Monday, April 30, 2007

We're definitely better than Clare

I'm told (another world exclusive, this) that the lads galloped to a comfortable 1-23 to 0-14 win over Clare in yesterday's challenge match at Parke. We also beat them, you will recall, back in February (1-14 to 1-8 that time) so I think we can fairly categorically state that, in terms of the big ball stuff, we're higher up the pecking order than the Banner lads. Indeed, our aggregate position in our 2007 challenges against them now stands at 2-37 to 1-22. Want some more of the same, tough guys? Just name the day - we'll be there.

No news as yet on the team that was put out yesterday or who the scorers were. I think we're into Two Loaves and the Western territory for that level of detail.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

It's official: polling day four days after Galway showdown

Bertie finally put us out of our misery this morning by confirming that polling day in the General Election will take place on 24th May, i.e. just four days after we square up to Galway in the Connacht championship. He did also, by the way, formally call the election having got the President to dissolve the 29th Dail but that's another story, one well beyond my remit here. There was some speculation over the past week that polling day might not be till 31st May but, sadly, that did not prove to be the case. The 24th it is and so The Great One will be full-time out on the stump over the coming three weeks as our date with destiny in Salthill comes ever closer too.

Personally, I think it's all a waste of time. Not the election - no, I'm fairly partial to this particular blood sport and, with this Dail have lasted longer than any other since the foundation of the State, it must be said that the election is well overdue. Rather, it's the prospect of Johnno traipsing around the county over the next few weeks, shaking hands, slapping backs and trading inanities with the general populace. To my mind, if FG want that third seat in Mayo then Messrs Kenny and Ring (especially the latter) need to jointly get the finger out and make sure that Our Man gets enough first preferences to stay clear of elimination in the early rounds and put him in the frame for the final seat. Then, his side of the bargain should be to spend all his wakeful time on the team, ensuring that they're fully prepared and ready for Galway. Victory in Salthill should then ensure a carpeting of lower preference votes for him, votes which could just propel him into the 30th Dail. The beauty of this approach is that, even if it doesn't work and he fails to get elected, we'll still have beaten Galway. After that, who cares about the election result?

To help him on his way, Johnno's hopes for victory in Salthill got a boost today with confirmation that Super Mac has returned to full training. This could mean that he'll play some part in the Galway match. He might even start, though I think that's stretching credulity just a little.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Johnno (and his peers) on the championship

The GAA held a shindig at Croke Park yesterday to officially launch this year's Bank of Ireland Senior Football championship, which gets underway on 13th May. Four 'leading' managers were there: Pillar (of course, dis being a media event, you need de Dubs dere), Mickey Harte from Tyrone, Kerry's new man Pat O'Shea and, of course, our own media-friendly Supremo.

They all had stuff to say. Pillar: "you ain't seen nothin' yet". He could be right - this time they might well cock it up before they leave Leinster (the leavetaking would only be in a metaphoric sense, of course, as the Dubs mustn't, under any circumstances, be parted from their adoring legions on the Hill).
Mickey was hoping his injury list would clear up. Well, seeing as half his squad has been crocked for the past year, that’s a reasonable hope to have. Pat: “the hunger is right”. Isn’t it always down there, where the word “sated” isn’t in the lexicon? And our own man, who had stuff to say about the year to date, the injuries, how he thinks we’ll do and who the main challengers will be.

Obviously, he’s happy enough with how things have been shaping up thus far, making the point that, despite the disappointment of losing the league final, it was a good campaign for us. Modest chap that he is, he didn’t point out that he’d hauled us back from the brink of despair following the All-Ireland and turned us back into a fighting force once again (and that’s just the supporters).

On injuries, it looks as if DB, Trev and Marty Mac will be okay for Galway. He also said that Ronan is making excellent progress and could feature at some point over the Summer. Barry Moran and Kenneth O’Malley are unlikely to be back for another 4-6 weeks, ruling them out of the Galway match but they’ll probably be fit for the one after. Johnno provided no new info on Super Mac, apart from saying he remained hopeful that he’d take some part in the Summer’s action. Hmmmm . . .

On prospects, Johnno’s obviously looking no further than the Galway game at this stage and it’s significant, I think, that he lists them as realistic contenders for the All-Ireland. He’s right, you know – they’re a bloody good side and we’re going to have one hell of a fight on our hands on the 20th if we’re to get past them. Johnno obviously doesn’t want to end up in the qualifiers – despite having won an All-Ireland via that route with Galway in 2001 – and he identifies avoiding such a fate as “a priority”. Correction, O Great One. THE priority. Look after that and, the way the opinion polls are going, that third FG seat in Mayo could follow of its own accord.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Jack's view

Former Kerry manager Jack O’Connor has recently joined the Irish Times as a Gaelic football columnist, where former Cork hurling supremo John Allen has also taken up residence over the last few weeks. The opinions of this pair of Munster heavyweights will be worth perusing over the coming months, not least because both of them have delivered All-Ireland triumphs for their respective counties in the two codes.

Jack’s piece yesterday (premium content, subscription required) about Sunday’s match was of particular interest to us, as he made a number of telling observations about team selection. While one of them was that hoary old chestnut about playing Super Mac at full-forward – the last word on this was, I thought, definitively provided in his usual erudite manner by the Spailpin last Summer - Jack did make the valid point that Conoreen needs a playmaker in the full-forward line to get him moving. This is especially true, I think, of his appearances in Croker where he tends to disappear into some kind of black hole in the forward line. I don’t think that Mac will, because of his ongoing back problems if nothing else, be an option for us in this regard but Trevor – given the way the Mort boys do like to keep the ball within the family – or, perhaps, a wild card like Pat Harte might be. Any other suggestions?

