A change of mindset key for Tribesmen

Mayo's Keith Higgins stepping it out at Elverys MacHale Park  ahead of their Connacht SFC final against Galway tomorrow. Picture: David Maher/Sportsfile

CONNACHT SFC FINAL:
Mayo v Galway
It’s not that long ago when to compare a team to Brazil was a compliment.

Many of us still recall John Morrison’s comments after a particularly bruising league semi-final between Mayo and Galway over eight years ago.

In decrying the negativity of the Galway team, or their ‘pulling and dragging’ as he called it at the time, Morrison said the Mayo team both he and Mickey Moran coached followed Brazil’s philosophy — they scored a lot, allowed the opposition score a lot but still came out on top.

I couldn’t help but think of Morrison’s comments this week, not just in light of Brazil’s demise but also in view of Alan Mulholland’s comments ahead of tomorrow’s Connacht final.

When asked if he had anything to learn from Mayo’s struggles with Roscommon in Hyde Park last month, and whether he would try anything similar to the Roscommon approach that very nearly got them over the line, Mulholland had this much to say: “You look at the players you have at your disposal and you look at what suits them. We might have different styles of players to what Roscommon might have, so maybe that won’t suit us to play a lot of men in defence.”

Peter Ford was the Galway manager around the time that Morrison made his remarks about Brazil. Like his predecessor in the job, John O’Mahony, Ford is a Mayo man and both were hard-nosed and practical when it came to the business of getting results in their adopted county. O’Mahony won two All-Irelands with one of the most exciting teams in the modern era and when he finished with them, Ford realised that Galway were on the slide, cut his cloth according to measure and played a more robust defensive brand of football.

This style did not sit well with many within Galway and it certainly did not sit well with a Mayo team that had begun to overtake Galway as the major force in Connacht football. So when Ford decided to address the deficiencies in Galway football, he was castigated for trying to develop a style that was alien to the traditions of the county to which he was a trustee and guardian.

Around about the same time in Kerry, Jack O’Connor had overseen the evolution of a game that was, on first inspection, alien to the traditions of that county. Jack got away with it because he delivered titles and he was a Kerryman. Ford didn’t because although he was practical in style and temperament, he was neither successful nor native.

In riling the Mayo management and players by going uber-defensive and in getting under the skin of traditionalists and the purists, Ford was surely on to something. He was showing Galway that, irrespective of their tradition of open attacking football, necessity dictated that in order to win matches, they had to adopt unpalatable tactics to get the result they craved.

In recent years, I’ve lost track of the amount of ex-Galway players and bred-to-the-bone Galway GAA men who’ve said that playing defensively isn’t the way things are done in the county. But if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

The irony of it is that there are obviously many successful clubs in Galway who wouldn’t be above resorting to whatever tactics it takes to win. Corofin won four of the last six senior championships because they can mix the defensive possession-based game with a decent counter attacking game.

Current Mayo manager, James Horan, will know from his last game as manager with Ballintubber that Killererin are capable of winning dour attritional games of football, just as they are capable of adding the traditional Galway flourishes to victory. Even Naomh Pádraig an Fháirche (Clonbur), managed by one of the most respected forwards of another era, Stephen Joyce, won an All-Ireland at junior level just over two years ago by supplementing their defensive efforts with extra forwards filtering back.

It is not an alien tactic in Galway and hasn’t been for some time. Indeed, given the degree of nuisance value Roscommon added to their game by withdrawing Cathal Cregg and others behind the ball at all times, I’m sure Galway will employ a similar approach at various stages in tomorrow’s Connacht final.

The challenge, from a Mayo perspective, is to be more up for the battle this time and not to be giving the underdog so much cause for encouragement.

Because, despite all the encouraging signs, the revenge motivation from last year and the cause for optimism in the Galway camp, the ball is very much in Mayo’s court tomorrow. They must realise by now that there’s no fast forward button of any description to get them back to where they want to be — playing do-or-die matches in Croke Park. Coming up against a Galway team and management whose every waking thought has been consumed by Mayo since the Salthill slaughter of 14 months ago, Mayo will surely know what to expect this time.

If the team selection is to be trusted, it appears James Horan feels this is no day for the novice who may or may not deliver on the day.

By selecting Andy Moran and Alan Dillon from the start and by welcoming Chris Barrett and Barry Moran back from injury, he probably feels he knows more about what he’s going to get. Were he to place Barry Moran at the edge of the square and bring Jason Gibbons into midfield, he would lose very little either.

Diarmuid Murtagh’s and Mark Nally’s impact when introduced for Roscommon last month may have informed Horan’s decision to leave his own youngsters, Conor O’Shea and Diarmuid O’Connor, off the starting 15 and primed for use as the game opens up later. A wet day in the west is no day to be taking chances on these two. This much he knows after the semi-final.

The qualifier run might have reclaimed some respectability last year but the Galway public won’t be as forgiving of Alan Mulholland and his team if they don’t show up tomorrow.

They needn’t worry. Galway, with so many players playing in their first senior Connacht final, will play with spirit and with pride. They will force Mayo to change their kickout strategy by playing Paul Conroy outfield with Fiontán Ó Curraoin and Tomás Flynn. Gary O’Donnell should relish the challenge of Aidan O’Shea, Paul Varley won’t fear Kevin McLoughlin, and after last year Gareth Bradshaw has a lot of making up to do with Galway football. Snuffing out Jason Doherty would be a good start.

It’s at the other side of midfield that the key battles will take place, however. The Mayo half-back line, for so long the wellspring of all that was good about their attacking play, has begun to show signs of weariness and, more worryingly, impatience with their own forwards.

Donal Vaughan needs to be asking himself if he really is the right man to be attacking with ball in hand. This might seem a strange thing to say about a man who scored 1-1 against Galway in Salthill last year, scored another goal against Donegal and practically walked Cillian O’Connor’s second goal into the net for him in the same game, but Vaughan needs to take stock. He is an danger of behaving like many half-backs before him, who having got the smell of a score in their nostrils, couldn’t touch the ball without contemplating a spectacular surge forward. And the Mayo man’s overall game is suffering for it. Alongside Vaughan, the best half-back in the game for the past two seasons, Lee Keegan, has started dropping balls into the goalkeeper’s hands and taking pot shots from too far out the field. Colm Boyle, for his part, will have more than enough on his hands tomorrow trying to rope the wind when he faces up to Shane Walsh.

How Mayo must wish for a forward of Walsh’s quicksilver abilities, but their man on the 40, Aidan O’Shea, is of a different beast. The amount of times he stripped Galway players of possession last year should be sufficient warning to all in maroon jerseys that they may be better served in trying to dance their way around Mayo as opposed to taking them on physically.

Ultimately, that is still the difference between the sides. Despite replacing the spine of the team that was blown out of it in Salthill last year, and despite the fact Ó Curraoin and Flynn, the only remnants of that spine, are starting to blossom into a fine midfield partnership, Galway are not yet as conditioned as Mayo are to the physical pitch of these big games.

On a wet day in Castlebar, that has to count for something.The gap might be closing, but a Galway win would be a surprise and a defeat for Mayo is unthinkable. Mayo to crank up the gears to secure four in a row.


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