KIERAN SHANNON: Defensive progress indicates Mayo ready for final step

Aidan O’Shea is right. No sooner had he completed his latest wrecking-ball display then he’d tell reporters before they’d tell him, “The reality is we’re always going to be judged on whether we get over the line.”

Last Saturday night though there was a telling indicator that this year may finally be the one when their remarkable journey sees them getting to that destination.

This Mayo side have registered all kinds of records in All-Ireland quarter-finals that reflect its continuous, though for some too painful and incremental, progress.

Their 2011 ambush of Cork was the county’s first time to beat Cork in championship since 1916.By taking Down for 3-18 the following year they put up the biggest score a Mayo side ever had in a championship game in Croke Park. The next year they’d surpass that by racking up 4-17 on a shattered Donegal.

Last Saturday though it was a defensive statistical detail that suggests they’ve hardly been better geared to win it out.

For all the fine wins and big scores and sterling defensive displays this side has amassed over the past five seasons in Croke Park, last Saturday was the lowest score this particular group have ever conceded at headquarters, holding Donegal to a miserly 0-11.

Contrast that to last season when in Croke Park they gave up 3-14 to Dublin, 2-15 to Derry, the same to Cork, and 1-16 to Kerry in the drawn All-Ireland semi-final.

Or their three subsequent championship games elsewhere in which they would leak a further seven goals.

Clearly, something had to change for when they’d return to Croker.

Clearly, something has.

Deploying Barry Moran as a sweeper showed a willingness to finally protect the most overworked and exposed if previously finest (circa 2012-2013) full-back line in the country and the conviction of Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly’s promise to picking a team on a horses-for-courses basis. More so, in playing such a towering midfielder in such a role, it showed a fine example of what the US performance consultant Kenneth Baum would term Perception Stretching, or what the more unimaginative might would call thinking outside the box.

Most breakthrough All-Irelands require it, from the Canavan substitution strategy; switching Joe McMahon from wing-forward to full-back to curb Kieran Donaghy; Jim McGuinness and the Donegal revolution. Mayo have shown glimpses of it before — Keith Higgins as a line-breaking wing forward was a brilliant curveball from James Horan for the 2013 All-Ireland series — but Mayo 2015 will need more of that, at least one for each game, to win it all and the last day suggests management knows that. Put it this way: You could see Tom Parsons playing minutes at full-back on a Donaghy a la McMahon 2008. But before that, Mayo have to first come up with what curveballs and horses are best suited for the course that is Dublin.

The key will be to try to win the goal count, and certainly not to lose it. In Mayo’s five previous clashes against Jim Gavin’s side they’ve conceded at least two goals each time, 11 in all, while scoring only three themselves. This year’s clash in Castlebar was typical, and of the goal count in too many big Mayo games or against fellow big teams: Mayo no goals, their opponents two.

Last Saturday, Mayo reversed that. Now with Aidan O’Shea on the edge of one square and sweepers orbiting the other, they are the side set up to outgoal a fellow big four opponent.

The encouraging thing for Mayo is that they appear to have lost none of the qualities that made them so formidable under Horan. They still press high and tackle ferociously up the field. The same dedication to continuous individual improvement that he and his disciples preached remains.

Seamus O’Shea played in a minor All-Ireland final 10 years ago yet his foot passing has significantly improved this season. When Tom Parsons rejoined the panel his tackling was way off, sub-standard even. Now he’s one of the most intense and finest tackling midfielders in the country, a credit to the player and the work of Donie Buckley.

After last year’s Connacht championship Keith Higgins worked incessantly on his shooting from range with then backroom member Ed Coughlan, mindful that he’d made only two of his previous nine shots in competitive action for the county. He wouldn’t get a chance to shoot again in championship action until last Saturday night. You saw what he did, nailing it from 45 yards as the Donegal defence sat off. To paraphrase Ali, that shot under the lights was made far away from them.

Horan himself in his columns has singled out Jason Doherty for praise and rightly so. When it comes to the Mayo panel and other select teams, there are two omissions that baffle them. One: That Donie Vaughan, a player made for International Rules, has somehow yet to be selected to play International Rules. Secondly, that Jason Doherty was not an All Star nominee last year. Heading into the All-Ireland quarter-final weekend he would have the players’ Mayo player of the year. In their last game of the year he scored three points from play in Limerick. He did the same again last Saturday; isn’t that the kind of forward people have been saying Mayo have been lacking?

The biggest improvement of all seems to be in their collective game management. Even at the start of this championship, Jim McGuinness, who would know these things, applauded their mental toughness, something he would do again at the weekend. Now there is a greater mental cuteness to go with it.

Last Saturday after Lee Keegan’s goal they never looked like conceding one themselves, something you couldn’t say when they went seven points up on Cork 12 months ago. For the last half hour against Donegal they were more interested in keeping a clean sheet than they were in notching a third goal themselves. Again, that’s progress.

At one point in the Mayo project, it was healthier for them to seek out that third goal and continue to play until the final whistle and be open to blowing teams sky high in Croke Park rather than set up cagily and try to eke out a win. Now they are at a different juncture, now they know there’s a balance.

Watching how they played in the closing 25 minutes last Saturday night, the way they counterattacked and played keepball, with Aidan O’Shea coming back out the field, even around his own square, it brought to mind the line of the basketball coach Gerry Fitzpatrick whose Waterford Wildcats teams of the 1990s had previously endured so many narrow big-stage defeats. “They’ve learned how to lose every conceivable way,” he’d say, “that they now know how to win every conceivable way.”

Whatever happens on August 30, you’ll hardly see Mayo blowing leads and leaking late goals like they did against Dublin in that league game 18 months ago, or against Kerry 12 months ago.

Only thing, they’re meeting another serious heavyweight that has painfully absorbed the lessons of their 2014 All-Ireland semi-final defeat.

What a rumble it’s going to be.

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