Jack also reckoned that Ger Brady should have been hauled off, as it was clear things weren’t working for him. Jack felt that he’s a player shorn of confidence and I think he’s right there. That certainly has seemed the case for a while and when he was taken off against the Dubs, I thought he’d be looking at a while on the bench. However, the experiment of playing him at full-forward up in Omagh seemed to revitalise him and, although he didn’t put in a forceful display against Galway, he still bagged 1-1 in that game. If he had converted his goal chance against Donegal, things would no doubt have been different – Kevin McStay’s take on what he should have done to make sure it hit the net is relevant in this respect – but Jack’s correct in saying that it would have been as well to take him out of the firing line before the end.

The Kerryman’s most interesting comment relates to the positioning of David Heaney and BJP. He doesn’t believe that BJ is the man for centre-back and thinks instead that Heaney “could do the job” there. My belief is that Johnno will stick with BJ for the Galway game – indeed I think he’s likely to stick with the entire current back-line – but, following a number of excellent performances over the past few weeks, Heaney is now, I believe, a dead-cert to start against Galway. He’s most likely to start at midfield, alongside Pat Harte, with David Brady kept in reserve but an option would be to shift Heaney to centre-back to accommodate the Ballina Alpha Male. That would be a bit tough on BJ, who has played in virtually every position for Mayo, except goalkeeper, over the past three years. That’s a thought – we are lacking cover between the sticks at the moment . . .

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Reaction to Sunday's defeat

The excellent Mayo News has loads about Sunday's league final defeat. Johnno says that the squad's focus was already on the Galway game before Sunday but he did admit that he would still have liked to win the title, having previously - in his incarnation as Galway Bainisteoir - failed twice (once to us) at the final hurdle. He thought we should have kicked on to win once we had drawn level. So did I and, I expect, most of the Mayo following in Croker. We've become so used to winning close games that we have, perhaps, become a tad blasé about our ability to eke out results in this way. We should recall that the last time we played Galway at Pearse Stadium, on a scorching day in 2005, we lost what was a very close match by just two points, a match that we should really have won.

Andy Moran was also in regret mode. He pointed (correctly) to Mayo's slow start as a significant factor in the defeat. "We need to sort it out", he says. Correct again. He also bemoans the fact that, having finally caught Donegal in the second half, we didn't push on to win. He highlights the impact Donegal's subs had, with the three winning scores all coming from second half replacements. James Nallen echoes the same sentiments about Mayo's dozy start. Obviously it's an issue of concern (and so it should be) within the squad and is, Nallen admits, something they've been working to rectify. Four weeks should be more than enough time to do this. Jimmy also makes the valid point that, despite Sunday's loss, it has been very positive league campaign. At the outset, I thought we'd struggle to take one of the four Division 1 slots for next year but we ended up almost winning it outright. We've certainly done better in it than we were expected to. But now, as Jimmy says, it's time to forget the league and move onto the championship. And so say all of us. All together now: "sure it was only the league!"

In his weekly column, Kevin McStay makes the very valid point - one I recall making repeatedly at Croker last Sunday, though there were more 'f's in my sentences and the syntax wasn't as eloquent as Kev's - that we don't have enough scoring forwards in the team. An obvious point, you might think, but often the keenest insights are of this kind. Apart from Pat Harte, we don't seem to have anyone who can, with confidence, thump the ball over the bar from 30 yards and more out. As I pointed out on Monday, Mort landed a 20-yarder short the last day and it should be recalled that failing to make the distance with shots from not terribly far out was a repeated trait we had last year - remember the two matches against Laois? We have, on occasion, landed cracking scores of this kind - there are also plenty of examples of these from last year - but I'd agree with Kev that we don't have enough forwards for whom point taking in the 20-40 yard range is second nature. More food for thought over the coming few weeks.

Finally, the Mayo News also reports that there is apparently a challenge match with Clare (another one? Can't we find anyone else to challenge?) this Sunday at Parke, with the throw-in set for 3.30pm. It looks like we'll definitely have enough intelligence on Paidi's lads before we square up to them in September.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Final thoughts on the Donegal game

The league is over – and, remember, it was only ever the league – with the clock now ticking down to our showdown with neighbours Galway at Pearse Stadium in four weeks time. Time for some final thoughts on last Sunday’s match but then it really is time to move on.

It was, I have to admit, disappointing to have to trudge out of Croke Park having been beaten once again. Croker is a fabulous arena but there’s a world of difference taking your leave of it when you’ve won compared to when you’ve lost. We have plenty of experience of the latter – with one more to add to the pile after Sunday – and it goes without saying that we need more of the other too.

But, as the lady said, I digress. Back to Sunday and what’s to be learned from it. The first point to note, I suppose, is that Sunday’s final represented the fifth weekend in a row when the lads were in competitive action. That’s a schedule more akin to the Premiership than the GAA world and it’s at the opposite end of the spectrum compared to the early stages of the championship, where several weeks can go by without a game. This means that the preparation for and recovery from the set of matches the team have just had is a world away from the much more infrequent but far more intensive encounters that occur in the championship.

We did well to get through those five matches in the way that we did and, in retrospect, it was good that we didn’t have the option of chucking the likes of David Brady into the action at some stage. It’s far better to have him fully fit and raring to go on 20th May. Likewise Trevor Mortimor. The other injuries, in particular Kevin O’Neill’s, should have cleared up by then as well so that we should be far closer to a fully-fit squad by then. With the U21 campaign also now finished, Aidan Campbell will be able to concentrate fully on finding his feet in the seniors but, set against this, Barry Moran appears to have become our latest long-term absentee.

The fact that we had no new injuries to report after Sunday was no thanks to the stinking, godawful bog of a playing surface at Croker the last day. The pitch was truly in shocking condition – it was several shades of the most sickly-looking green and it almost looked as if moss was spreading over it – and it was truly a wonder that nobody got seriously hurt, unlike Roscommon’s Seamus O’Neill who slipped and damaged his ankle ligaments there in the match under lights against Cavan the previous night. It’s more than a little ironic, I think, that so much effort has been put into keeping punters off the pitch but so little into making the pitch itself less of a health hazard for the players.

