Monday, July 16, 2007

How did it come to this?

It’s only the middle of July and already our 2007 championship season is over. It’s been our worst Summer’s football in years and it’s the first time since the new format was put in place in 2001 that we’ve found ourselves idle so early in the year. Think about it this way: today is exactly a year on from the date of last year’s Connacht final. After that narrow win over Galway, we were to have four big days out in Croker in 2006. In other words, our season was just getting revved up this time last year, whereas this year it’s already over.

There’s no Croker for us this year, our only visits to HQ in 2007 will remain those two we had at the fag-end of the league campaign in April. It’s the first time in four years that we’ve failed to reach the All-Ireland series and it’s also the first time we’ve taken such a pasting in the qualifiers. In short, it’s been a year to forget.

So how did it come to this? Seen in the cold light of defeat, the warning signs were there for some time. While the early part of the league was encouraging, the way in which the tinkering with team selection started after the league semi-final with Galway showed that Johnno and his colleagues were in no way sure about what kind of side they wanted to field for the championship. The changes since then have been dizzying, with the result that the team that started in Celtic Park bore only a faint resemblance to that which lined out against Donegal in the league final.

Experimentation with team selection was a definite requirement after Johnno took over, especially in light of last year’s disastrous All-Ireland. But why did it take till late April to start this process? Up till then, changes were largely made out of necessity, due to the severe injury list we’d built up. Two big decisions – Kilcullen at full-back and BJ at centre-back – appeared to be set in stone right through the league but Kilcullen was jettisoned following the semi-final with Galway and BJ’s career as centre-back ended in the confusion in Salthill.

Instead of using the league to try out different players, this year we’ve used the championship and, in particular, the two qualifier games to blood the next generation. Seen in this light, it’s not too difficult to see why we took the hammering we did from Derry. There’s a time and a place for team building and it’s not the month of July.

There are a few factors which I think are relevant in terms of explaining how we came to this pass. The first is, obviously, the residual after-effects of last year’s All-Ireland final. How many of the players – in particular those who had been involved in the 2004 thrashing by Kerry as well – were really up for another long, hard campaign? Not too many of them, I fear.

You need to be up for the fight to stay in the championship and at Celtic Park on Saturday, it was brutally clear that we weren’t. I remember turning to The Brother after Derry got their first goal and saying that this was the moment of truth: we’d soon find out if they had anything in the tank. As became painfully clear over the following twenty minutes or so, we didn’t. It’s hardly a coincidence that our best performers against Derry were the U21s that had just come in. It’s also obvious that these guys will, as early as next year, form the backbone of Johnno’s new Mayo team.

The second relevant factor is the league and how it threw our championship preparations out of kilter. This happened in two ways. I think we became obsessed (I know I did) about the need to finish in the top four and so secure our place in the new Division 1 in 2008. Because of this, league points became more important than building a championship team and, while we avoided dropping down to Division 2, we’ve paid a very high price for our top tier league status. Are Dublin or even Cork any the worse off for having failed to make the league grade? I think not.

The other thing is that, once we’d secured our league status, winning the damn thing became the priority. Think back to the league semi-final with Galway: they didn’t give a rat’s arse about that game and spent most of the seventy minutes toying with us. In large part, our win over them there contributed to our downfall in Salthill. Then, having got to the final, we went and lost it, picking up in the process more catcalls about what chokers we were and how the Croke Park hoodoo had struck again. This was the last thing we needed just as our championship preparations were supposed to be getting into top gear.

Which leads us, inevitably, to the month of May and all that happened then. The sun was shining - remember that? There was an election on too and it can’t be denied that Johnno’s election campaign cost us dearly. It certainly helps to explain why we emerged so ill-prepared and incapable for battle at Salthill. Just at the time when we needed his genius, Johnno was – understandably – using his grey matter primarily in pursuit of the third seat in Mayo for Fine Gael. Running for election is a 24 x 7 commitment and with Johnno giving his all to the election campaign, football was bound to suffer.

You could even argue that the way we approached the league was part of a fiendish political master plan, in that a league title won would have helped deliver the votes. I’m not so sure: the Galway match took place just four days before polling day and so the best way to secure football-minded votes would obviously have been to beat Galway in Salthill. I think the answer is a far simpler one: Johnno’s mind was focused on politics rather than on football during those crucial weeks prior to the clash with Galway.

Whatever the reasons are for our failure to mount a serious championship campaign this year, one thing is sure and that’s that we cannot change the outcome now. We need instead to look forward and so the last thing we need is another witch-hunt by the County Board. While I think, for the reasons outlined above, that Johnno has some questions to answer about the campaign, I also believe that he, along with his management team, is the man who is best placed to engineer another resurgence in our footballing fortunes.

Speaking to the Indo today, Johnno makes the blindingly obvious point that the team is in transition but he also says that the next few years will be a time of great opportunity for players to step forward and show what they’re made of. We're fortunate in that we have an extremely talented bunch of young players coming through - ten of last year's All-Ireland winning U21s are already on the senior panel - and Johnno's task will be to find the right blend of youth and experience for 2008.

Next year we’ll be under no pressure in the league and we can spend all Spring experimenting to our heart’s content. We won’t (unless lightning strikes twice) be faced with the prospect of playing Galway in May and, with the Tribesmen now in obvious decline and the Rossies all over the shop, our main opponents in Connacht next year could well be Leitrim and the new provincial champions Sligo. With Johnno fully focused on the job, we’d have to fancy our chances of front-door entry to the All-Ireland series next year. So while we can only watch from the sidelines as this year's championship plays out, we shouldn't be too downhearted. We’ll be back, more than likely next year, with big days out in Croker to look forward to again. And, who knows, unlike this year, we might even get a real Summer too.


