Collateral damage or a typically tigerish season? This evening’s all-or-nothing duel with a county they have not beaten in five league and championship games will go a long way to defining Mayo’s 2019.
Whatever happens against Galway, James Horan has begun the process of overhauling the team. Some of that has come by accident rather than design as the injuries mount. Remember, he didn’t axe any of the 2018 panel.
Whatever happens, it’s been a season less ordinary even for a county as world-weary as Mayo is.
In four years as Mayo manager, James Horan took charge in 23 Championship games and never experienced a qualifier. Never before has so much ridden on a game for him so early in the year as it did in Newry last month. Cutting short an interview last Saturday told a lot about his frustration at how the campaign was being reported on locally but a little about the pressure on him as well.
Possibly another reason why Horan has been a little sterner than usual in his media dealings. The team that began the win over Down was posted online by The Connacht Telegraph on June 21 nine hours before it was officially released. Rumours about Diarmuid O’Connor’s wrist setback were on social media before local papers reported it. Not surprisingly, the team that began the win over Armagh showed four changes from the announced team.
Questioned about criticism of the intensity of Mayo’s training sessions leading to injuries, Horan replied: “Some of the commentary that has been reported back to me — we have a good laugh about it.” Horan has asked journalists to come to training to see for themselves but it’s obvious that somebody has not only been watching but talking too. Horan also denied a bust-up with his Ballintubber club-mate Cillian O’Connor. Whether it’s heightened anxiety or just hot air, there was never as much conjecture in Horan’s first four seasons.
Remember when it was said Mayo had too many midfielders? Jason Gibbons, Aidan and Seamus O’Shea, Barry Moran, Tom Parsons and on the odd occasion Donie Vaughan. With Michael Ruane (collarbone) and Diarmuid O’Connor confirmed out Horan’s options have never been poorer, though at least the younger O’Shea should be fit to play despite donning a moonboot during the week. Michael Murray will be his latest partner.
His opposite number this evening Kevin Walsh may say otherwise but no other manager has had to contend with the litany of injuries to key players. The absent midfielders aside, there is Lee Keegan and Jason Doherty (ankles) while Cillian O’Connor has only recently returned from his knee difficulties. As bodies are failing, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that Mayo are teetering. Doherty, Keegan and Aidan O’Shea are all 29 and while Cillian O’Connor is only 27 the amount of football they have played beats most their age.
In November, Andy Moran feared Horan might issue him his papers but that was not the case. But will he ever start another game for Mayo? That’s the question supporters were asking when the 35-year-old was benched after just 32 minutes the last day, even if he had set up Fionn McDonagh for his goal. Moran had also scored two points against Down the weekend before but it seemed right there and then that Horan realised the Ballaghaderreen man is best bursting off the bench rather than than building up from the start. It felt slightly bizarre coming so close to the half-time break and Moran wasn’t too pleased with the decision.
Of the 15 players on the MacHale Park pitch for the last shrill of Maurice Deegan’s whistle seven days ago, only eight were on the field when Kildare ushered them to the championship exit last summer. While the defence has a familiar look to it, Kevin McLoughlin and Cillian O’Connor were the only All-Ireland final starters in the forward line that concluded the win over Armagh. The same can’t be said for the back-line where the average age of the starting outfield six was 29.67. Brendan Harrison and Patrick Durcan, 26 and 24, are the only young defenders to make themselves mainstays although Eoin O’Donoghue might have done but for injury.
Éamonn Fitzmaurice’s claims about Mayo being skilled in the dark arts of gamesmanship shouldn’t come as much surprise when before their All-Ireland quarter-final five years ago Ronan McCarthy, then Cork selector, highlighted tactical fouls made by the Mayo forwards. It backfired and afterwards Horan lashed back at him and Brian Cuthbert.
Horan didn’t hit back at Fitzmaurice this time but David Brady got there before him, slamming the comments in the former Kerry boss’s Irish Examiner column as “disgraceful”. Mayo pundits have been notoriously slow to back their own men but not on this latest occasion.