Mayo’s plan of attack requires urgent attention – GAA

Mayo’s plan of attack requires urgent attention – GAA
Mayo’s plan of attack requires urgent attention – GAA

It’s tempting to frame last Sunday’s defeat to Galway in the Connacht Senior Football Final as a Salthill smash-and-grab. Mayo led by two points in the 70th minute but contrived to lose the game in stopping time, conceding three frees in five minutes to a rampant Galway side.

It is tempting, too, to point the finger of blame at referee David Gough who seemed to hand the Tribesmen a few easy frees late on as if he was trying to make amends for some of the questionable calls that went Mayo’s way earlier in the day . Gough’s refereeing was certainly not to the standards one might expect from a top official but it was hardly the decisive factor in a game played at a proper championship intensity, making it a great advertisement for the enduring appeal of the provincial series out west.

Much of the post-match analysis will inevitably focus on the final 20 minutes of this hard-fought encounter when Galway outscored Mayo by eight points to four. Coincidentally, the Galway renaissance coincided with the departure of Aidan O’Shea who was hauled ashore on the 55th minute, just after Ryan O’Donoghue had kicked a free to put Mayo in front by three points, 0-11 to 0-8. Galway hit the next four scores to take a one-point lead in the 62nd minute before O’Shea’s replacement Cillian O’Connor struck a superb equaliser.

Excellent points from the rejuvenated Mattie Ruane and Tommy Conroy seemed to steer Mayo towards victory before Galway found their second wind in stopping time and goalkeeper Conor Gleeson turned from near-villain to hero by striking a long-range free to win the game for the home side. It was Gleeson, of course, who nearly handed Mayo victory when he found himself stranded in midfield in the 48th minute after turning over the ball. Ryan O’Donoghue had a great opportunity to thread a pass through to Mattie Ruane but instead tried a speculative lob that gave Gleeson a better chance of recovering the situation.

It was a crucial moment in the game. Mayo were two points up at that stage and a goal, especially one that was a gift from the goalkeeper, would have really rattled the Tribesmen. To be fair to O’Donoghue, who is normally excellent in those situations, he probably felt entitled to try for goal, especially as he had just kicked a brilliant point from distance moments earlier. But the percentage call was a pass to the much better-placed Ruane, and one wonders what someone like Dublin’s Con O’Callaghan would have done in a similar situation. Nobody has mastered the art of teamwork better than the Dubs and they always tend to pass to a colleague in a better position, even when they are close in on goal. O’Donoghue’s cameo, however understandable, was a failure of Mayo’s overall structures and it doesn’t augur well for the big tests ahead when one incident can make all the difference in knock-out championship football.

As it was, that was the only moment in the game when Mayo looked like scoring a goal. Compare that to Galway, who had two fantastic chances and would have scored both were it not for some brilliant last-ditch defending by Colm Reape and Rory Brickenden. Reape’s point-blank save from Damien Comer in the 13th minute was a key moment in the first-half and the game could have played out very differently had that ball nestled in the back of the net.

Comer was a constant thorn in the Mayo side and deservedly won the Man of the Match award. He is one of the best forwards in the country on his day and is a tremendous leader for Galway, as he proved late in the game when he went out to midfield to win some crucial kickouts. If Comer stays fit and Walsh continues to recapture his old form, Galway will be a threat to any team in the championship.

They were much more threatening in attack than Mayo and the second goal chance, just four minutes after half-time, demonstrated the Tribesmen’s ability to cut through the heart of the opposition defense. John Maher’s effort was scrambled off the line by Brickenden but Mayo were very lucky to get away with that one. Indeed, it says something about Galway’s efficiency in front of goal that they found themselves a point ahead after 42 minutes despite having only one-third of the possession in the first-half.

