Mayo are rejuvenated and are realistic contenders for Sam Maguire once more. They are playing with confidence and with a joie de vivre, the joy that winning brings. I have mentioned before how they remind me of Kerry last year, gradually going through the gears and dealing with each challenge as it is presented.
Young, fearless and aggressive backs who love defending and have no emotional baggage embedded in to the team? Tick.
Variety in their play with more of a kicking element than in the recent past? Check.
A home for Aidan O’Shea that emphasises his strengths (ball winning, distribution and tackling) while downplaying his weaknesses (mobility)? No problem.
They have won tough games on the road and hammered others at home. But as McStay knows well, in inter-county management there is always another box to tick. The next week and the next match always brings a new challenge. It is what makes Sunday’s Division 1 decider at Croke Park so interesting.
There has been some debate about whether Mayo will go for it or not. I think they have no choice. Facing into championship on the back of two defeats would undo much of the positivity of their strong spring.
It will also be in their mind that they could do with puncturing some of their neighbour’s momentum as Galway continue on their defined path of continuous improvement.
In effect a championship match against their biggest rivals in Croke Park is perfect preparation for their Connacht championship game against Roscommon a week later. The resting of key bodies last weekend was a key indicator that McStay is looking at these two weekends as one block, with a chance to win national silverware in HQ followed by their Connacht opener to book a place in a provincial semi-final and a rematch against Galway in Pearse Stadium.
Think back 12 months. Mayo got to the league final, which was three weeks out from their Connacht championship opener. They lost the final by a score a man, and it derailed their season.
That final defeat meant they lost three of their last four games and precious momentum generated earlier in league 2022 evaporated. McStay will be aware of this, but more importantly so should the senior players. They should be driving the squad the ensure that a repeat does not occur.
It was clear from the way Cillian O’Connor spoke this week that it is very much a happy camp. As a group they seem to be at that sweet spot that Pat Riley, the NBA basketball coach, describes as ‘the Innocent Climb’ where everyone is pulling together, egos are parked and the team is all that counts. Or as the All Blacks might bluntly put it “No Dickheads”.
McStay and co are coming up against the most adaptable team in the country so every aspect of Mayo version 2023 will be well tested.
The nature of their performances will give both squads great context to strengthen their approaches for championship. What is working and what needs working on? How both sides deal with and try to exploit the opposing centre back sweepers will be of particular interest. I was amazed last year how few teams tried to test Tadhg Morley in this role for Kerry.
The fact David Clifford was at the other end of the field was a major factor but generally teams that win All Irelands go after the opposition’s strengths as well as trying to exploit their weaknesses.
Conor Loftus has really grown into this role but he will find it harder to drop off the Galway forwards, particularly on a quick attack. Johnny Heaney has had another outstanding league and if he plays at 11 again he presents a very different set of challenges. Generally when a six drops off, he gets help from midfielders and half forwards to deal with his man. Diarmuid O’Connor, Jordan Flynn and Jack Carney have all been adept at helping Loftus throughout the league.
The problem this time is that Galway have threats from every line of the field and the domino effect of dropping back a line to help Loftus drop may not be as effective.
Paul Conroy and Cillian McDaid from midfield, Dylan McHugh and John Daly from the half back line and Seán Kelly from the full back line are all major threats on the ball and none of them can be abandoned to go and help the sweeper. A possible solution for McStay might be to play Loftus at wing back, matching him up with Peter Cooke and dropping from there. It will certainly be worth keeping an eye on.
At the other end of the field, John Daly plays this role to perfection. He is excellent at protecting the ‘D’ centrally but crucially he is also a threat on the ball.
His probing kick passes often unlock opposing set defences. Last year in the Connacht championship game in Castlebar, both Daly and McHugh dropped in as double sweepers and frustrated the life out of Mayo, albeit a more running-orientated Mayo. Since then Galway have developed and Daly is entrusted to fulfil the role on his own which brings an overall better balance to their team.
Mayo will be anxious to occupy him and take away some of his significant influence. I was impressed with their approach the night they played Kerry in Castlebar. They seemed to have a plan in possession where they got strong runners coming through the middle of Kerry’s ‘D’ off the ball.
Tadhg Morley was reacting to these runners, as he had to, and it freed up space in an area that Kerry had protected so well last year. It certainly disrupted the Kerry defence and I will be interested to see will they get as much joy against Galway Sunday should they deploy a similar tactic.
Aidan O’Shea’s role and positioning can also test Daly. O’Shea is excellent in the air when the ball is kicked in to him but he is also very good at showing for little jabbed hand passes and slipping a teammate in for a score with quick hands. This variety in his play is making him very hard to mark. If he plays this role from the 20 metre line out towards the centre of the ‘D’ he can attract Daly towards him.
It leaves space inside close to goal which could allow the lethal Ryan O’Donoghue to profit. We often did this with Kieran Donaghy for periods of games, in effect using him like a man in the post in basketball. Donaghy would attract all manner of attention but it freed up spaces for the other forwards to operate in and allowed him to feed them for scores. As lethal as a kicked ball to the full forward line is, it can be defended. An accurate hand pass to an open target man with runners off him is virtually undefendable.
There are so many more intriguing aspects to this game such as how Mayo’s back deal with the Galway forwards, whether Pádraic Joyce persists with Conor Gleeson and the battle that will probably materialise between Damien Comer and David McBrien.
There is very little between the sides and if extra time is required it would not surprise me.