Once the rain began to fall shortly before the throw-in, it was always going to affect the quality of the football. This is largely what happened. I still find it odd, however, that we were the ones who kept dropping the ball and losing our feet: it’s not as if Donegal gets any more rain than Mayo and so that they should have felt more at home in the adverse conditions. Whatever the reason, it certainly was the case that Donegal’s ability to adapt to the conditions and to take full advantage of our patent failure to do so was a major factor in their victory. It that sense, it truly was only a league encounter: we shouldn’t have to worry about Pearse Stadium being like an icing rink next month.

The other major factor in Donegal’s triumph was, I believe, their hunger for success. Their record in finals is far worse than ours – this was the first one they’d ever won since 1992 – and they really, truly wanted to win this one, as Brian McIver has since revealed. It showed: they started and finished the match far stronger than we did. Basically, it looked like they wanted to win it more than we did.

They were helped on their way by a number of negative aspects in our performance on the day. Once again, we didn’t get motoring until we had given the opposition a nice headstart and, even when we did, we kept losing possession that the likes of David Heaney and James Nallen worked so hard to secure. We were too loose at the back where Peadar Gardiner, in particular, got taken to the proverbial cleaners early on by wee Brian Roper.

Going forward, we didn’t seem to have any fluidity and it looked as if the players had never even trained, never mind played, together before. They never really worked for each other, moved for each other or made space for each other. This meant, for example, that all the excellent ball that Andy Moran won – and he won a heck of a lot of it – was wasted because there was nobody around him providing him with options. Contrast that to Donegal, where their movement off the ball was excellent and opened the way for many of their scores.

But it wasn’t all negative. We did far, far better than expected at midfield and while I don’t expect to see a Heaney/Nallen midfield axis in Pearse Stadium, the ageing combination worked perfectly on Sunday as we more than broke even in the sector. The problem, as I’ve already mentioned, was what we did with that primary possession. I doubt very much that Nallen will make his way back into the starting fifteen for Pearse Stadium but he's definitely a good man to have on the bench for the final 15 or 20 minutes. However, Heaney has almost certainly played himself back into the starting lineup, probably at midfield, though possibly, as one commentator on an earlier post of mine has suggested, at wing-back.

Another heartening aspect was that we created three clear goal chances over the course of the game. We blew them all, mind, but it still showed that we had the potential to open the opposition up at the back. Had Mort fed Brady for the first, had Brady done the reverse or steadied himself a bit better for the second and had Andy realised just how much time and space he had for the third, we’d surely have won the game. And that was despite playing poorly and in the face of Donegal’s keen thirst for victory. It needs to be recalled that we were still in it right to the end and that Donegal’s three-point winning margin flattered them. In reality, there was little more than a kick of a ball in it.

And so now it’s onto the real action. I think we’re approaching the championship this year in far better fettle than we did twelve months ago – after Galway clocked us in the league semi-final last year, I thought we could expect no better than a last eight finish; after Carrick I thought so even more – and we’re doing it under the tutelage of one of the finest brains in the Gaelic world. Sure, we look far from the finished article and, I know, Galway could skin us next month but, even then, we’d still be in with a shout. In other words, we could be in for another long, compelling Summer.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Donegal 0-13, Mayo 0-10: déjà-vu all over again

The late, great, Ivan Neill of the Western People once famously jumbled his metaphors many years ago in his match report of a narrow Mayo loss at Croke Park. The year was 1986 and the match was the league semi-final against Monaghan where we went under by a point, despite having a surfeit of good possession. Ivan was not impressed and he fumed that if such a performance were to be repeated, Mayo were destined to be “always the bride and never the groom”. Twenty-one years on, we are, it would seem, still awaiting the necessary sex-change operation.

We just don’t do national finals all that well, do we? Yesterday, we squared up to a county with its own cripplingly negative record at failing at the final hurdle and the result – for us at least – was depressingly familiar. Somehow, they were able to take the field in a confident manner and face down their demons with a purposeful and direct display of football that worked well given the treacherous underfoot conditions. Somehow, we just weren’t able to do this: we made countless errors, took so many wrong options and rarely looked like posing a serious threat when we went forward.

That said, we could, and perhaps should, have won yesterday. We certainly won enough possession but our problem – one that persisted right through the seventy minutes – was that we couldn’t hold onto it. Time after time after time the ball was fumbled, dropped or knocked out of the arms of a Mayo player in possession and, once Donegal had it, they made good use of it, channelling it forward quickly and directly. They took their scores smartly enough too so that we were chasing the game right from the start.

Last weekend’s soporific encounter with Galway clearly wasn’t for real. However, it was obvious, even before the throw-in, that yesterday’s match certainly was, as this clip of the pre-match parade shows:

(Aside on the videos: I’ve got far fewer of this match compared to last week’s. This time all I’ve got are the pointed frees. As I predicted in yesterday’s post, it just wasn’t possible to stay sufficiently detached to keep the camera rolling when the attacks from play were unfolding. I’ve included two points from frees in this post and the rest are on the YouTube channel).

There were two different types of surprises before the throw-in, one related to team selections, the second to do with the weather. Donegal started with Brendan Devenney - whom they had ruled out with injury earlier in the week - at full-forward, with Com McFadden switching back to his normal right-corner place. Our change was perhaps more surprising, with Kevin O’Neill’s corner-forward position being taken by James Nallen but the Crossmolina veteran started at midfield, with Pat Harte switching to the half-forwards. Then there was the weather, with the sunshine we’d enjoyed on the stroll down to Croker giving way to sheets of rain, the first we’d seen in daylight for over a month, and it was immediately obvious that the already dreadful-looking surface was going to be even more slippy underfoot following this pre-match dousing.

We needed a good start, if nothing else to avoid falling into the kind of fire-fighting situations that we’d allowed ourselves to become enveloped in during all of our recent matches. A good opening spell would also have sown seeds of doubt in the minds of the Donegal lads and allowed us to demonstrate that, whatever their league form, we were the team with the greater experience at this level. But we simply didn’t do it: they won all those crucial opening exchanges and within ten minutes we were three points down and already flailing badly.

