So far the evidence would suggest Mayo are going down a similar route to 2017 for their qualifier odyssey.
That season, they ground their way with grit and determination through the Championship back door, just doing enough to get by the likes of Derry, Cork, and Roscommon in the quarter-final. Then, when required, they dramatically went through the gears for their semi-final win over us and the final, where Dublin needed everything in their locker to win the three in a row.
A mixture of experience, spirit and good management meant they ground out another win here on Saturday in an entertaining game they could have lost and were properly tested in. Armagh had their chances. David Clarke made a great save from Jamie Clarke when at full stretch tipping the ball onto the post midway through the second half and Rory Grugan, with more composure, could have netted rather than blasting over the bar for a clear goal chance. They will also regret long into the winter that they didn’t work that free better at the end of the game. More on that anon.
In Saturday’s Examiner, I wrote about Mayo’s game smarts and their ability to grind out results in tight games. I felt that their high-level experience accumulated over this decade would stand to them against Armagh, a side still developing and learning the tricks of the trade. This was never more so evident than in the game-deciding passages of play. Mayo were one ahead as the clock ticked down and were awarded a free on the sideline outside the 45m line. Playing into a stiff breeze the shot wasn’t on for Cillian O’Connor and he looked to work it short. In that situation, you want to go forward with the kick and threaten, rather than sideways or worse still backwards to keep possession. Kevin McLoughlin understood this. He went in tight with Donie Vaughan bringing his marker Mark Shields with him. McLoughlin wanted to use his teammate and his marker Niall Grimley as a shield to obstruct Shields when he made his break to receive the kick from O’Connor. When McLoughlin made his move Shields panicked and rather than let McLoughlin go and try to contain him once he had received possession he pulled him back, right under the gaze of referee Maurice Deegan, allowing Mayo a much easier shot at the post from the centre of the D. The years of experience and regularly being in these tight situations meant Mayo were comfortable and competent in the game-winning minutes.
This was in stark contrast to Armagh’s late free where they butchered a chance to take the match to extra time. They went backwards with the free and then had a long distance shot from a worse angle. They should learn from this and if presented with a similar situation again will work the chance much better. They needed to get a scorer on the initial kick, free up someone inside the 45 to play a 1-2 with and then either win a free or have a shot at the posts. With the way Stefan Campbell and Jamie Clarke played in the second half, either one would have been my choice.
A further indication of Mayo’s reservoir of experience was the manner their senior players stood up when the need was most. Shortly after Andy Moran’s substitution, Mayo were also forced to withdraw Lee Keegan with an ankle injury. Things weren’t looking great for them at the time, a point down approaching half time after playing with a stiff breeze but Jason Doherty and Patrick Durcan showed great leadership kicking a massive point each to send them in at half-time a point ahead. Colm Boyle was superb throughout in his sweeper role reading the play exceptionally well and together with Keith Higgins repeatedly drove them forward in the second half. This leadership from the senior players allowed their younger team-mates to impact also with Fionn McDonagh having a strong first half and Darren Coen kicking four points, including two beauties in the second half.
I also mentioned here Saturday that if Mayo lost, James Horan might have hankered back to the cosy pundits’ world but it is the enjoyment of winning games like this that would have enticed him back into the fold in the first place. (That and the burning ambition of winning the All-Ireland.) From a management perspective, winning a tight match in front of your home crowd, having been tested to the hilt and making a lot of good calls is where the buzz is.
Horan and his management had a very good night. I raised my eyebrows when Andy Moran was substituted before half-time. While he isn’t as dynamic as he was, he was still showing for and winning ball and he set up Fionn McDonagh’s goal with a clever pass. However, Moran’s replacement Kevin McLoughlin was outstanding and his performance was a big reason they won. He scored the game-breaking goal, scored an important point and won the two frees for Mayo’s final two scores. A further mid-game adjustment by Horan that worked was the decision to go short with every kickout.
The early Armagh goal came from a long kickout that Mayo lost and they also conceded two points in the second half from long kickouts lost. Clarke’s long kicks into the breeze were hanging in the air giving the advantage to Armagh. When they changed tack and went short it was very difficult for Armagh to generate any momentum. It resulted in Mayo having to carry a lot of ball into the breeze which suited them as they played measured football and were much more economical in that second half kicking no wide. Horan knows being on the line influencing matters is where it’s really at and this morning as he awaits the Qualifier draw he will be happy with his decision to return.
From the Armagh perspective, Kieran McGeeney is building something special. It clearly shows the value of sticking with the right manager for a long term project. They are playing a good brand of football and they have many of the ingredients to make it to the top tier and challenge for big honours again. They have a good goalkeeper in Blaine Hughes who is extremely accurate with his kickouts, winning 80% of his own restarts on Saturday. They are good at the back and have a few invaluable man markers in Paul Hughes and Paddy Burns. Brendan Donaghy was outstanding as a sweeper, his only error being the missed tackle on McLoughlin for the crucial goal, and Aidan Forker revels in his enforcer role. They are strong and mobile in the middle of the field with Jarlath Óg Burns and Niall Grimley and they have good forwards. Four of them are real threats in Rian O’Neill, Jamie Clarke, Campbell and Grugan, Aidan Nugent links the play well and Jemar Hall is a selfless worker and break winner. As a matter of urgency, they need to get back up to Division 1 in the National League to experience life with the big boys and to cultivate that match-winning nous to allow them to take the next step.
Facing into next weekend, Mayo have question marks over the fitness of Lee Keegan and Jason Doherty. They can’t afford to lose too many more players to injury as their sick bay swells to ruinous proportions. Mayo are generating momentum but have plenty to work on. Their own kickout, when forced long, malfunctioned and they carried the ball a play too far, too often, down cul de sacs when attacking. They lacked width up front, which has been a problem for them in the past, but they are still there and getting better.
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Anthony Daly reviews the hurling weekend with Brian Hogan, TJ Ryan and Ger Cunningham. In association with Renault - car partners of the GAA.