Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Suddenly, Mayo are back in every conversation...

Peter Keane, meanwhile, will also be delighted with his weekend's work as any absentees will be getting restless in light of some of the individual performances they witnessed
Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Suddenly, Mayo are back in every conversation...

EVASIVE ACTION: Mayo attacker Tommy Conroy looks to sidestep Galway’s Conor Campbell during Sunday’s surprisingly one-sided Allianz Football League Division 1 game at Tuam Stadium. Picture: Ramsey Cardy, Sportsfile

Mayo, with an emphatic display in Tuam have put themselves firmly back in the conversation for major honours this winter.

The usual talk of it ‘only being the league’ does not apply this year. With Championship around the corner, current form lines are not only relevant but important also. There was so much to admire about Mayo and evidently things are coming together nicely at exactly the right time. 

Lockdown has suited them. They have been on the road for a long time and the chance to get off the merry-go-round for a few months has given them a renewed freshness. The constant travelling back and forth from Dublin where many of them are based can be mentally wearing. Cumulative niggles picked up over the years could be attended to and rehabbed appropriately with no need to rush back.

There were some big names absent but this allowed James Horan run out some of his emerging young guns.

After the way many of them performed they will be slow to give back those starting jerseys. The relocation of Conor Loftus to midfield was an innovative and creative decision that worked well.

Young defenders Oisín Mullin and Eoghan McLaughlin were excellent. Both defended well and are mobile, physical and aggressive.

Significantly, there is now a much better balance to their forward line. Aidan O’Shea at full-forward gives them structure and a focal point. It also concentrates his mind and rather than trying to be all things to all men out the field he delivered a focused and ultimately highly effective display. It allows Mayo for the first time in a while to mix it, between long and short, between running and kicking. It also means Cillian O’Connor is free to focus more on scoring rather than having also to be a target man. Tommy Conroy in the corner gives them a further scoring threat that they have lacked for years. 

Most significantly, the emergence of debutant Mark Moran at centre forward looks to be a gamechanger. He can score, link and create. He has pace but is willing to work hard. His pass for Conor Loftus’ goal was brilliant. Sometimes we can rush to credit one particular coach with a change in fortunes but Ciarán McDonald is clearly influencing matters with the Mayo forwards in general — and Moran in particular. The positions he picked up and the way he played is definitely from the McDonald school of thought.

How he reacts to some Tyrone tightness next week will be interesting.

There is still question marks over their kickout. I was surprised Galway did not adopt a zonal press as Mayo repeatedly won the short chips into space, as they do. When forced long they lost as many as they they won. The coming weeks will highlight the importance of this.

When beaten in an All-Ireland semi-final, as Mayo were last year, one always looks to improve for the following season. Those gains that can make the difference when the margins are so tight. Earlier in the year this improvement wasn’t evident but it is now. The addition of McDonald to the backroom team, the emergence of quality youngsters with zero baggage and the freshness from the enforced lockdown has them in a good place.

This is Padraic Joyce’s first major test as senior manager. The joy of their spring football has been forgotten in one fell swoop. The steel in his personality will be tested this week as will the nerve of his management team. Shane Walsh was a big loss and Damien Comer’s early departure was unhelpful but he will be disgusted with their display.

Having moved Galway’s home games back to Tuam and to the traditional football heartlands, he will feel let down by the performance.

His philosophy is built around front foot football and hard work, neither of which was evident often enough yesterday. It wasn’t all doom and gloom with Paul Conroy and replacements Tom Flynn and Gary Walsh playing well in patches. Jim McGuinness was down as a performance coach recently and his vast experience may be needed again.

Joyce’s management team has a lot about them but they lack experience at this level.

They will need to respond against Dublin next weekend and Joyce may look to tweak his approach. When the attacking front foot football is malfunctioning, or when the opposition thwart it, what is plan B, Plan C and so on?

Kevin Walsh was roundly criticised for the overtly defensive shape that Galway adopted during his reign. The concession of 3-23 yesterday shows his logic. A balance between both approaches may be what is required.

Manna from heaven for Peter Keane

EYES ON THE PRIZE: Kerry midfielder David Moran claims possession as Monaghan’s Dessie Ward moves in to challenge in Saturday’s Allianz FL Division 1 clash. 	Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
EYES ON THE PRIZE: Kerry midfielder David Moran claims possession as Monaghan’s Dessie Ward moves in to challenge in Saturday’s Allianz FL Division 1 clash. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

A good weekend for Kerry. They have the winning of the Division One title in their own hands heading into the last weekend of the competition after a solid display in Monaghan. Peter Keane and co will be delighted to have a game of significance under their belt, two points in the bag and context for training this week. The strength of the panel was further highlighted. Any absentees, regardless of status or credits will be getting uneasy and restless in light of some of the individual performances they witnessed. A few weeks out from championship they will know they need to get back and fast. Manna from heaven for Keane.