Donegal’s decision to spring the still-injured Devenney worked perfectly. He didn’t see out the first half but had made a sufficient contribution to Donegal’s attacking efforts at that stage to more than justify the gamble of starting him. Our repeated fumbling of the ball out around the middle gifted them plenty of possession and it was ball that they put to good effect, playing it in quickly either through the middle to Roper or out the wing to McFadden. Roper skinned Gardiner repeatedly with McFadden also often quicker to the ball than O’Malley and those early four points that Donegal got were almost embarrassingly easy scores to concede.

James Kilcullen, marking Michael Hegarty, found himself pulled way out the field where, although he managed to happen on a good bit of ball, he had all the look of a lost soul. At one point, he got possession far enough up to shoot but ballooned it predictably wide. He was taken off soon after, with only 19 minutes gone on the clock, his orthodox full-back skills strangely not needed against big, direct forwards. His replacement, Aidan Higgins, proceeded to have a productive enough day thereafter.

Eventually, we began to do something with all the possession we had – Mort scoring a point from play, then Harte smacking over a good score from well out, then frees from Mort and this one from Dillon:

Suddenly, it seemed, we were back in it. We went in at the break two points adrift – seven to five – but we’d played poorly and, on the evidence of previous matches, we could reasonably expect a better performance in the second half. It looked then like we might nick it, bearing in mind how we’d come back to steal results so often in the campaign to date. Strangely, our thoughts weren’t too focused at that stage on our earlier meeting with them back in February up in Ballybofey when we’d been sunk by three late points.

The second half opened much like the first period ended, with us continuing to win ball around the middle - where Heaney and the old warhorse Nallen produced a stirring performance together - but not seeming to know what to do with it once we had it. Donegal went three ahead just after the restart, we pulled it back to one, they stretched it back to three. Although Donegal were beginning to look a bit vulnerable, with their wide count starting to creep up, we didn’t look like we had sufficient nous to exploit the gaps that were opening up.

Still, all was not lost. Kevin O’Neill had come on to replace the anonymous Michael Conroy and the ball coming into the forwards started to look more purposeful. Donegal also started to foul in areas well within Mort’s range and he kicked four similar scores to haul us level, the last one of which was this one from away out on the right:

This was it, we thought, if the lads are reading the script, we’re now going to kick for home. Immediately after that score, Mort was clearly fouled twenty yards out straight in front of the posts but the ref waved play on. That would have put us ahead for the first time but instead Donegal nicked the lead once more, with a point from the diminutive McMenamin, and again we were back chasing the game.

Then came the two incidents that turned the game against us. First, Andy Moran found himself clean through with only the goalie to beat but he blazed the ball over the bar. Andy’s anguished face immediately flashed up on the big screen and he knew, as we did as well, that we’d just missed the best opportunity of the day, one that would have put us two up with ten minutes to play. Then, soon after, Dillon missed an eminently scoreable free from out on the left and, once more, we had failed to nab the lead. In the event, we never got our noses in front.

A bad injury to Ciaran Bonner – following which it took an eternity to cart him off the pitch – resulted in several minutes break in play and so when the seventy minutes were up with the teams all square there were still eight additional minutes in which to decide the contest. Here the match was truly up for grabs but, in a microcosm of the events of the previous 70 minutes, both of us had chances but it was Donegal who took theirs.

Whatever possession we did get was fumbled away in what appeared to be a panic-stricken manner, with all our attempted assaults on the Donegal goal breaking down in a clueless fashion. Donegal, in contrast, got three opportunities and they nailed all three spectacularly, with superb points from Gallagher, McGee and, finally, an exquisite long-range effort from former All-Star Adrian Sweeney to seal victory and to land their first ever NFL title.

Donegal undoubtedly deserved the win, both on the day and over the course of the league campaign since the start of February, where they were clearly the form team in this year’s NFL. It would be difficult to begrudge them their win and few Mayo supporters would have done so. It would, perhaps, have been nicer to see a bit more graciousness amongst their followers: their incessant booing and catcalling prior to Mort’s frees was to this (perhaps old-fashioned) observer more than a little distasteful. Still, they were worthy winners and, sitting on our own eleven NFL titles, we could hardly bemoan the fact that they’d won one of their own.

Where does this latest final defeat leave us? As we made our way out of Croker, we muttered darkly to ourselves that we’d win no All-Ireland this year. The comment from Kevin McStay in his Mayo News column earlier in the week, to the effect that we have plenty of committed, industrious players but no game-winning ones, seemed, in those dark moments at least, to be particularly apt.

But let’s remember that it’s only April, we’ve had a great run through a tough league campaign and our inability to hold onto the ball in the skating rink conditions of Croke Park was the main reason we lost yesterday. We didn’t take a pasting and overall we’ve emerged from the league campaign in a far better frame of mind than the sorry state we were in prior to it beginning. And don’t forget that we got as far as we did despite the catalogue of injuries we’ve suffered. Not everyone will be back for the Summer – we can’t reasonably expect to see Ciaran Mac or Ronan McGarritty in the colours this year - but others, such as David Brady, Trevor Mortimor and Kenneth O’Malley, almost certainly will be there, along with a few of the U21s. So it’s not all doom and gloom, far from it.

It’s also the case that yesterday’s defeat wasn’t the stuff of nightmares. It would have been better, sure, had we won but I don’t think you’d have seen the same wild scenes of jubilation that Donegal’s followers exhibited had we done so either. We would have derived some satisfaction from it but we’d soon have forgotten it as well, with all thoughts quickly turning to the crunch clash with Galway. The result might, of course, have cost Johnno a few votes in the forthcoming election but with the Galway showdown now certain to take place ahead of polling day, he has ample opportunity to win them all back again before then.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

U21s lose but we can still win today

The U21s were well beaten by Laois in their All-Ireland semi-final yesterday at Hyde Park but it wasn’t just their own muted display - allied to a gutsy Laois performance - that led to the downfall of the reigning All-Ireland champions. I know I keep banging on about referees (and will bang on some more in a bit) but I thought that yesterday’s performance – by some geezer by the name of Sludden from Tyrone – was one of the most awful and one-sided displays I think I’ve ever seen from a Gaelic ref.

