Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Plenty of the old Mayo remains, but McStay is up and running

For me, Galway were the better team on the night, but Mayo were fitter and finished stronger.
Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Plenty of the old Mayo remains, but McStay is up and running

WELL MATCHED: Bob Tuohy of Mayo in action against Neil Mulcahy of Galway during the Allianz Football League Division 1 match between Mayo and Galway at Hastings Insurance MacHale Park. Pic: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

What a way to kick off the 2023 season. A full blooded contest with occasional bouts of championship like intensity under the lights of Castlebar in front of nearly 15,000 souls on the last Saturday of January. The keen local rivalry was obvious and Mayo will be the happier team to have snatched the draw with the last kick of the game.

For me, Galway were the better team on the night, but Mayo were fitter and finished stronger. Galway are further down the road in their development both on and off the field. The return of Peter Cooke is huge for them as Pádraic Joyce is keen to strengthen his squad. The Maigh Cuillin man had a big impact when introduced for the injured Rob Finnerty.

A further aspect identified for remedial work since last season by Joyce appears to be the development of a repeatable 100% short kickout. Connor Gleeson in general likes to go long and is good at it. It served them well last year and Galway did get a few great scores via this method on Saturday, such as the long kick out to Damien Comer that led to Cillian McDaid’s ninth-minute point. When executed properly, it is highly effective, and simplifies the game. 

However, they were under pressure for periods with Mayo excellent on breaks underlining why Joyce wants to work on the short ones. Gleeson doesn’t look overly comfortable on them, yet. They also had the effect of inviting Mayo on and as they once more proved are excellent tacklers.

The main storyline out of Saturday evening was always going to be Kevin McStay’s bow as Mayo supremo, finally. He will be happy to be up and running. He was appointed last August and has had to wait the bones of five months to get going. Undoubtedly he has been working very hard in the meantime readying an elite high-performance setup to ensure that his players are being developed and challenged. 

He appeared nervous beforehand and relieved afterwards. He is experienced at this level and will know that once the first game is under the belt that everything will flow from here on in, as they move rapidly from week to week.

Reviewing the match just played, checking injuries and availability for the following weekend and immediately looking forward to the next opposition will ensure the weeks and indeed the season itself will fly by. The pitch session or two that will take place midweek will be all about tweaking and correcting from the last game and adding layers for the next one. For McStay and Mayo, that means a tough trip to Armagh next weekend but they go there with some wind in their sails.

I wasn’t sure what to make of Mayo tactically on Saturday evening. They looked unsure which isn’t overly surprising if they are trying to add new elements to their gameplan. Saturday will give them context now and will allow them to analyse their performance and look to improve for next weekend and for subsequent matches.

There were numerous features of the same old Mayo. On the plus side they brought huge intensity to bear and forced turnovers consistently. They were excellent on breaking ball. They kept battling right to the end and equalised twice at the death in a low-scoring contest, where their fitness levels and strength off the bench were critical. 

On the negative side, they seemed to lack understanding and a spark upfront and kicked four balls into the goalie’s hands, a mortal sin. In the period from the 25th minute until half-time they kicked three balls short and two wides. They will have to eradicate that profligacy to win silverware. What will disappoint them most is that this is a continuation of a pattern so clear in the third quarter of last year’s All Ireland quarter-final defeat to Kerry.

In analysing the new Mayo the standout features were that they got nearly everybody behind the ball out of possession. And when they had the ball they were focused on retaining it and guarding against turnovers.

In his programme notes McStay stated: “Apart from aiming for victory in every outing, we also want to develop patterns of play that will maximise the strengths of our players.” 

Those patterns on the evidence of Saturday night are still very much based on a hard running game.

There has been a lot of talk of developing a kicking element to their game, and that the selection of Conor Loftus at centre back is a key part of this. I saw little evidence of this, and maybe it isn’t a priority for the new management. John Daly’s presence as a sweeper may have acted as a deterrent also. 

Matthew Ruane’s point after half time did feature three kicks in a row and was a fine score, but that was the exception rather than the norm. If indeed McStay does want his team to kick the ball more embedding this will take time.

The technical act of actually kicking the ball is only one small piece of the jigsaw. First off the player in possession has to play with his head up and look to move the ball rather than immediately run it. For players that are accustomed to constantly running, the ball this can be harder than you would think. 

Secondly, receivers have to be in the right area of the pitch to collect kick passes and have to be on the move at the right time. This is hard to do when everyone is retreating out of possession.

It is vital to keep a few bodies up the pitch to have the shape and structure to kick. Furthermore, the chemistry and relationships that are central to a kicking game take time to develop. Of course a further part of the evolution of a kicking game is the possible deployment of Aidan O’Shea at full forward. He came on there the last night, but his clubmate Ruane almost immediately got a black card which meant O’Shea had to move out and in for the 10 minutes.

Galway's Damien Comer and Aidan O'Shea of Mayo at the final whistle. Pic: ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo
Galway's Damien Comer and Aidan O'Shea of Mayo at the final whistle. Pic: ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

When he was inside I watched his movement closely. He repeatedly made little runs from inside to out looking for popped balls towards the 20-metre line centrally. The problem was the players in possession were reluctant to kick inside. In fact the vast majority of them weren’t even looking inside never mind kicking it in there. I have always felt that O’Shea inside with a decent supply could transform Mayo. 

Tommy Conroy and Cillian O’Connor feeding off him with Ryan O’Donoghue supplying the bullets from a little further out would offer them variety and a serious threat close to goal.

In the first half the Mayo attack looked static. They had bodies forward and were occupying positions wide and deep. However there was a lack of real movement with intent. It allowed Galway to keep them at arm’s length and it took some individual brilliance from James Carr, rather than systematic ingenuity, to punch a hole for his outstanding goal. They improved after half time by showing for the ball more aggressively and looked far more threatening.

McStay and co will be very pleased with how their debutants performed. 

I was particularly impressed with David McBrien. He has size and pace and had a great battle with Damien Comer. While Comer played well McBrien matched up well to him. His lightning pace was evident when supporting the play on a couple of occasions. Full back has been a problem position for them and if they emerge from the league with a tall, strong, tight-marking championship-ready number three with pace it will be momentous.

While it is very early days and they are clearly a work in progress getting a result first day out was key. If McStay was wondering how long his honeymoon period would last he got an idea just three minutes into the game. As Mayo went through the first of the many keep-ball sessions that pockmarked the match the crowd voiced their disapproval. Mayo expects.

John Fogarty mentioned in these pages on Saturday that Mayo have not had an undefeated league season at home in nine years. Positively, after the first weekend that record is still intact, for a few more weeks at least.

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