When teams emerge from a period of inactivity, it’s possible to see patterns of what has been worked on in training. Clearly Kerry have been focused on having a strong defensive shape without the ball. Kerry knows they have the forwards to win most games but can they keep the top teams out? Without the ball they flood bodies back while working hard to force turnovers and mistakes. This involves huge work rate, mobility and fitness levels.

Keane typically goes with four half forwards in his attacking line-up to help with this. Ronan Buckley, Dara Moynihan, Seán O’Shea and Micheál Burns all put in massive shifts as they tracked back and counter-attacked at pace when they won the ball back. Diarmuid O’Connor’s mobility and appetite for work also complement this system. Because these players track back to force turnovers, often it is the backs who have the energy and legs to go the other way for the counter-attack - i.e., Jason Foley, Gavin White, Paul Murphy and Tom O’Sullivan all attacking at pace with effect at different times during Saturday’s game. For 65 minutes, Kerry really frustrated Monaghan with this system and the hosts had to rely on outside shots and frees for scores.

The downside of this system is twofold. It takes energy and huge fitness to sustain it for 75 to 80 minutes. It’s too early to say if this was a factor for the final ten minutes when Monaghan came back at Kerry. The second disadvantage is it is harder to create goal chances. Kerry created a few on Saturday but converted none. They have scored four goals in six games so far in this year’s league and it is something I am sure they will be looking to balance in the coming weeks.

They have other works-ons also. David Clifford again shone when on the ball, creating and scoring with aplomb. They will look to get him on more ball going forward. They will also look to close the game out better. In the 65th minute, they worked a great score for Clifford which illustrates what they want to do late on when well ahead. They held possession frustrating Monaghan and sucking them up the field, Shane Ryan found O’Shea with a great foot pass, who in turn found Clifford with a pass for a mark and score. For the rest of the game, their game management wasn’t as sharp and will be addressed in coming sessions.

Monaghan will be disappointed with much of their display. They came strong in the end but never looked like getting a result. The introduction of Conor McManus at half-time and relocation of Shane Carey to centre forward improved matters but too many delivered substandard performances. Unsurprisingly they lacked sharpness and made rudimentary errors but more surprisingly many of them looked short on energy and maybe even fitness. They are still in a relegation battle and while their head-to-head record with Mayo is a help they still need a win next weekend against Meath. With Cavan in the championship a week later they need to get their house in order fast to avoid relegation and an early championship exit.

Give GAA players a pass, not a mouthful, this winter

TO HAVE AND HOLD: Cork’s Colm O’Callaghan shields possession from Louth’s Patrick Reilly during Saturday’s Allianz FL match at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. O’Callaghan scored the first of Cork’s five goals. Picture: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
TO HAVE AND HOLD: Cork’s Colm O’Callaghan shields possession from Louth’s Patrick Reilly during Saturday’s Allianz FL match at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. O’Callaghan scored the first of Cork’s five goals. Picture: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

There were plenty of noteworthy results as inter-county football resumed. Cork promoted on a big score, Wicklow hammered Antrim in Division 4, Division 2 remained up for grabs, and Dublin mixed the good and bad to see off a plucky Meath. We will reserve judgement on them to see if a malaise is indeed setting in or if they are merely blowing out the dirty petrol.

The relegation battle in Division 2 next weekend will make for some viewing. Fermanagh are gone, and there’s one other to join them — and with the implications that relegation brings for next year, the stakes are high.

As league moves into championship, expect to see the influence of the coaching teams during games more and more. While the aim is to create an environment where it is the players who are leading the decisionmaking on the pitch, often in the heat of battle, with physical and mental exhaustion setting in, reminders are necessary, hence the role of the Maor Foirne.

With no crowds, vocal coaches can get constant instructions to their players. The mid-half water breaks are a time-out, in effect, and concise guidelines and reminders given to players here have the potential to be significant. I can think of more than one occasion where I would love to have had a time-out in the middle of a half, just to reset.

The resumption of intercounty action with blanket coverage across the weekend was gratifying. In these challenging times, there was something reassuring about it. Amateur players, management, and officials all deserve massive credit for providing this entertainment for us during a pandemic. They will all be back in work this morning, far from the bubbles and gated communities of professional sport. We should give them impunity from over-the-top and personalised criticism for the rest of this season. Many of the players seemed to play with a joie de vivre, appreciating the fact that they are getting the chance to play games again after so long.

While the romance and parochialism of the club was so enjoyable to follow for the summer months, watching the best of the best tussle at the highest level has a different level of fascination for the nation. Once safe to do so, hopefully it can continue.

On Saturday evening, while the country’s chief medical officer was informing the nation of 1,276 new Covid-19 cases and eight further deaths, we were able to watch Roscommon and Armagh going toe-to-toe.

That escapism will help keep us sane, and will be important for the winter months. The possible permutations next weekend, at both ends of the table, across all four divisions will keep us nattering for the week.

Isn’t it great?

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