He had an odd take on the rules, preventing any kind of challenge being made on the man in possession but then doing bugger all about all the after-the-ball stuff. He was fussy in the extreme, issuing yellow cards right throughout the first half for a series of nothing challenges and it was notable that the vast majority of them were brandished at Mayo lads. It was obvious that if he kept to the same approach in the second half, someone was going to walk the plank and the share-out of first half cards made it very likely that the someone doing the walking would be in our colours. So it came to pass: wing-back Colm Boyle got his marching orders shortly after the restart for a second yellow and, from then on, it was always going to be a big ask for us to stay in the game.

Disaster then struck soon after this when Barry Moran went down heavily on his ankle and had to be stretchered off. With him went any lingering hopes of success and although Laois missed a penalty a few minutes later – television replays showing clearly that the ref had got this decision wrong too – they proceeded to tack on a number of well-taken points to win quite comfortably in the end, on an 0-11 to 0-6 scoreline.

Would we have lost if (a) a monkey or (b) a vaguely competent ref was officiating? I’m not sure but it would have been nice to test the proposition. I suspect we might still have lost, as Laois looked solid all over the field. At the back they won most of the long ball we sent into the sector, they controlled the midfield area for most of the day and their forwards – especially MOTM Michael Tierney and Donie Breenan (who played against us for the seniors last year) – were sharp and nippy. We looked flat and a few yards off the pace by comparison and looked anything like All-Ireland champions at the finish.

I spent most of the game fulminating (though that wasn’t the ‘f’ word I was using at the time) at the ref but, later in the evening, as I began to mellow and start thinking about the meaning of life and all that, I mused about how crucial decisions by referees can swing matches in a particular direction. That was certainly the case yesterday but, let’s be honest, it was also true of last year’s U21 All-Ireland final when another quixotic refereeing performance turned the match decisively in our favour with the award of a very dubious penalty from which the decisive goal was scored. Bad refs give and bad refs take away, in other words.

Final thought on Gaelic refs. Is it possible, I mean really possible, to ref a Gaelic match properly? I cannot recall the last time I saw a refereeing performance that I would have said was both sensible and competent but they can’t all be clueless idiots or can they? Comments, anyone?

Enough about yesterday, we have larger fish to fry today at Croker. I’ve little more to add to yesterday’s post except to reiterate the point that we need a committed performance for the full 70 minutes today if we’re to win our 12th NFL title. Donegal are no Kerry in September but they do have a number of strong, wily performers in their ranks, the kind of guys who could well do damage if they get the opportunity. We could do with a positive start and it would obviously set us up nicely for the Galway match if today we could manage to put in our best performance to date of the NFL campaign. If we do this, it should be good enough to secure a win today as well.

I’ll be back at some stage tomorrow with the usual post-match mixture of words and amateur video clips of the action from Croker. I’m not sure how much of it I’ll manage to capture on video today: it is a final, after all, and I don’t think I’ll be able to stay detached enough to film all the key moments. I can envisage plenty of jumping up and down today and more than a bit of fulminating as well. I can also envisage myself hurling the camera in disgust in the general direction of the ref at some point during the proceedings. And, if we win, I might even have one or two later on so the video uploading might have to wait till some point on Monday morning. Till then.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

We should win today and maybe tomorrow too

Sure why wouldn’t we? Aren’t we (a) the defending All-Ireland U21 champions and (b) the league specialists (eleven titles and counting)? Paddy Power tends to agree, making us narrow favourites for tomorrow (we’re evens, Donegal are available at 11/10) but strongly odds-on (8/15) to prevail against Laois in the All-Ireland U21 semi-final today.

Elsewhere, the Indo think we’ll win both today and tomorrow, RTE favour us to win tomorrow while the Irish Times back us to win today but opt for Donegal tomorrow. Also in the Times, the usually excellent Keith Duggan (a Donegal native, if I’m not mistaken) offers a totally one-eyed account of why Donegal "have to win". Martin McHugh (no friend of Mayo he, in his various scribblings over the years) was up to the same craic on Setanta’s GAA show last night, pointing out all of Mayo’s failings and rounding up with a “we have to win this one”. It all smacks a bit of wishful thinking.

I do think we will win both games. The U21s cantered through Connacht – really letting rip against Roscommon in the final, in a manner reminiscent of their great 1983 predecessors – and while Laois have reached this stage by successfully defending their own provincial crown, they’ll find the going a whole lot tougher against our lads. That said, I wouldn’t rule out an upset, not least because senior panellists Aidan Campbell, Mark Ronaldson and Barry Moran will be thinking ahead to tomorrow’s match.

Campbell could feature in both Hyde Park and Croker but it’s unlikely that the other two will. Barry Moran broke his nose in training a week or so ago and that could hinder him a bit in his likely tussle with Laois midfielder Brendan Quigley, whom we all should remember from the two quarter-final clashes we had with them last year.

If Pearse Hanley cuts loose like he did in the Connacht final, we should be well on our way to a second successive U21 All-Ireland final. He just might, you know.

The league final tomorrow will be an interesting tussle. Much is being made of the fact that it’s yet another final in Croker, yet another chance for our lads to choke on the big occasion, blah, blah, blah. However, in this respect, we’ve got the ideal final opponents, a county that has blown even more finals in recent years than we have. Donegal’s last – and, indeed, only – big success was their breakthrough All-Ireland win in 1992 but they’ve failed to win Ulster (or anything else) since, losing a succession of finals in the meantime (Keith Duggan has the count at a prophetic 13). This means that their need for success on Sunday is great but, of itself, it’s not a valid reason to expect that they will win: if that were the case, we would surely have bagged our fourth Sam by now.

