Given the injury crisis that has engulfed the Mayo senior football panel, it is almost impossible to predict the starting line-up for Sunday week’s Galway game, never mind the result.
With more than ten players suffering from varying degrees of knocks, strains, ruptures and tears, the team’s 2022 championship prospects have become considerably bleaker in recent weeks. Jordan Flynn’s reportedly serious ankle injury is a sickening blow for the player, team and fans as he was in the form of his life and his midfield partnership with Matthew Ruane was blossoming.
Injuries are not a new phenomenon for Mayo teams and we seem to have suffered more than most on this front in recent seasons. I always felt that could be attributed to Mayo’s committed, aggressive and abrasive style as the team always front-up and have a combative “all duck or no dinner” mindset.
Another factor which probably has not helped Mayo’s bill of health over the years has been the spread of players geographically around the country. Having players spending hours in cars as they travel up and down from Dublin for training and matches does not lend itself to finely-tuned bodies and peak physique. An increasing number of Mayo’s squad are home-based now, though, so that should have helped ease the injury burden.
What’s more, Mayo have an excellent medical and S&C setup which sees the players want for nothing in terms of prehab, treatment and rehab. Dr Seán Moffatt is one of the leading sports medics in the country while lead physiotherapist Garrett Coughlan has an impressive track record in professional sport with rugby and is very highly regarded by anyone I have spoken to.
Conor Finn, and Barry Solan and Ed Coughlan before him, have implemented bespoke and cutting-edge strength and conditioning programmes for all players under their watch which has seen Mayo become envied nationwide for their athleticism and power. James Horan is also an analytical, progressive coach who is guided by the data and would not subscribe to the old-school management philosophies of flogging his charges.
So, with such a high-performance setup which is backed by all the science, what’s the problem? Why do we keep incurring these serious, crippling injuries?
Maybe it’s just bad luck, an unwelcome companion of Mayo football over the years. The championship draw certainly did not help Mayo this year. Being drawn in a Connacht quarter-final, rather than going straight to a semi-final as is common, reduced Mayo’s pre-championship preparation time by two or three weeks. Those extra weeks could have been used to ramp up training and put some miles on the clock.
From the outside looking in, it seemed to me like Mayo were in a heavy training block in the latter stages of the league. As results went south in the last month, Mayo’s players looked leggy and lacking energy. If rumours are to be believed, Mayo even trained very hard on the Friday before the League final. Signs were on them in Croke Park but whatever about the drubbing inflicted by Kerry, losing Oisín Mullin during that session could have a bigger impact come championship.
In all fairness to James Horan, he was caught between a rock and a hard place. At the start of the league, he vowed to give everyone a chance, shuffle the deck regularly and build a squad. With such experimentation he probably didn’t envisage a league final appearance. As the Division 1 final came into view, he was locked into pre-season plans to train hard come mid-March and as a result, the team’s form fell off a cliff.
Once the championship starts, there will be no time for hugely intensive training sessions so players had to bank the miles in the springtime meaning league form dipped and injuries increased. By upping players’ workload mid-league, Horan probably foresaw short term pain for long-term gain. He couldn’t have foreseen such acute pain, however.
Jack O’Connor, on the other hand, has the perfect run-in to championship with his Kerry team. With five weeks between the league final and their first-round championship tie with Cork, Kerry could really focus on the league games, ensuring their players got the correct rest and recovery midweek. They now have a month to get into championship mode and train very hard. O’Connor even had the luxury of releasing some of his team and extended panel for club duty last weekend so that they could pick up some match sharpness. Usually, I would advocate a similar approach with fringe players in Mayo but with the current extensive injury list, every fit body needs to be wrapped in cotton wool.
Sports science has proven that there is a direct relationship between the number of players unavailable for selection and a team’s success. Premier League clubs in England spend big money on their medical departments as players are the key commodity of any club and losing them for a prolonged period of time is a costly business. A quick glance at the Premier League’s injury table shows that Liverpool and Man City are towards the bottom half of the listings in terms of current injuries and, lo and behold, the pair are miles ahead of everyone else with regards to performance and points. Newcastle United, Manchester United and Norwich City currently have the most injuries in the Premier League and, unsurprisingly, are all having poor seasons.
An in-depth academic study of injury costs at Premier League clubs in 2020 showed that 136 days lost due to injury of players causes a team the loss of one league point, and that approximately 271 days out due to injury costs a team one place in the table. Calculating the costs of wage bills and prize money, the report estimated that an EPL team loses an average of £45 million sterling due to injury-related reduction in performance per season.
Injuries are problematic in any sport but in professional sport they are serious business. In our own amateur setting, the financial implications are less of a concern and trophies are the currency of choice, but it’s a fact that injuries to important players could derail a club or county’s ambitions for silverware.
Jeff Reinebold, the American Football coach and Sky Sports NFL analyst, has a constant refrain that availability is the most important thing any player can bring to their team environment. In other words, you can have all the talent in the world, but if you’re not fit and ready and available for selection then you’re not worth a button to your teammates. It’s crude but invariably the teams that win at top-level sport are the ones with the best players available to them most often.
Arsenal’s legendary coach, Arsène Wenger, echoed these sentiments when he said that: “A great career doesn’t suffer from stop and go. You have to be consistently present.” He cited the examples of top players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi who are rarely injured and have played 50 or 60 games a season for the past 20 years.
Of course, being injured is not a choice. It is a mixture of physical makeup, mental fortitude and, most importantly, luck. Just last week, Leinster and Ireland rugby star, Dan Leavy, was cruelly forced to retire from the game with immediate effect due to persistent injuries. Leavy, at 27, has been an outstanding performer for his province and country and has always been a hugely impressive physical specimen and supremely focused athlete but he has just had no luck. Brutal cases like Leavy’s should encourage all sportspeople in all codes to savour every minute they spend on the playing fields.
As we begin to reach fever pitch ahead of next weekend’s rival showdown, I am sure Mayo’s injured casualties are champing at the bit and doing all they can to be available for this season’s biggest game. We will need as many of them back as possible for the defence of our Connacht crown. And if you’re stuck, James – have boots, will travel!