, just as they did in last summer’s Connacht final at Croke Park. For that reason, you get the sense that both teams will have been quietly displeased with their first game of the season, even if Galway had a FBD League final to look forward to before bracing the two-month boot camp that is their own league season.
There were still some exciting tidbits to enjoy from a Mayo perspective, especially in the first half, though that the game was being played in the unusual surroundings of a large white bubble probably contributed to the occasion.
When nobody knows what to expect there will always be an element of enthusiasm. This was, after all, a pre-season game without a drop of rain in the turf or mud on the shirt. Galway may have gone in – or out, given the game was played indoors – at the break three points to the good, but that didn’t necessarily mean their dressing room wasn’t agitated as they mulled over their opening half of football. Mayo had played for 10 minutes without the services of Padraig O’Hora in a full-back line that featured two debutants, Donnacha McHugh and Sam Callinan, and Rory Byrne’s kick-outs were regularly failing to hit their desired targets, thus regularly putting exceptional pressure on Mayo’s defence.
But Mayo’s new-looking defence endured the test, the new players in particular registering commendable performances. As will always be the case when youngsters are blooded, there was plenty of food for thought after the first half. When Horan looks back on it though, it will be a familiar face who must surely come under consideration and finally be deemed as a player who has an abundance to offer the county. Presented with an opportunity in a wandering role, arguably his most effective position, Fergal Boland played a large part in ensuring the grins in Galway faces weren’t too wide as they headed home.
He was immense. Had he been let loose in a nearby field, he would’ve been just as elusive as a hare. He was particularly effective down the left-hand side where he had the rampaging style of Eoghan McLoughlin to compliment his ability to win balls and inject pace into plays. But he still wasn’t Mayo’s best player on the night. There may have been questions over the use of Ryan O’Donoghue in a game this early in the year, especially with a collection of unexplored talent on the bench, yet without his introduction this heavyweight encounter would have finished with Mayo’s bloodsoaked face on the canvas at an embarrassingly early stage. He scored four on the bounce to begin the second half and served up a timely reminder of why he was favourite to become Player of the Year for a period last summer.
Galway didn’t need to be warned of the threat he brings, though implementing a plan to congest the Belmullet man is infinitely more difficult than heeding a warning. He almost single-handedly produced the score that would have fully resuscitated Mayo, dancing menacingly along the end-line towards goal only for his shot to be blocked. It was only a minor blemish however as he scored all but one of Mayo’s scores after he was introduced.
When another Mayo player finally stepped up it was – unsurprisingly – Boland who produced the type of score that usually livens up a venue at this time of the year, usually generating those guttural roars that can penetrate through an otherwise miserable showery evening. On this occasion there were neither hoarse throats nor drizzle.
A few minutes later the Aghamore man connected with his Belmullet teammate via a diagonal ball though by the time O’Donoghue reached the destination of the football he was surrounded by three Galway players. But as if the subject of a magician’s trick, O’Donoghue slipped out of the shackles with a mystifying shuffle of the feat. A goal opportunity immediately presented itself, only for the opportunity to be spurned with a stray hand pass. But there was enough to reaffirm those watching on that the pair need to be seen together more frequently in the foreseeable future.
All in all though, it was a night when nothing was truly learned. But that’s exactly what the FBD League rulebook dictates: there shall never be takeaways this early in the season. Young players are given a taste of what’s required to wear a red and green jersey and others are given the chance to fill the legs with something resembling competitive action.
The radical change to Mayo’s approach was never going to happen in Bekan, but aspects of it must slowly begin to arrive when they play Donegal in Markievicz Park. Because for Horan and many of the current side, their time is melting away like a Salvador Dali clock. Whatever happens in 2022, it has to be new. It has to be fresh. Above all, it must be radical.