What does worry me is the sluggish way we’ve been starting games right through the campaign. We don’t tend to get going till fifteen minutes or so in, by which time the other lot have usually wreaked a fair bit of damage and then we really have to work hard to get back into it. In actual fact, apart from our opening match with Kerry (for which we had every incentive to perform well), we’ve played quite poorly in all of our other games and so it’s a bit surprising that we find ourselves here competing for the title itself. Sure, we’ve shown bags of guts to chisel out results in a number of tight matches but it’s also the case that the difficulties we’ve had in these games have been largely of our own making, most spectacularly so in the Cork and Dublin games.

Midfield remains a huge area of concern. Harte and Heaney are both honest and industrious players but neither will win much clean ball around the middle and they’re likely to struggle with Gallagher and Cassidy. If this pair can win ball and pump it in early, Donegal could do us considerable damage in the opening quarter. This was what they did against Kildare – a match they should have won far easier than they did – and if we’re still in the Land of Nod in that crucial opening phase, we could get caned.

In this respect, Devenney (their Brendan, as opposed to our Enda) is a huge loss to them. McFadden, who replaces him at full-forward, has a sweet left foot but that’s all he’s got – he can’t kick snow off a rope with his right. That makes Kilcullen’s task a bit easier but, after the tough examination Padraig Joyce gave the big Ballagh man last Sunday, he can expect another hard day’s work tomorrow.

Providing we don’t take an early battering, I think the game is likely to swing in our favour. If we manage to negate any midfield disadvantage in the way we did against Galway and the forwards are on song again, we should get to the point where we start to ask them some serious questions, at which point we’ll see just what kind of team they really are. After their opening flurry the last day, Donegal were quite poor against Kildare and, strangely for a team with such talented footballers, they seemed more interested in putting in hits on the man rather than doing stuff with the ball. Roper, in particular, was like one of those annoying little dogs that only stand a few inches off the ground, yelping and yowling and generally behaving like a pain in the hole (such a mutt would, I reckon, be slightly taller than Roper) and he was lucky it wasn’t him rather than Cassidy that got the early shower.

I have to say I was surprised with Donegal’s aggressive stance the last day but I think it's true that, despite all their talent, they can often be an ill-disciplined bunch (the Holland of the GAA world, if you like). If they try to repeat the rough stuff tomorrow (which they could), our lads (a more peace-loving unit, one would have to say) won’t let it pass and so we could be in for a serious bout of handbags at some point. The stakes will be high enough for both teams, neither of them – given their poor records in finals - will want to lose and you could imagine an incident flaring up into something bigger. John Bannon is a sensible ref (even if I still can’t quite forgive him for doing everything but donning the Fermanagh jersey in the semi-final replay back in 2004) but he’ll need to be well on top of things tomorrow if we’re to avoid a breach of the peace at some point in the afternoon.

On the sideline, I’d be confident that Johnno will outsmart McIver who, for all the plaudits he’s being getting this year, looks like he’s a man prone to panicking under pressure. The myriad changes he made in the second half against Kildare were almost Pillar-like in their bewildering intensity and they very nearly produced a Pillar-like result. Let’s see how he copes with the pressure tomorrow. More to the point, let’s make sure he comes under pressure tomorrow.

Tomorrow is, I think, likely to be a bit of a bare knuckle ride at times. With the weather breaking, the players may have to cope with a pitch that's even more slippy than Croke Park normally is, which would could result in the match descending into a dour, error-ridden tussle (normal league fare, in other words). I hope to jaysus we don’t take an early pasting, I hope midfield holds up reasonably well and I hope Ger Brady gives a passing impersonation of Four Goal McGee. I think we’ll win by two or three to clinch our twelfth NFL title. Yes, of course we’ll do it – we have all those years of tradition behind us and that’s got to be in our favour when it comes to a Croke Park final day, doesn’t it?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Donegal's team for Sunday named

Donegal have now named their side for Sunday's NFL final with Mayo at Croker. As expected, they're missing full-forward Brendan Devenney and half-forward Rory Kavanagh as well as wing-back Paddy McConigley from the side that started against Kildare in the semi-final. Tomas Donoghue comes in for McConigley, Christy Toye takes Kavanagh's wing-forward place, while a reshuffled full-forward line sees Colm McFadden take the no.14 jersey, with Kevin McMenamin replacing him in the corner. Surprise, surprise: Kevin Cassidy's appeal last night was successful and so he lines out at midfield. Donegal's team in full is as follows:

P Durcan; N McGee, P Campbell, K Lacey; T Donoghue, B Monaghan, B Dunnion; N Gallagher, K Cassidy; C Bonner, B Roper, C Toye; K McMenamin, C McFadden, M Hegarty.

Incidentally, the version of our lineup for Sunday that's being reported as correct is the one that was posted on the Mayo GAA website, not the RTE one that I proclaimed to be the true version. Really, I should have known: after all, comes from the same stable as the dreaded Aertel. For the record, here is the official lineout for Sunday:

D Clarke; L O’Malley, J Kilcullen, K Higgins; E Devenney, BJ Padden, P Gardiner; P Harte, D Heaney; G Brady, K O’Neill, A Moran; M Conroy, A Dillon, C Mortimer.

Also for the record, I don't for one minute think we'll stick to that formation in the forwards come Sunday.

That's it - back tomorrow to discuss the U21s (Barry Moran's busted honker and all) and the previews for Sunday.

Unexpected announcement of the team for Sunday

There we were not expecting a team to be named until Saturday at the earliest (or, as Setanta had it, "just before kick-off") when Johnno only goes and announces it following training last night. Not only that, but we've got two versions - this one from the Mayo GAA website (stop sniggering - they do put some useful content up there occasionally) and this alternative one from RTE. Both have the same starting fifteen but the positioning of the forwards differs significantly between them. Although the former has the nice official touch of providing the players' names and their clubs in the First Language, I'm going with the RTE variant. This is for the simple reason that it bears more resemblance to last Sunday's lineup and, hence, in Briiiiiiiaaannn Cartheeeeeeee's report on the RTE sports news a few minutes ago, there's just one change in personnel and only minor positional switching. On that basis, here it is:

D Clarke; L O'Malley, J Kilcullen, K Higgins; E Devenney, BJ Padden, P Gardiner; P Harte, D Heaney; A Dillon, A Moran, M Conroy; C Mortimor, G Brady, K O'Neill.

