By Aonghus Ó Maicín
The settling-in period has come and gone. There is little time for nursing the gas pedal when the new Mayo management team is harbouring such high ambitions. One trophy down, three more to go.
Before the FBD League final, Mayo manager Kevin McStay was quizzed about Lee Keegan’s retirement and the void he would leave in his side’s defence. The new Mayo boss naturally wished the five-time All-Star winner well in retirement, but he also spoke of the need to find new Lee Keegans from among a very talented and dedicated bunch of young players.
Anoraks of Mayo football will have had their eyes on a few young defenders who fared well in county championship last autumn. But even those who traversed the county on cold and damp winter evenings, always on the hunt for a club game, wouldn’t have earmarked Conor Loftus as a defender.
They certainly wouldn’t have picked him out as a potential candidate to step into a leadership role once occupied by Keegan, Higgins, Boyle et al. But Mayo football has always been an unpredictable and eccentric beast.
While it’s still exceptionally early in the season, we’ve already snuck a peak at the Mayo management team’s philosophy. And it seems like the Crossmolina man could be playing a fundamental role in it — just not in an area of the pitch we would’ve anticipated.
It is, of course, insanely futile to begin drawing comparisons between Keegan and Loftus after a single pre-season campaign. The 28-year-old, for a start, is a very different player to his former teammate.
Keegan is a dogged man-marker who can scamper forward menacingly at every attacking opportunity. Loftus has his own unique traits: A Copernican reading of the game, with the capability of deftly shimmying past a player to take a score when the opportunity arises.
The converted defender has nevertheless had his doubters in recent years. The immensity of promise he showed underage never really materialised at senior level.
The forward that plundered 2-2 in the 2016 All-Ireland under-21 final, and was thus heralded as the missing link in Mayo’s forward line, was perhaps a little unsuited to the modern senior game. An era that places a large emphasis on tenacity and hard running can stymie more creative players.
But the Crossmolina man’s talent could never be disputed. It was perhaps for that reason that James Horan brought him back to midfield in 2020 in an effort to offer the player more freedom to pick passes into the forward line. He offered Mayo an alternative to their running game, and managed to frequently sneak forward to pop over a few scores of his own. For many looking on from the ditch though, it wasn’t enough.
Loftus was never a player known for his physicality in the air and so he rarely became an option from Mayo kick-outs. Moreover, he became a target from opposing sides’ kick-outs. Mayo has a fine tradition of producing sturdily-built midfielders who took pride in their fielding ability and Loftus was never going to fit that mould.
But maybe Horan wasn’t experimental enough. Maybe he simply needed to bring Loftus deeper into defence.
In an era of packed defences, the idea of utilising a creative forward at centre-half back in a regista-type role seems so obvious. It’s baffling, in hindsight, that it has taken this long for somebody to shout, “Eureka”. Defending in one-on-one situations isn’t as important as it once was when six backs were tasked with keeping the opponents out. Teams now attack and defend as 15-man units, with 28 or 29 players regularly ensconced within one half of the pitch.
There has instead been a stark lack of creativity from inter-county managers in recent years, the vast majority of them diligently adhering to the established playbook.
Blanket defences worked for Ulster teams so everybody else followed suit to varying degrees. Many tried to emulate Dublin’s approach though that, as was expected, was a lot easier said than done. And then the fly-keeper trend, offering another man in the middle of the field, was rolled out far and wide with goalkeepers popping up everywhere from midfield to the car park.
McStay was always going to try something different and his imprint on the game going forward may well be installing a potent attacking presence much deeper than usual.
That said, Loftus has clearly honed the defensive side of his game too. Agfainst Roscommon at the Dome, he covered all defensive zones and brought a sense of intensity and security to the game at the back.
More to the point, he was the omnipresent player always available to take a pass to move the ball forward.
He almost, in fact, produced a flawless game. His only fault came during one of his many sojourns up the pitch. He had brought the ball into a promising position when the referee signalled a foul. Even then, Loftus managed to slip a subtle pass away to Jordan Flynn which would have put his club teammate through for a point at the very least, if not for the whistle.
His game was peppered with those sniping runs from deep into the forward line. It means he brings a two-pronged game to the fold that may well see him receive special attention from opposing management teams in the future. Pull back and the player will drive the game forward with cutting darts through the lines. Cover the space in the middle third and you’re simply making it easier for a playmaker of his ability to pick out forwards with long passes.
In the final minutes of last Friday week’s final, with Mayo already on their way to their first FBD title in a decade, Loftus even managed to sink his own score. It served as proof that his penal transportation back to defence hasn’t robbed him of his eye for a score.
This McStay experiment will still need to be stress-tested when more than a pre-season trophy is on the line.
It will also need to stand up to scrutiny when Mayo are once again forced to brave unforgiving elements in the coming weeks.
But McStay has already done enough to suggest what everybody expected: His tenure will not lack outside-the-box thinking.