For Mayo, judgment must wait until August

It’s too early to make a call on James Horan’s Mayo as the bigger tests lie ahead

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.

VICTOR Frankl wrote those words in very different circumstances but the words may be adapted for a Mayo team which has faced many years of failure, yet whose future may well yield riches.

James Horan has spent the winter convincing his players that their emphasis must be on performance. That they do not simply exist, but decide what this existence must be, what it must become in the next moment. His focus has shifted from dealing with the past and the negative connotations that co-exist with Mayo football.

For 25 minutes in MacHale Park yesterday, Mayo were cumbersome, erratic and slow to get into their stride. The O’Shea brothers struggled to find their feet and the forward unit was largely malfunctioning. But was there really any urgency? This was a Connacht Championship match after all and Galway had already been easily dispensed of. The real test doesn’t come till August. Isn’t this match a formality? Surely the match would fragment, Donal Vaughan would drive them on from defence, Aidan and Seamus O’Shea would come into their own and the forwards would eventually run amok? The answer to these questions is evidently ‘yes’ but is that where James Horan wants his players to be mentally? The challenge is: do not allow freedom of attitude in any set of circumstance, or to allow players to choose their own way, no matter the circumstance.

Defensively Mayo are superb. At defending that is. They are able to man-mark, have confidence in each man to press right up on the opposition and continue to follow their marker through the phase of play. They are well coached. Where they can improve is turning defence into attack. Distribution can be slow, lateral, even backwards, which one dangerous hand-passing episode involving the full back line and the keeper demonstrated in the first half. The wing backs opt to run the ball instead of looking up to use the vast spaces in the three-quarter line which has outlet options available. This self-inflicted vision impairment results in numerous additional phases of play and losses of possession throughout the game. Quality opposition will punish this severely.

Midfield is a work in progress for Mayo. The brothers O’Shea have many positives but it is in breaking ball that the problem exists. From opposition kickouts, the three-quarter line withdraw to compete for scraps but suffered from starvation in the first half. This improved as Roscommon tired but must be a concern for Horan.

However, forwards win matches and it is in this area that the problems exist for Mayo. The system of two men inside (Varley and Freeman) with Dillon on the top of the ‘D’ — whereby the three-quarter line commit to meeting the oncoming ball — leaves great space but the duration it takes to get that ball into the inside line means they have made the initial run, lost their shape as a unit and are no longer in a scoring position when in possession.

The loss of Cillian O’Connor cannot be overestimated as his scoring prowess and self-development has been on a consistent upward curve. Yesterday, Richie Feeney was an able replacement, working tirelessly while linking defence with attack, but he needs encouragement to be more creative. While it is encouraging to see Andy Moran playing for 30 minutes, James Horan may have to gamble on starting him for a Connacht final. However he has considerable work to do on his game fitness if he is to be the player he is capable of being this year.

Roscommon remain a team in transition. With a strong club tradition, they will enjoy better days ahead in the inter-county arena. It is obvious a handful of teams are leading the way for the GAA, but the less fortunate teams must not use this as an excuse. So much can be improved upon in such a short time. Donegal remain testament to this.

For Mayo, August is the first serious target. Think of this team when the forward unit consists of McLoughlin, O’Connor, Feeney, Moran, Freeman and Dillon. Can Mayo win the All-Ireland? Definitely. Maybe. I’ll have to think about it. Mayo’s search for meaning continues.

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