Isn't amazing that, with all the injuries we have, we keep putting out more or less the same team? Clarke, Kilcullen and O'Neill are all named in the side but all three are likely to have to undergo fitness tests before the throw-in on Sunday. However, Johnno must be pretty confident they're okay, otherwise our friend Duine Eile (three of them in fact) would have been pressed into service on the team named or else he would - as he indicated yesterday was the fallback plan - have delayed naming the side till later in the week. I'd be fairly confident that this will be the starting fifteen on Sunday.

The one change in personnel sees Michael Conroy on in place of Kilcoyne. You can't really argue with Killer's demotion: he was poor enough against Galway (although he did get a useful first-half point) and didn't even see out the first half up in Omagh. I still think he has plenty to offer and is - as he proved on more than one occasion last Summer - a potent option to have on the bench to up the second-half tempo, if required.

But Mick Conroy as a half-forward? I don't think so. Kevin O'Neill will surely drift out to the forty (with Andy Moran buzzing around in perpetual motion all around the middle area) allowing Conroy to slot into his natural position in the corner. Conroy looked neater with the hair cut the last day in Croker - rumour has it he's also working hard to reduce the girth around the middle - and Sunday would be a good time for him to stake a serious claim to a starting place on 20th May.

No word yet on the Donegal team but, according to RTE, full-forward Brendan Devenney appears unlikely to play. Hogan Stand also reckon that Rory Kavanagh is a major doubt. There's no confirmation at this stage (shortly after midnight) as to what has happened at the appeal hearing in relation to Kevin Cassidy's suspension but my default assumption is that he'll get off.

Oh and by the way, just in case you thought our injury worries were over, Barry Moran has apparently (this one's also from Hogan Stand) broken his nose. This could, the report speculates, mean that Moran "is in danger of" missing both the Donegal match and the U21 semi-final tomorrow. They could well be half-right: Barry's unlikely to play on Sunday, seeing as he's played no part whatsoever in the league to date. I'd still expect him to put in another stormer against Laois in the U21 game tomorrow though.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Final thoughts on the Galway game

For obvious reasons, last Sunday’s league semi-final with Galway has been taking up more processing power in my head than this coming Sunday’s final encounter with Donegal. Sure, what's to come this Sunday is a final and, of course, a national title and some silverware (handed out at Croker too) would be nice but, admit it, we’ve already got the scent of the sea air from Salthill in our nostrils and it’s not buckets and spades we’re thinking of either. So, despite yesterday’s photo shoot for the NFL final, excuse me if I take up just a little more time in analysing the tea leaves from last Sunday.

We won the battle the last day, at least according to the scoreboard, but what did the encounter do for us in terms of the war? When it became clear the Sunday before last that Galway would be our semi-final opponents, I was none too happy but, in some respects, I’m now glad that we did get to face them at such close proximity to the championship showdown. If nothing else, it reminded us (for those of us that needed reminding, myself included I have to admit) that they are a bloody good team.

Hanley is a cracking full-back who commands his area with authority and their entire backline is tight and difficult to break down. Bergin might be a big, gangly git whose shooting prowess is almost as bad as my own but he can fetch ball at midfield and he’s well able to give it too. And they have plenty of good forwards, including some still with All-Ireland medals jangling in their pockets. Ja might be well past it but Padraig Joyce certainly isn’t and he could be shaping up to provide his first proper performance against Mayo for a number of years. Then there’s Savage, Meehan, Bane, the other Joyce, Clancy and, most likely, Armstrong – that amounts to serious firepower no matter how you look at it. Solid at the back, strong in the middle and the potential to be lethal going forward. And we have to play them in Salthill, where we’ve never (to my memory at least) got a result against them in the championship.

One thing that stuck in my mind after Sunday’s match was the Ronan McGarritty factor. Ronan’s season tapered off poorly last year but he was absolutely awesome in the Connacht final and his ability to challenge for and win primary possession around the middle was the major factor in our ability to claw our way back into that match in the second half. He’d be just the man for Bergin and we’ll miss his presence there keenly. Brady and Heaney bring plenty of heft and aggression – always good commodities to have against Ford’s Galway – but neither of them can win ball the way McGarritty does. Harte now and again makes a good leap but his skills are complementary rather than being directly substitutable to McGarritty’s.

This means that we’re unlikely to play The Beautiful Game against Galway and instead I think we’ll see plenty of breaking, spoiling and crowding around the centre, allied to short kickouts and a mixture of long balls from BJ with hard running from the halfbacks. In other words, we’re likely to have to do more work to get up the field and this places an extra responsibility on the forwards to make economical use of the ball that they get. That’s one of the reasons we won last Sunday – we had only five wides compared to twelve for them – and we’ll need to show the same level of meanness in front of the posts in Pearse Stadium too. Another good thing about the forwards the last day was that they took - and shook off - a fair few hits, especially in the first half. It does look as if, finally, they’re starting to bulk up a bit, even Mort but, more notably, Dillon who is destined once again to be a real key man for us this year.

It’s also worth noting that the scores the last day were well spread around, which they needed to be, given that Burke was attached to Mort like a tick. This tactic cost
Galway in terms of scores (1-2 or thereabouts in exchange for the fouls on him) but it did take Mort out of the game for much of the day. We needed the points that came from Moran, Harte, Kilcoyne, Dillon and Devenney and, of course, the 1-1 from Ger Brady came in handy too. It would have been good to see Brady play as a more or less orthodox full-forward but I suppose his positioning out around the middle, as well as all the interchanging in the forwards, was part of the shadow-boxing with Ford on the day. Although Johnno will no doubt want to play his cards cautiously this coming Sunday as well (with Ford and his chums reverting to paying patrons for the day – will Ford shout for Mayo, I wonder?), I’d still like to see Brady operate for at least 35 minutes there, if only to demonstrate whether or not he really can.