Homer2 said...

Hey Willie Joe, thanks for the link on your blog. I've been reading yours for the last day or two and am mightily impressed by the eloquence, consistency and effort you devote to your passion.

I came across your site as I scanned through YouTube for GAA videos. I love the way you link video to your reports, it gives much more involvement than just reading a report in the newspaper.

I don't know exactly where my site is going to end up, I'm just experimenting at the moment. I suppose I'm trying to start a community of people who have an interest in GAA and are possibly bored with the traditional ways of satisfying that interest. Anyway, go neiri leat, Homer2

Homer2 said...

By the way, WJ, any comments or advice you might feel like passing in my direction will would be greatly appreciated, Homer2.

Willie Joe said...

Thanks Homer, I just discovered your interesting site for the first time yesterday when I saw there was some traffic headed in my direction from it. I'd intended posting a proper comment on your site about GAA blogs (or rather the lack of them) in response to the piece you have on your site about this and will do so when things calm down on the work front later in the week. (I'm on the road all day tomorrow so it'll have to wait till the day after).

Thanks for the kind words about Green and Red, which has been fun (despite some of the results!) to maintain these past number of months. My problem now, of course, is that my raw material has dried up on me, a little earlier than I'd hoped it would. I'm planning to keep it going with stuff on the championship and what-not till the season ends and then maintain it at a lower level of activity over the winter before revving up again next year. There's always next year, isn't there?

Homer2 said...

WJ, just a thought, perhaps the club scene in Mayo would provide you with material in the months ahead?


Fourgoal McGee said...

The scene was mindful of a scene from a wild-west movie. The Cowboys were surrounded and fought bravely for as long as they could, but eventually the wall of the fort was breached and the Indians came flooding through. The battle was lost and our heroes of several years were vanquished. At the end we stood on the terraces as Celtic Park emptied and watched as the victorious Derry team took the applause of their supporters. Then they went back to business warming down and getting ready for the next battle.

In the old movies, the next thing we would see are the vultures coming to pick the bones that remained after the battle. But before that starts in earnest (and I believe that it is a necessary part of the recovery process) it is worth remembering a few home truths:
1. We never had a realistic chance of winning the All-Ireland this year and to go out now having learned that our defensive cover down the middle is still inadequate was a painful but useful lesson. It would have been worse to get to an All-Ireland final and to be torn apart again on the day;
2. Our man-marking improved greatly in the Cavan game with the introduction of Cunniffe and Howley. One more of the same calibre and we could really nail down defence. Why James Kilcullen was not continued at No 3, I don’t know. I know he didn’t do great against Donegal, but a different typeof full back was needed that day. Cunniffe has the look of a potentially great centre back, but we really need to sort the No 3 position;
3. The half-back line has greatly improved. T Mort has really taken to No 7 and Heaney is born again at No 5. D Kilcullan needs time to grow into the No 6 position or move back to No 3. In any case, a hard league campaign is needed to try and test the options. Being in Division 1 next year will provide such a campaign;
4. It’s great to see Ronan back again. Remember, if he hadn’t been creeled by that mullocker Whelan in last year’s semi, he would have been very close to an All-Star. With someone like young O’Shea from the U21s beside him next year, they would be a serious centrefield for anyone to contend with;
5. Thanks be to God that Johnno has dispensed with this play-everywhere running round like headless chickens attack that we had in the league. You always need a bit of bite in front of goal, and with constant rotation, we were not going to get it consistently. With a more orthodox forward formation, we have more penetration and with more experience of this system we will get more scores. With forwards like Harte, Hanley, Dillon, C Mort, B Moran, Killer, Campbell and A Moran already in the squad, we have the fire power to do damage.
6. But with the options we played this year, and the way the ¼ final draw has panned out (assuming we were in the draw instead of Derry), the route to Sam was as follow s: Laois, followed by Kerry, followed by Dublin, followed by Tyrone. Back to point 1 – we were better off getting the Summer off rather than having another generation of footballers who would have suffered a high profile hammering!

But it would be wrong to leave this comment at that. As a player, I never was good enough to don the sacred shirt and if I had been good enough, I don’t think that I would have had the perseverance necessary to spend week after week in intensive training for no reward other than the tenuous possibility of bringing glory to the county.

The end of this campaign is likely to spell the end of service for a number of men who made us proud to be Mayo men over the last several years. They got a few All-Stars between them but, alas, no All-Ireland medals. They have signalled their impending retirement a few times in the past but were persuaded each time to come back once (or twice!) more. Now is probably the time that they will leave the stage.

So to James Nallen, David Brady, Ciaran McDonald and Kevin O’Neill, we sincerely thank you for giving more than should have been asked. But remember, it is people like you that keep the fire burning in Mayo hearts. It is through your efforts that we continue to dream huge dreams and it is through dreams, that you have begun in a new generation of Mayo footballers, that the elusive All-Ireland will eventually come.

Keep the Faith!

Willie Joe said...

Well said, Fourgoal. I think you're right - a Summer off is probably no harm as we were never really serious contenders for Sam this year. I'm a bit disappointed that we didn't make it to the last eight but, had we done so, the chances are that our sole reward would have been a more high-profile hammering. This way, we got a few minutes on the Sunday Game and then it was all forgotten about.

Next year should be interesting, alright. As you've pointed out, we have some serious talent coming through and, as I said on the post, Johnno's task will be to get the right mix of youth and experience. The potential is certainly there to build a serious team - from the supporter's point of view, it's just a pity that we won't get to see even the first iteration of this for at least six months!

Willie Joe said...

Homer, I'll probably do a bit on the club scene but I have to admit I don't have the same degree of interest in it, not least because I'm living in Dublin. There's always the women as well . . .