Mayo’s two-point lead at half-time, 0-7 to 0-5, was a poor return for a team that had enjoyed 66% of the possession in the first 35 minutes. Having struck their first wide in the 19th minute through Ryan O’Donoghue, Mayo hit three more in the next 13 minutes, including a couple of bad ones from Tommy Conroy and Aidan O’Shea. However, Galway also had their missed opportunities in this period, with Comer and Rob Finnerty both dropping shots short and Johnny Heaney kicking wide. In fact, Galway only had two scorers in that first-half, Finnerty (0-4) and Comer (0-1) and three of Finnerty’s points came from frees.

Part of the reason why Mayo had 66% of the possession was that Galway were happy to let them have the ball in areas where they carried no real threat. Mayo spent large periods passing the ball around the middle third, proving for an opening in the Galway defence, and Padraic Joyce was happy to let his players soak up the pressure and strike at pace on the counter-attack.

Mayo’s inability to break down massed defenses is nothing new – they struggled at home to Louth last year – and it seems that management are still searching for an attacking strategy that works. It is all very well having the ball but if you don’t use it properly then you tend to come a cropper and that’s exactly what happened to Mayo on Sunday.

Of course, there is always the danger that we read too much into a one-point defeat at the hands of our neighbors and oldest rivals. The truth is that Mayo came out on the wrong side of a game of small margins. Had they held on for the win, everyone would be talking about the positives – and there were several positives.

Mayo manager Kevin McStay shakes hands with Aidan O’Shea after substituting the Breaffy man during the second-half of last Sunday’s Connacht SFC Final. Picture: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Firstly, the return to form of both Mattie Ruane and Tommy Conroy is hugely encouraging. Mayo supporters have been desperately waiting for these two fine footballers to recapture the attacking flair that made them such a dual threat in the championship campaign of 2021. Last Sunday was their best displays in a Mayo jersey – by some distance – in the past three years .

There were a lot of question marks around Colm Reape ahead of this game but he also delivered his finest hour in some time. His kickout strategy is not for the faint-hearted but it worked under the most intense pressure last Sunday and that augurs well for the summer ahead. As mentioned previously, part of the problem for Reape is that he doesn’t have many high-fielding options further out of the field and that is a real concern for Mayo. We don’t have natural midfielders who can pluck the ball out of skies, so Reape is left with no option but to play these high-risk short kickouts that can prove catastrophic if they go wrong, as happened against Derry in the National League.

The difference between the two teams in terms of kickout options was perfectly illustrated in those final minutes when Damien Comer made himself available to an under-pressure Conor Gleeson, and boy was Gleeson glad to be able to hit the ball long after one or two dodgy short kickouts of his own. Mayo’s outfield players need to give more support to Reape and, frankly, the management has to motto a better strategy too. Reape is a good ‘keeper – the best we have in the county at the moment – ​​but he cannot be left to figure it all out on his own in the white heat of a championship Sunday.

There is a view that Mayo’s defeat in the Connacht Final will, ultimately, prove a blessing in disguise because they have avoided the so-called Group of Death involving Derry, the defeated Ulster finalists (Armagh/Donegal) and Westmeath. I am not so sure about that particular theory. Mayo’s first game will be against Cavan in MacHale Park. Cavan are no mugs. They beat Monaghan in the first round of the Ulster Championship by 3-12 to 1-12 and only lost to Tyrone in the quarter-final by a single point, having again scored three goals. They also finished third in Division 2 of the National League behind Armagh and Donegal, the two Mayo teams are apparently so keen to avoid. If Mayo cough up goal chances to Cavan, there is a good chance that Colm Reape will be picking the ball out of his net a few times.

After the Cavan game, Mayo then faced a return trip the Hyde where Roscommon will be hellbent on making amends for their defeat a fortnight ago. That’s hardly an easy game either. And then there is the small matter of the All-Ireland champions in a neutral venue, which will probably be Croke Park, knowing the way these things play out.

There’s nothing easy from now on and Mayo have plenty of improving to do if they are to navigate their way through to an All-Ireland quarter-final.

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