Friday, March 10, 2023

Slowly but surely, Mayo are creating serious squad depth. On Sunday, Rory Byrne became the 30th member of Kevin McStay’s panel to get game time in this National Football League campaign. That is quite a number given we have only played five games. It’s also an impressive stat as such changes do not seem to have caused major fluctuations in Mayo’s performance levels so far this year. Mayo have been consistently good, sometimes excellent, and a good bit more impressive than any other team in the land to date.

Of course, it is much easier to rotate and experiment when safety is secure. Having a pool of quality footballers also helps. For once, I was glad when I heard just prior to throw-in that there were wholesale changes to the named team. Just a month or so out from championship, Sunday was the ideal time to give Byrne, Sam Callinan, Paddy Durcan, Cillian O’Connor and Tommy Conroy their first starts of 2023. It’s a good place to be in when none of the late changes majorly weakened the starting line-up.

The Mayo footballers in a huddle prior to throw-in at Hyde Park for their Division 1 clash with Roscommon last Sunday. Picture: INPHO/Evan Treacy

In spite of a scare at the death, I felt that Mayo were the far superior team. Roscommon were dangerous and fought manfully until the end but Mayo were a much pacier and more physical outfit. Some of Roscommon’s new players looked on the light side and, although good footballers, aren’t quite at the races just yet in terms of physicality and size.
I never got the feeling that Roscommon really believed they could beat Mayo either. They looked a beaten docket early on as Mayo raced ahead and did most of the damage. The wind was influential but the Rossies only really became threatening once they thought the game was gone and they could throw caution to the wind. Roscommon always seem to fancy themselves against Galway but Mayo definitely have the Indian sign over them in recent years. I’ve spoken to a few of their players who just hate playing Mayo. They have very talented and skilful forwards but never relish facing Mayo defenders who are quick and strong.
A lot of people seem to think it would be a disaster for Mayo to play Roscommon in a League Final a week before the pair meet in the Connacht Championship. I don’t agree and think that it wouldn’t be ideal for Roscommon, but would create a nice problem for Mayo. Both teams would probably shuffle their decks and rest key players but Mayo have much more strength and depth so would be likely to field a much stronger fifteen. It is a national title after all and playing Roscommon in it would present a massive opportunity to secure national honours. That scenario is a bit away yet as while it looks like Mayo will be there, Roscommon’s league fortunes are in the balance.
Mayo defended superbly in the first-half, getting tight, closing off space, swamping the ball carrier and limiting Roscommon’s scoring opportunities. Kevin McStay will be worried, however, about the concession of the two goals. They were two lovely, composed finishes but both arose because of strong running through huge holes in the middle of our defence. It’s hard to say whether Conor Loftus as centre-back was at fault but if deploying a play-making 6, it is vital that your centre is plugged and not porous. The fact that the two goals were so similar though should help McStay and Stephen Rochford identify any flaws that currently exist in their new defensive structure as otherwise it has been hugely impressive.
Ben O’Carroll’s late chance to grab the winner came from a hit and hope ball that was hoofed into the square late on so I wouldn’t blame the defence for that. In fact, Diarmuid O’Connor deserves huge credit for putting his body on the line to save the day. For the second week in-a-row, O’Connor made a vital interception when a goal looked inevitable. Doc’s form is excellent and he is ideally suited to midfield given the way he contributes so handsomely at both ends of the field.
The brother, Cillian, also put in a great shift. He is looking hungry, lean and focused. He’s a dangerous operator when in this shape. He is so experienced and was much too cute for some of the greenhorn newbies in the Roscommon full-back line. He is such a strong man with a powerful back and arms. He’s not the quickest but he invariably makes something happen when the ball is kicked into his area given his cleverness and strength. There was a ball in the second-half when he was stood up by four Roscommon tacklers and a free for overcarrying looked likely. He somehow toe-poked the ball out of their trap to set up a free Mayo man for a scoring opportunity. I’m not sure if McStay et al plan to use him from the bench or as a starter for championship this year. It’s clear though that he is not ready to become an impact sub just yet and his bloody-mindedness, determination and scoring return will make him a tough man to leave out.
Tommy Conroy looked sharp on his return to the starting team. Understandably, he’s not fully match fit yet but he certainly has not lost any of the turbo injection that defined his playing style pre-injury. It was also interesting to see him play a bit further from goal in the first-half and running at players from deep. Along with having Aidan O’Shea on the edge of the square, this is another tactic which could give Mayo’s attacking play more variety and make it less predictable.

Mayo’s Ryan O’Donoghue with a fan after the game. Picture: INPHO/Evan Treacy

Jack Carney was the game’s standout performer and was deservingly awarded Man of the Match. When he’s on it and involved in the play, he can catch, kick, tackle, run and score. After a quiet start to the season he has really come in to his own in the last few weeks. Although his goal was a gift, it was him who was pressing high to force the mistake. When out around the middle of the park, he is unbelievable in the air and one of the main reasons Mayo dominated kick-outs all day.
It wasn’t a perfect performance but it was a good one all the same and March is not the time for perfection. Mayo successfully rolled with all the blows that Roscommon dealt them and are in good shape going in to the league’s mini-break. The weekend off will be most welcome as Mayo did look a little leggy towards the end of the match which is to be expected given their high-energy performances so far this spring.
I don’t know about you, but even as a supporter I’m finding this new condensed league format tough going with games coming thick and fast every weekend. It’s hard to keep up with it all! I cannot imagine how energy-sapping it must be for those players who are at maximum output every seven or eight days. It’ll take a big squad to cope with the rigours of the 2023 season. Thankfully, Mayo are developing just that.

One more thing …

Mark Jackson, the Wicklow goalkeeper, kicked three points as his side defeated Andy Moran’s Leitrim in Division 4 last weekend. Still only 24-years-old, Jackson has now kicked well over 100 points for Wicklow from his goalkeeping berth. If ever a stat summed up the way Gaelic football has changed in the last 20 years, then surely that is it.

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