If you let them, there is no team better at handing out chastening defeats than Kerry. Last Sunday, Mayo barely laid a paw on their classy rivals and it was a tough day at the office.
I was all for getting to a league final and going toe-to-toe with the best team in the land at the moment but there aren’t too many Mayo players who will be the better for that experience as we enter a crunch part of the season.
Some context is required, though, as this was a badly depleted Mayo side. Mayo were shorn of hugely important players in nearly every line of the field and this told as the team struggled to get to grips with their high-flying opponents.
Minus Hennelly, Harrison, Mullin, Durcan and Diarmuid O’Connor, Sunday was always going to be a big ask but very few of those who took the field did themselves justice in a disappointing display from start to finish.
The losses of Paddy Durcan, Oisín Mullin and Diarmuid were most keenly felt as, for once, Mayo looked to be a less athletic and slower team than their direct opponents. Durcan, Mullin and O’Connor’s hard running power and pace would have helped stem the rapid flow of marauding Kerry runners from the middle third.
Mayo’s half-back line has always been our trump card but that line was truly overshadowed by the Kingdom’s high-functioning and high-quality half-back line all afternoon.
Gavin White was the game’s outstanding player until his goal and subsequent concussion late in the first-half. Kerry friends of mine have raved about the talent and ability of White for some time claiming that he has been their MVP for a while now. I have always found that hard to believe given the presence of David Clifford and Seánie O’Shea in the county but on Sunday we really saw White’s true worth. He is jet-heeled and was scorching Mayo players up and down the left wing all through the first half. This was even more impressive when you consider that it was his first outing since the opening round of the league. A good bet for Player of the Year 2022, perhaps.
Mayo’s half-back line had a makeshift and inexperienced look to it. It was a far cry from the ultra-physical and athletic days of Keegan, Durcan, Boyle and Vaughan. Mayo could have done with Eoghan McLaughlin’s huge lungs and engine in that line but he seems to be badly out of favour of late.
Michael Plunkett once again kicked some beautiful scores (he really is a fine finisher for a defender) but found Adrian Spillane a tricky proposition as the Kerry man put in a massive shift around the middle of the park. Stephen Coen also struggled to pin down Paudie Clifford and the Fossa star should have scored two first-half goals after his searing pace and directness created two gilt-edged chances.
On the other wing, Dara Moynihan got on a power of ball and used it wisely and creatively as is his wont. As good as Kerry’s 10, 11 and 12 were though, adding Durcan and Mullin, two of the best half-backs in the land, to that line totally changes the dynamic of proceedings in that area of the field.
In his post-match interview, James Horan lamented the amount of ball his charges kicked away.
I thought Tadhg Morley had a brilliant game but we made him look like a hero. He was playing the “plus one” sweeper type role and gobbled up so many forward balls that we waywardly dinked into the zone around the D. I had wondered if Kerry’s new defensive system was overrated and overhyped just because they have the Northern defensive guru Paddy Tally on their coaching ticket. The proof is in the pudding, though, and it’s hard to argue with the stats.
Darren McCurry’s goal, when they had already qualified for the final, and a consolation penalty late in their drubbing of Monaghan were the only goals they conceded in the entire league. Credit where it’s due, that’s a phenomenal record. Apart from Conor Loftus’ slobbery half-chance that came about from a rebound off the post, Mayo didn’t threaten Shane Ryan’s goal.
What was most impressive about Kerry’s defensive display, however, was that they kept things solid and tight in the vast expanses of Croke Park on a perfect day for open football.It wasn’t just Mayo’s kicking into the forwards that was errant, however, as our shooting at the posts let us down too. We had 28 shots at goal and only scored 13 scores. Kerry had 34 shots and got 22 scores, three of which were goals. After failing to score goals in our last two final appearances in Croke Park in 2020 and 2021, it was disappointing not to raise a green flag again in a showpiece decider.
Ryan O’Donoghue, for once, was kept relatively quiet but the introduction of Cillian O’Connor will help spread the load over the coming months and should take some of the scoring burden off the young Belmullet ace’s shoulders.
Another hugely frustrating aspect of the afternoon was how Kerry outscored Mayo 4-1 in the ten minutes when Kerry’s midfielder Diarmuid O’Connor was in the sin-bin. There were six points between the teams when O’Connor got his marching orders but Mayo couldn’t generate any momentum or quality in this period and meekly ran out of ideas. What transpired thereafter was a comfortable stroll home for Jack O’Connor’s men.
Positives for Mayo? The team competed well at midfield and Jordan Flynn’s sterling form means that we now have one of the stronger midfield pairings in Ireland. Seeing Flynn writhe in agony after Jack Barry’s late tackle was a worrying sight as Mayo can ill afford to lose any more key men. James Carr also looked threatening up front in the first-half. He has pace and power, two valuable commodities at inter-county football, but just ran out of steam in the second half. If the Mayo S&C team can keep him fit, and get him fitter, he is another who could have a good summer.
Padraig O’Hora had the unenviable task of picking up David Clifford but he did as well as anyone would or could do, in my opinion. Sure, Clifford kicked 1-6 and looked magic but O’Hora got tight to him, hit him, turned over some balls and dished out loads of verbals. I don’t know how much more a corner-back can do against the almost unmarkable superstar. What doesn’t help is the space Clifford got in front of him and the uncontested, perfect foot pass down the channel to him for his wonder goal. Once he won that ball out in front and turned and saw the one-on-one scenario, his eyes lit up and he had the Ballina man on toast.
Galway losing too will provide some small comfort for Mayo as their bubble has been burst in recent weeks against a resurgent Roscommon.
Although very different defeats, the weekend will have given both teams a reality-check ahead of April 24’s seismic encounter. All in all, I would say that it has been a good league campaign for Mayo.
Sunday will have left a bitter taste for a few days but Mayo have to dust themselves down quickly for what could be a season-defining game later this month. The beauty of giving so many players game time this league is that James Horan will now have a pretty good idea about who he can rely on and who is ready for the championship. The problem is, though, that some of these old reliables are struggling with injuries. Still, you get the feeling that none of these casualties are too major a concern and were being held back and minded in the latter rounds of the league.
After getting home late on Sunday evening, we had to face into the important task of filling in the census. This year’s form gave the Irish public the option of leaving a message for our descendants 100 years from now. In 2122, who knows what state Mayo GAA will be in or how many All-Irelands we will have won. On census day 2022, however, the Irish public got a pretty good reading of Gaelic football’s current power rankings ahead of a fast-approaching championship. With Kerry as undisputed top dogs, Mayo have some catching up to do.