The other positive from the last day was our solidity in the full-back line, which is a welcome development given all our recent travails in that sector.
Galway tried a bit of aerial bombardment – as Donegal surely will too – but we were able to cope comfortably enough with it, Kilcullen making one particular eye-catching fetch under pressure. O’Malley and Higgins are getting better all the time and Aidan Higgins (who may play on Sunday if Kilcullen isn’t fit) is a great option to have in reserve. The half-backs were more unsteady but I still think BJ is the best option we have for centre-back and, like Kilcullen at no.3, he’s growing into the position with each appearance. Sure, it would have been great to parachute in the best centre-back in the country to sort what’s been a problem area for some time but it doesn’t work like that. Johnno had to find someone to do it and I think he’s made a good choice.

The injury count has to be a worry and it’s fairly clear that we’re paying the price for success, in that this coming Sunday we’ll be playing our fifth competitive match in as many weeks. However, Johnno had a point when he said the other day that they’d prefer to be back in
Croker this Sunday rather than down in Beleek training. I only hope we don’t lose anyone else after the Donegal game; we’re down to the bare bones as it is. I know, there’s still another four weeks to go after this Sunday before we face Galway and that’s plenty of time for many of the walking wounded to come back (including perhaps even Trevor Mort, despite what my own medical diagnosis had to say on the matter) but I, for one, am getting more than a little weary of all these “Injuries mount for Mayo” headlines.

Then there’s the issue of the two sidelines. Unquestionably, we have the smarter bunch directing off-field operations. (This is the opposite to 2005 when I was struck at the difference in the
pre-match interviews given by the respective gaffas shortly before the throw-in. Maughan was bullshitting on about what a great occasion the Connacht final was and how Mayo/Galway matches are always special. Ford said, simply, “It’s a hot day, we’ll need all twenty players”). However, the elephant in this particular living room in the bloody general election, polling day for which could well be just four days after the Salthill match. Can you imagine Alex Ferguson (no, I’m not a Man U fan, before you ask) standing for parliament with polling day on a few days after the Cup final. I know, I know, the analogy isn’t perfect: who in their right mind would vote for SAF? And our match isn’t the final (although it is undoubtedly the real Connacht final) etc. etc. But you get my drift. I’m with Enda Kenny when he says to call the election now – at least the bloody thing would be over a week or so before we face Galway. As things stand, Johnno is going to be enormously distracted over the coming four weeks while Ford won’t be and this state of affairs is more than enough to nullify any advantage we might have had in the smarts department.

In summary, then, plenty of food for thought. But
isn’t that always the way when facing Galway? Last year, the Spailpin set out lucidly his fears for what might happen us in the Connacht final, fears that I largely shared, given our flaccid performance up in Carrick. Thankfully, things worked out differently that day but they might not this time round.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Doctor will see you now

Pretty full waiting room this morning, by the looks of it (well, that's according to the Indo anyway). Let's start from the back, shall we?

Goalkeeper David Clarke is doubtful due to what is described as a back-related hamstring injury which he sustained at some point during the Galway match. Clarkie didn't have much to do against Galway, apart from kicking the ball out (with varying degrees of success, you'd have to say, his long kicks going wildly astray but his short ones in the second half being much better) but he obviously did something to bugger up his back-related hamstring. With first-choice keeper Kenneth O'Malley still on the sidelines, we may now be forced to field the spendidly-named Morvin Connolly from Garrymore against Donegal on Sunday. Morvin is 23 (I don't recall that one being in the top ten names for boys and girls in 1984 but, truth be told, I don't recall an awful lot about 1984 at this stage except that Galway beat us in the Connacht final in Salthill: aarrgghh!) and he's has never played for the county at any level before but he may get a memorable debut in the cauldron that is an empty Croke Park on Sunday.

Who's next? James Kilcullen, apparently, clutching his groin. He'd be a big loss but then Donegal are sweating on their man Brendan Devenney so we could agree some kind of pairing arrangement (like the one TDs agree on when they want to go on the piss together or whatever) or, alternatively, agree to play the match with fourteen players on each side. Failing that, Liam O'Malley will probably have to move across to full-back with Aidan Higgins or Trevor Howley coming into the corner. Please, please, not Heaney: been there, done that, got the holes kicked off us. Twice.

Kevin O'Neill's problem is reported to be calf-related and was obviously serious enough for him to have to go off the last day. The captain is proving a bit injury-prone, I have to say, having missed half the league campaign already due to a hamstring injury. With O'Neill out, Andy Moran is likely to be named at centre-forward again, with either Michael Conroy or Aidan Campbell getting a starting berth. With Campbell also playing the day before for the U21s, Conroy is more likely to start but Campbell looks the business more than Conroy does and is sure to come on at some stage.

Setanta reports that David Brady has also been ruled out of Sunday's match, also with a calf problem. That was what he originally had back at the end of February and it's a bit worrying that it's felled him again. It's not a big problem for Sunday - we can just soldier on with Heaney and Harte - but if there's one man we need in Salthill to kick some ass, it's DB.

The one bit of good news, from the same Setanta story, is Tommy Jordan's insistence that Ciaran MacDonald could yet feature for club and county at some point over the Summer. Bearing in mind what Kevin McStay said in his Mayo News column this week - i.e. that Mayo have plenty of good, solid committed players but none of the top-drawer variety - it's certainly the case that a fit and committed Mac would be an enormous addition to the squad. I hope Mac does make it back at some point but I wouldn't bet on it happening all the same.

That's it, surgery closed for now. It looks like it could be Saturday before the team is announced for this one which doesn't exactly augur well for our chances of winning it. Liam Mulvihill was right when he said at the outset of the NFL campaign that this was, unlike most sporting competitions, one that tends to begin with a bang but ends with a whimper. We're certainly whimpering a bit at the minute and in no humour to do any banging.