Cillian O’ Connor, Chris Barrett, Evan Regan, Séamus O’ Shea, Tom Cunniffe and Patrick Durcan would be missed by any team and their absence should be enough to hole Mayo below the water-line. But, trying to pick a weak link from their starting side against Cork tomorrow is still a challenge.
Even in the full-forward line, the one line where Mayo appear weakest, there appears to be prospects, with Cork also far from settled given Noel Galvin, Michael Shields and James Loughrey hardly look comfortably in the last line of defence.
Still, the ring-rusty Alan Dillon, the inexperienced Danny Kirby and Mark Ronaldson, another knacky but not physically imposing Mayo forward, might make up the least threatening of all eight full-forward lines on display in Division 1 this weekend. In their last game against Dublin, the Mayo full forward line of Ronaldson, Aidan O’Shea and Alan Freeman scored a paltry point between them as their team failed to find the net for the first time this spring.
One bad showing won’t define their season but, in the absence of Cillian O’Connor, Mayo desperately need somebody to stand up and show full-back lines need to focus attention on more than just the Ballintubber man.
Whatever inside line takes the field for Mayo, it must also improve on its first-time ball retention. This is something that came to the fore in the first 15 minutes of the 2012 All Ireland final and it is a trait that haunts ‘nearly teams’ everywhere. Against top tier opponents, an inability to make possession stick on the inside line has a corrosive, degenerative effect right back the field. Whether they like it or not, Mayo have encountered this issue for some time.
There is still a lot of promise in the Mayo selection for tomorrow. Supporters will rejoice the dynamic half back line of Keegan, Boyle and Vaughan reconvene after the experimentation with Vaughan at midfield and, more recently, Keegan at centre-back.
Their return to familiar berths may be an acknowledgement on Pat Holmes’ and Noel Connelly’s parts that Mayo need to get back to doing what they did so well in the recent past, such as winning their own kick-outs, or at least winning breaking ball that ensues from restarts. When Mayo played Cork in last year’s quarter final, they won 17 out of their own 22 kick-outs and only three ofthose were short kick-outs.
In the early stages against Dublin a fortnight ago, Mayo were cleaned out on their own kick-out, a failure that seemed to set the tone for the game. It hasn’t been easy on Mayo to settle on a consistent kick-out strategy, having used three different goalkeepers during the campaign so far.
With Aidan O Shea, the usual target kick-outs, being stationed further downfield more often than not this season, developing a relationship with a likely ball-winner has proven difficult for whoever was in goal. For Mayo, tomorrow may be a day to set out the stall for the final run-in before things start to get serious.
Up to now Cork seemed to have more stability in team selection than most other teams in Division 1 and are in exactly the same position as they were this time last year — heading into the final two rounds with eight points on the board.
But for injury to Eoin Cadogan, we would probably have gotten another look at his partnership with Fintan Goold at midfield. Whether or not it is a viable long-term option remains to be seen, especially with Ian Maguire likely to establish himself.
The period Cadogan has spent in the centre has brought his kicking game on no end and while he may not be the best over his head, he has the defensive awareness and the linking ability to make a genuine go of it if Cork decide not to go with the traditional idea of a midfield pairing.
Mark Collins appeared as a stop-gap measure at midfield a few weeks ago and Jamie O’Sullivan’s selection for tomorrow’s game puts an even greater onus on Ken O’Halloran to tailor his kick-outs, as it is certainly not in Cork’s interest to go toe-to-toe with Barry Moran and Tom Parsons.
Since the start of the league, Colm O’Neill and Brian Hurley have both lived up to their billing. Cork’s approach has helped both players and in the recent wins over Tyrone and Kerry, the inside men have looked alive and dangerous.
The key to Cork’s success later this year will be to find ways of getting the deadly duo on the ball as often as possible. Against Donegal at the start of the month, players out the field failed too often to thread the ball to the dangermen.
And both O’Neill and Hurley appeared reluctant to change tack, even when it was obvious that their runs weren’t being picked up.
With 3-29 scored in his five games up to now, O’Neill is bound to be a marked man and if Keith Higgins plays as selected, their duel should be something to behold. With their scoring spread so lopsided, Cork will need a plan B if O’Neill misfires.
When these sides met last August, Cork left Croke Park wondering whether there was more than 20 minutes in Donncha O’Connor after his 1-3 cameo nearly rescued them in the quarter final.
O’Connor’s contribution from the bench against Tyrone a fortnight ago went beyond the two points he scored. Brian Cuthbert suggested he had “grabbed control of the game back” for Cork after things appeared to be going against them.
Calm and intelligent football of the brand favoured by the Ballydesmond man and Mark Collins is worth anything in games dominated by busy fools. O’Connor should see more game-time tomorrow.
And if he and his team mates play as calmly and intelligently again, they should have enough for Mayo.