Friday, March 24, 2023

Make no mistake about it, Mayo are the best team in the land right now. And by a distance.
Having watched all the Division 1 games last weekend, Mayo are a plane above the other contenders as regards confidence, game-management, speed and power. They’re also the most entertaining football team to watch currently and are playing a scintillating brand of football. Whether any of this present form translates to silverware in the summer, time will tell.
Records are there to be broken and Mayo firmly put the “zero wins in Donegal” stat to bed. This was a demolition job of a Donegal team that are miles off the pace. I made my senior intercounty debut in Ballybofey in 2007 in a three-point defeat to the Tír Chonaill men and that was one of a long list of hard luck stories for Mayo in the Northwest in recent decades.
Leaving their home dominance against Mayo aside, Donegal almost never lose to any team in Ballybofey.
Sunday’s loss to Mayo was only their second loss in MacCumhaill Park in twelve years. Their win versus Kerry there in January stretched their unbeaten run to 22 games on the banks of the River Finn.
All of these facts and figures make Mayo’s clinical dispatching of (former manager) Paddy Carr’s men all the more impressive.

Assistant Mayo manager Stephen Rochford and fellow coach Liam McHale observe their team’s warm-up prior to last Sunday’s match against Donegal. Picture: INPHO/Lorcan Doherty

Mayo football is always lauded for its fitness, athleticism and tackling but kicking-passing, shooting and ball skills are rarely high on the list of commendations for Mayo men. This Mayo can team can play ball though. They are so comfortable with ball in hand and at feet.
The team’s shooting has improved immeasurably in recent months. Goals are coming more easily this season but the rate of point-taking from play is also way up. 17 points last Sunday to add to the 16 points in Hyde Park a fortnight before makes good reading.
These tallies were recorded in middling March conditions too. The movement and shape of the forward play is black and white compared to last year’s huffing and puffing.
It now looks like Mayo can open up opposing defences at will. Even if Donegal are in the doldrums, they still are a difficult team to break down, as Galway and Armagh found in recent weeks. Mayo, however, had no such trouble with their threats coming from every direction.
Mayo’s ball retention around the middle of the park has also come on a bomb in recent months. We used to wilt in the face of mass defences, rampaging down blind alleys and running out of ideas before being turned over. Now in the middle third, the ball flashes from left to right with purpose and patience. It’s heads-up play though and when the opportunity arises a clever, direct ball is dinked inside.
Aidan O’Shea is really benefitting from these tactics and looks a man reborn on the edge of the square. Catching and kicking three marks in a single match is absolute stonewall proof that this is a strategy Mayo are working on. They still have the option of the strike runners from deep à la Paddy Durcan, Sam Callinan et al. but are now much happier to mix it up and vary their attacking play.
The mobility, size and kicking ability of Jack Carney, Jordan Flynn and Diarmuid O’Connor also help Mayo to play it any way they like. The importance of good coaching cannot be underestimated either and Mayo look extremely well-drilled.
Although his work often goes under the radar, Stephen Coen is a key cog in they way the ball is transitioned from back to front. He is often at the start of attacks and directs operations as Mayo probe from side to side. He doesn’t kick scores and rarely runs through the heart of opposing defences, but he gets his hands on some amount of ball and knits a lot of play together. Unheralded perhaps, but no doubt that his contribution is hugely valued by his teammates and management. Not every player can be a talismanic, match-winner but in a systems game functional, disciplined players like Coen help to make everything tick.
The team that will start in championship is beginning to become clear. I thought up to very recently that Robbie Hennelly would come back and force his way in between the sticks for championship. There is no chance of that now, however, and, barring injury, Colm Reape will definitely be number 1 for the Connacht Championship opener. And good luck to him as he hasn’t put a foot wrong this season and looks extremely competent and confident minding the house.
Conor Loftus will almost certainly be at 6 for the Roscommon match too. As experiments go, you’d have to say that it has been a success given the performances of the team in a defensive and attacking sense. Again, like Coen, he seems to suit the system there and if it’s not broken, why fix it? Roscommon cut us open a number of times down our middle but Donegal didn’t get a sniff of a goal chance so there has obviously been some great work done on the training pitch in the last few weeks to tighten those channels.
David McBrien is also a shoo-in at full-back. Some moments just announce the arrival of players onto the inter-county stage and the way he soared and caught a mark high above Hugh McFadden and Reape on the edge of the square signalled that we have ourselves a full-back. Equally as impressive was his little chip-pick after the ball plugged in a brown patch on the soggy surface a few moments earlier. A stopper who can play ball – ideal!

Mayo’s Paul Towey and Donegal’s Daire O’Baoill. Picture: INPHO/Lorcan Doherty

The old reliables were up to their usual tricks too. Paddy Durcan looks back to top form and fitness and he is still breaking opposing defenders’ ankles with his slick shimmies. It was DOC’s 100th appearance for Mayo and I’m not sure he has ever looked as at home as he does right now in midfield. Ryan O’Donoghue was tackling like a terrier in the full-back line yet somehow also running rings around would-be tacklers at the other end of the field moments later. In another positive development, Aidan O’Shea scored some frees from the right-hand-side. I’m not sure I’ve seen that before but such is the confidence in the squad right now, anything goes. We have been crying out for a left-footed free-taker for years so if O’Shea can keep swinging them over it will be like manna from heaven for this team.
Like all glass half-empty Mayo fans, there is an internal nagging doubt that this is all going too well for Mayo. Something surely has to go wrong somewhere soon. Be that as it may, I would much prefer to be where Mayo are right now than Donegal. They are at a low ebb and their outlook seems bleak. Manchester United suffered from a decade of hardship after Alex Ferguson retired. This period become known as “The post-Fergie wilderness years”. It looks like Donegal are about to embark upon “The post-Murphy wilderness years.” Off-field, behind the scenes trouble has also soured the mood in the county. The return of either Paddy McBrearty or Ryan McHugh to their team would certainly aid their cause.
Looking ahead, Mayo have a big enough squad to give some game time to lads on the fringes or those returning from injury against Monaghan this Sunday. Of course, the temptation will be there to keep the momentum going and retain this unbeaten streak but it is now bigger picture time as championship quickly approaches.
After Monaghan though, it’s a bald-headed assault on the League Final the following weekend. We have been by far the best team in Ireland this spring and a league title would be just rewards.
Let’s go for it!

One more thing …

Man of the moment, Gary Lineker, famously never got booked or red-carded in his entire 16-year career. It is almost impossible for a modern-day forward in Gaelic football to have such an exemplary record.
As teams build-up from the back with short kick-outs, forwards are actively encouraged by their mentors to be cynical, take the foul and slow down the opposition’s momentum.
Case in point, David Clifford has been booked in every league game he has played in 2023.

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