Two key members of past Mayo football management teams have painted a revealing portrait of a ‘phenomenal’ group of men whose crucial attributes are their ordinariness and thirst for information.
Ahead of Saturday’s All-Ireland semi-final reunion with champions Dublin, former coaches Tony McEntee and Cian O’Neill yesterday tipped the hat to the gameplan and the efficiency of the Mayo effort in seeing off Donegal in Castlebar last Saturday.
McEntee, a selector and coach under Stephen Rochford, was speaking on the Renault-sponsored Irish Examiner GAA podcast, and was at Saturday’s do-or-die Super 8 tie: “They were phenomenal in everything they needed to do. Donegal, in saying that, were disappointing. Paddy McBrearty was well-marked by Chris Barrett, Ryan McHugh was marked completely by Paddy Durcan, it was the best bit of man-marking I’ve seen in many years - and Paddy scored three points, he was phenomenal. Lee Keegan did a great job on Michael Murphy out the field although Murphy still had an influence on the game obviously.
“But apart from that Donegal just didn’t get to the pace of the game and Mayo dominated. Castlebar is tight, it’s very claustrophobic, the 65s are nearly overlapping on the field, it’s not a county ground per se or shouldn’t be a county ground in any case. (So) Mayo bunched up the middle, crowded the space out, left a bit of space up front especially for Andy Moran when he came on, to win primary possession.
“They are phenomenal footballers, and they’re built on the foundation of a good defence and once you’re starting off with a good defence, you’re sorted.
But from a people perspective, if you look at Lee Keegan as an example, Lee Keegan doesn’t care for All Stars, he doesn’t care for accolades, he just wants to win and play football and do his job.
“And how do you know that? Because in a game, you give him a job and he does exactly the job that you want him to do. Mark Michael Murphy, he marks Michael Murphy. Mark Ciaran Kilkenny, he’ll mark Ciaran Kilkenny.
"He doesn’t care where the ball is going or where the man is going, he’ll do exactly what he’s been asked to do. He’s the sort of fella that once the football’s over you might find him having a pint in Westport or somewhere, he has just a normal life and he’s a normal kid. And the beauty is, the vast majority of the Mayo fellas are exactly that.
"They are hounded by the press, they are hounded by individuals, Mayo people are fanatical about everything they do, and yet that group actually keep their feet on the ground. They are an absolutely rock-solid bunch of people.”
Added McEntee: “Regardless of what the press say about some of them - I know they might criticise Aidan (O’Shea), typically because he’s a big-profile player - but they couldn’t be more wrong about the likes of Aidan O’Shea and other people like that.”
Added former Mayo coach Cian O’Neill: “I was only there for one year and it was early doors in the whole project in 2012. I came in from a hurling set-up the previous years and the one thing that struck me about the group was there was a voracious appetite for learning, for improvement, for constantly developing, which struck me from the off.
“I just couldn’t get over their almost demanding information, analysis, stats, and in areas where they could improve, and then match that with something which to this day, they still retain - their humility.
"Whether they were winning or losing, their approach on the difficult Tuesday night session after a Championship match, the humility that the group had, they’re just phenomenal men as much as phenomenal footballers. I don’t think we should forget, this is that group of players fourth management team, allowing for the fact that James Horan is back in. For them to be able to maintain that level of challenge, resilience, performance, in their fourth management team across eight years now, I mean the credit that has to go to the players for that...”
McEntee gives them every chance of toppling Dublin and ending their five-in-a-row bid next Saturday. So what’s Mayo’s achilles heel?
“The beauty of this Mayo team, and it has been through the years, is that against smaller teams, they could get caught against anybody. Derry nearly beat them in a Championship match a couple of years ago, Fermanagh nearly beat them, Cork nearly beat them in Limerick.
“Mayo tend to play to the level of the opposition, which is frustrating - very frustrating - for the players and for the management, because every day they’re likely to be caught but somehow get by with a bit of luck. So that’s a frustrating thing, but with their high quality players who can perform when the need is greatest in a two-horse race, it’s a game they can win as well.”
On Aidan O’Shea, and the scapegoating he is subjected to at times, Cian O’Neill noted:
“For me, his timing in the tackle, for such a big man, is exceptional. People rarely think of timing as a component part of the tackle - they think of feet, they think of arms, they think of strength, but for a big man to time his contact the way he does - in most cases they’ll be picking up yellows and reds across matches, and to use Michael Murphy as an example, he’s so big and strong but sometimes his timing is a little bit off and it can get him into trouble.
"Rarely do you see that with Aido, and it’s something that’s often overlooked in his game.”
McEntee does not think the sequence of games will prove detrimental to Mayo’s chances against a fresh Dublin outfit. On the contrary, in fact: “There are some downsides, but the beauty of regular games is that it improves your match fitness no end.
"While Mayo have a number of areas to improve - in relation to execution as an example - they have got regular game time, they’re battle-hardened and they’re competitive. One more game in six days’ time is no obstacle to this outfit.”