Earlier in the summer, after the Munster final replay between Kerry and Cork, I highlighted championship games with a short one-week turnaround are where managers and coaches earn their crust.
Their ability to watch the drawn game, analyse it, and pick out a few golden nuggets from the debris should inform the adjustments they make for the replay. It’s an opportunity for management to show everybody just how sharp and clever they are tactically. It’s their time to shine, if you will, or, as happened last Saturday night, it can also make you look as dull as dishwater.
I’m fully aware being a Monday morning quarter-back is the easiest position in the world to play… you can never be wrong. Hindsight is a great selector. And when a team loses a championship game, the immediate over-reaction amongst supporters is the decisions taken by management were invariably the wrong ones. Every call gets scrutinised. Unfairly in most cases, but less so in this one I feel.
I wrote last week about the three main aspects of the game where I felt Mayo had huge room for improvement and I really expected them to remedy those situations. Namely, they had to keep a greater presence in the half- forward line; be more assertive on Dublin kick-outs - and crucially, they had to do a better job of denying Dublin so many one-on-one attacking opportunities. These were all managerial adjustments that would surely have strengthened the hand of their players. They didn’t happen.
In the spirit of post-defeat scrutiny and overreaction, I’d love to know exactly what Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly were focusing on in their preparations with their players since the drawn game.
Because it didn’t seem to me that they made any structural or tactical tweaks to their team to give them a better chance of victory. It looked like the Mayo players were pushing on, in spite of the way they were set up, out of pure determination and character.
For the second week in a row, they completed wasted Aidan O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor in their full-forward line, bombarding them with ignorant ball, kicked under pressure from 70 yards or more into a two-on-four contest. They gave their full forwards no chance - completely un-winnable ball. It seemed pretty glaring to most people after the first game Mayo desperately needed a link man in their half-forward line. A kind of intermediary kick pass option for guys coming out of defence who would work across the line between the 45 and 65, and would be the guy to put in more cultured ball into the inside two.
As it turned out, little learning seemed to take place and Mayo continued lamping scud missiles into O’Shea and expecting miracles from those countless aimless bombs. For the second game in a row, there was no link, and there was no miracles. And somehow, they still found themselves in the driving seat with 15 minutes to go.
The other major aspect of the game I found astonishing was the way Mayo again approached the Dublin kick-out. Having watched the game live and subsequently on TV, I’m still not sure they tried to do anything at all. They neither pushed all the way up and pressurised Cluxton, nor dropped traffic into the middle, or back deep as sweepers; they seemed to try nothing different to affect Dublin’s rhythm from the restarts – possibly their greatest weapon. It was baffling. I appreciate it’s not easy. Cluxton was happy to go short, even backwards off the tee at times if it meant they won possession, but Mayo made it so comfortable for him and Dublin were able to dictate the ultra-high pace and tempo of the game from start to finish from his left boot.
That pace of play in the first-half was breathless stuff. The almost instant restarts from both goalkeepers would have kept the heartrate monitors and the players GPS tracking devices reading some big numbers in that first 35 minutes. The hard running was incessant by both teams, but you got the feeling it was the paceDublin were most comfortable operating at.
They seemed determined to play the game at 100 miles an hour, constantly pushing the tempo all day, pedal to the metal and looked like they were really backing their own fitness and wanted to test Mayo’s aerobic capacity to stay with them. In fairness, Mayo ran every yard just as hard, but in the final 10 minutes, that electric pace of play, coupled with the exertions of the previous week, definitely seemed to take its toll on the energy levels of some of Mayo’s big guns.
That lack of juice in the legs manifested itself in Philly McMahon’s untracked rampaging for the final 20 minutes, James McCarthy’s crucial score in oceans of space, as well as Brian Fenton’s unmarked forward burst that directly led to Brogan’s game-changing goal. Obviously Dublin’s bench is filled with high-energy, athletic footballers as well, and Macauley, Alan Brogan, Fitzsimons and McManamon all made colossal impacts on the game.
In a high-octane chamber where the Dubs just love to operate in, they’ll catch you in the final 10 minutes as your wheels start to slow and you look like your trundling through mud while they are bounding on top of a bouncy castle. They did the same to Kerry in 2013. They run you right into oxygen deficit; try to empty your tank and then go right over the top of you.
That comes from quick kick-outs, quicker frees, no injuries, no stoppages and their opponent not showing enough experience to slow the game down and force a slower pace.
Coupled with that extraordinary tempo to the game, Mayo’s abandonment of their defensive template from week one and the decision to go with a more orthodox one-on-one defensive scheme on Brogan and Paddy Andrews inside really didn’t help their cause either. By the time Andrews stroked over his fourth point from play of the first half, Mayo supporters were scratching their heads wondering what type of logic at prompted the call for less defensive help.
Those supporters left Croke Park with the familiar taste of bitter disappointment in their mouths. But they should be immensely proud of their players. People keep saying every year; this defeat, or that hammering will break their spirit and we won’t see them again for a while.
But that’s complete nonsense. The fact that they get knocked to the canvas but keep getting back to their feet speaks volumes for the type of high character guys they have in their dressing room. They are the embodiment of indomitable spirit, but there’s no doubt, that spirit needs to be harnessed more astutely if they are to eventually take home the prize they most covet.
Dublin, for their part, also showed fantastic resilience. They slept-walked through Leinster again, and were completely untested up to the semi-final. Last weekend with 15 minutes to go, was there biggest moment of the year by far, their metal was tested, and they responded and came through impressively. Their traditionally accepted leaders like Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly were non factors for the most part, but other guys like James McCarthy, Brian Fenton and Philly McMahon stepped forward confidently and grew into leadership roles in the final 10-minute onslaught. They will take ferocious confidence from the way they closed out the game and a greater spread of the leadership burden will give the entire squad a greater sense of ownership in the final two weeks.
The scary thing is, I don’t think they were even at their best last Sunday.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved