About time Mayo found a way to win a big one

An old joke much beloved of science students from a past life of mine: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.

Or as an old saying back our way would have it — an rud a bhailíonn an cníopaire, scaipeann an rábaire. That, which the thrifty accumulate, the extravagant scatter.

When Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly took over Mayo in the uncertain environment post-James Horan, the biggest challenge they faced was finding the right blend of continuity and change. Given the accumulated wisdom of the previous four seasons, the last thing Mayo football, and the current group of players, needed was a period extravagance or scattering.

In year one of the Horan project, a team under a cloud of ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’ was transformed into a team-on-a-mission and, by the time he stepped aside last year after one of the great semi-finals, Horan’s team had exploded nearly every one of the myths and stereotypes that clung to modern-day Mayo football.

Forget about the failure to land the ultimate prize, and one great ‘myth’ remains: the ‘myth’ of the Mayo team who always find a way to lose games from a winning position.

Mayo arrive at the semi-final stage this year with a more flexible and a little more sophisticated look to their set-up. The new management have taken on board everything that was good about the previous regime and, most importantly, have managed to keep the group from scattering while retaining that sense of a team-on-a-mission.

They’ve all been here before, of course.

Mayo do semi-finals, and semi-finals against Dublin in particular, quite well.

Nobody, including recent champions Kerry, Dublin and Donegal, has played more semi-finals these past five seasons than Mayo, yet the other three shared all available titles in that period as the Connacht champions came up short every time.

History, then, suggests that they won’t get over the line this time either.

Ask how many Mayo players would get on the Dublin team, and, again, based on that crudest of yardsticks, the outlook is bleak.

Thankfully for Mayo, there is more to playing sport and winning big games than history and crude logic.

The challenges for Mayo, we are told, are stark and straightforward. If they stop Stephen Cluxton from dictating the game like he did in the final two years ago, they should be halfway there. To hope that Cluxton, and one or two of his decorated team-mates, will continue to have a below-par year, would be misguided, however.

Mayo have to assume Cluxton, Michael Darragh Macauley and Paul Flynn will arrive tomorrow, with their antennae tuned in like never before. It is in how Mayo respond, that the fascination lies. If, for example, Barry Moran were to go to midfield, and either Tom Parsons or Seamus O’Shea were to track Flynn when he sprints into those pockets of space for Cluxton’s kick-outs, they might just succeed in denying Cluxton one of his most reliable outlets.

If Colm Boyle were to be left as the sweeper in such a situation, the five remaining Mayo forwards, after Moran’s retreat, will have a huge amount of work to do in pressing the Dublin kick-outs as much as possible.

Diarmuid and Cillian O’Connor, Jason Doherty, and Kevin McLoughlin all have the mobility and the smarts to shut off the short kick-out option to say, Jonny Cooper or Philly McMahon, but has Aidan O’Shea enough discipline and enough experience as a forward to play his part in the shutdown?

We all know what he brings to the game at midfield but communicating what he wants as a full-forward or centre-forward is an entirely different ball game. When Dublin and Mayo locked horns in the final two years ago, the big Breaffy man, then as now, front-runner for player of the year, was played like a pawn by Cluxton.

He got played, not because he didn’t have the ability to control midfield, but because he overestimated his ability to dominate in the traditional sense. He tried to be all things to all men around the middle and found himself making tracking runs he shouldn’t have been making. This happened not only because Cluxton dragged him all over the field but because O’Shea didn’t communicate with those around him in order to swap men, play smarter, conserve energy and, ultimately, to deny Cluxton the oxygen of a ready outlet.

Much of Mayo’s hopes rest with O’Shea and how they use him tomorrow. Despite all the talk of his impact as a full forward, I am still among the last of the non-believers. Rory O’Carroll will know not to panic when O’Shea grabs the ball from the skies. He will guide him on to his right-hand side and he will know, too, that when the blue jerseys circle around him like flies, they will offer more assistance than Mark McHugh offered the McGees last time out.

This is where Cillian O’Connor must come into his own. I’m still not sure what his role was against Donegal, and it is essential a tactical adjustment is made to ensure Mayo’s best forward is more involved.

While I am loathe to read too much into their quarter-final win over a Donegal team that had signs of vulnerability about them all year, there was evidence in Mayo’s defensive play three weeks ago — particularly in the concession of 13 shots from play, with just six converted by Donegal — they are beginning to play a lot smarter than they used to.

Think of all the goals Mayo have conceded in Croke Park since their reemergence under James Horan; Gooch v Tom Cunniffe 2011; Michael Murphy v Kevin Keane 2012; Bernard Brogan v Ger Cafferkey twice in 2013; and Kieran Donaghy/James O’Donoghue v Cafferkey again in the dying stages of last year’s drawn semi-final. Even Donncha O’Connor’s and Brian Hurley’s goals for Cork in the quarter-finals last year should not have happened to a team who, at one stage, were protecting a seven-point lead.

Now think of all the simple defensive decisions that could have and should have been made to avoid those goals. Cunniffe allowed Gooch around the corner twice before he blasted high to the net. Once Barry Moran missed the tackle on Karl Lacey, it was curtains for Keane in a one-on-one with Murphy.

I’m sure Bernard Brogan still wonders to this day how he didn’t get taken ‘man-ball-and-all’ by Rob Hennelly for his first goal in 2013 and I’ve no doubt if Ger Cafferkey could have the early stages of that second-half back, he wouldn’t have committed himself to the tackle on Denis Bastick that gave Brogan the simplest of tap-ins for his and Dublin’s second goal. The O’Donoghue goal that rescued Kerry last year would never have come about against any of the teams Kerry have played so far this year.

But Mayo are learning.

Tom Parsons played sweeper for the latter stages against Sligo, Barry Moran famously protected his full back-line against Donegal and, outside them, everyone else played their part in ensuring that what might once have been goals against Mayo became points or misses.

Now comes the ultimate test of their water-tightness. When Jack McCaffrey and James McCarthy take off in that direct running style, who will legitimately stop them? If Diarmuid Connolly and Ciarán Kilkenny’s graph stays on the same course, are Chris Barrett and Lee Keegan the right choices to go toe-to-toe with them? Can Cian O’Sullivan’s influence as a loose player at the back be curbed?

And we haven’t even mentioned Bernard Brogan yet.

If Mayo can do damage limitation when under the cosh, they will have a great chance of getting back to the final. But the real key is how much damage they can do themselves early on against a team that have not experienced games played at this ferocity since this weekend last year.

After having found so many ways to lose games since 2011, maybe it’s about time Mayo found a way to win one. Either they’re part of the solution or they’re part of the precipitate.

I think they have it in them not to get left behind this time.

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