IT was like old times at Cork on Sunday, and as Mayo crashed dismally, I swear you could almost hear the chuckles of disdain wafting from certain quarters of the county, from those still disgruntled about the change of management.
In almost every corner of Páirc Uí Rinn, Mayo laboured. The gap in fitness and want was glaring. Those wasted weeks of needless delay before a manager was appointed has left the players scrambling to catch up, with too many cobwebs to be cleared, too little time for limbering up and tuning the psyche.
Now Dublin looms ominously, and no amount of preparation this week is likely to have heads, smarting from such a pasting, mentally or physically ready to rekindle the old flame of competitiveness.
The new celebrated management, belatedly appointed, has enlivened the curiosity of the faithful. Experimentation has had them combing the county for the galvanising talent that most agree is an imperative for outright success.
Whether what has been discovered fills the void, time will tell. Shane Nally, Caolan Crowe, Keith Ruttledge and Conor Loftus impressed in the FBD League. Yet, against Roscommon – admittedly a fullish Roscommon outfit – Mayo’s skeletal side seemed uninspired by the presence of new blood.
And last Sunday Cork exposed many of the problems Stephen Rochford faces in this, his baptism of fire. Of those who might have engendered some excitement about the season ahead, only Conor O’Shea showed any real liking for taking on the opposition.
But then few of those on whom the juniors might have modelled themselves were in any position to teach by example. They were yards behind Cork in the race to the ball and much less enthusiastic about contesting the hard ball in particular. In contrast, Cork, as a unit, were exhilarating.
Mayo’s overall lack of fitness was accentuated in the fight for the broken ball. Time and again, Cork’s midfielders chose to spoil Tom Parsons and Jason Gibbons by forcing breaks, most of which were picked up by the opposition. Mayo were not sufficiently prepared to compete with the relentless running and tackling of the Leesiders.
The absence of so many regulars offers opportunities to young aspiring talent. One man’s misfortune can be another man’s opportunity. But the wisdom of the old stock cannot be replaced overnight, and the degree of fervour and eagerness the new players bring to their game in the weeks ahead may determine Mayo’s destiny in the coming months.
The unsuccessful, brief experiment during the FBD League with Tom Parsons and Donal Vaughan in the front line of attack underlines a persistent dearth of robust talent in that area that must be a concern. At the same time, paradoxically, it conveys an assurance that as spearhead, Aidan O’Shea has no rivals. His younger brother Conor is made of similar marrow and may yet make a place for himself on the side.
Without the Castlebar contingent – preparing for their semi-final against Crossmaglen – and without Cillian O’Connor, Seamus O’Shea, Keith Higgins, Kevin Keane and Aidan O’Shea for most of the first half, Cork was always a difficult prospect.
Their ability to score from distance and from all angles is a skill sadly lacking in the best of Mayo sides. Indeed, some of Mayo’s attempts at the goalposts from frees and play (especially when they had the help of the wind in the second half) were pitiful in comparison.
And were it not for a wonderful display of goalkeeping by Rob Hennelly, Mayo’s margin of defeat would have been far heavier than the nine points that separated them. The saves of the Breaffy man included a penalty by Daniel Goulding, and a-point blank shot from Brian Hurley.
Dubs look like they mean business too
SO Dublin come on Saturday in ravaging form following their win over Kerry.
And Mayo are likely to be further depleted by the probable absence of Lee Keegan, who left the pitch in some distress, concussed from an earlier collision with Cork’s full-back Eoin Cadogan.
The Dubs are intent on retaining the league trophy and are in bullish form. With so much talent available to Jim Gavin, Saturday’s side is unlikely to consist of many of that which accounted for Kerry.
In every department he has players vying for places. But the permanent stars – the likes of Ciaran Kilkenny, Paddy Andrews, Diarmuid Connolly and Denis Bastick – are holding their own and still form a formidable unit. Notably, they were without Bernard Brogan.
Mick Fitzsimons has taken over the full-back position vacated by Rory O’Carroll, and although he filled the role well last week, he was really on trial and perhaps not a permanent fixture yet. But Cian O’Sullivan held the relatively inexperienced back line together. And Jack McCaffrey, who replaced Davy Byrne, was – as usual – tricky, fast and elusive.
Stephen Rochford doesn’t have a lot of room for manoeuvre for Saturday’s encounter. There is no reason to believe that Dublin are any less fleeting or less hungry or competitive than Cork, and keeping track on the likes of Connolly, McCaffrey and Andrews will prove equally challenging.
With so many absentees, the manager must plug on with Jason Gibbons and Tom Parsons at midfield and with both hopefully, a little more animated on the next occasion. Kevin Keane being injured, they are without an understudy for full-back Ger Cafferkey should he pick up an injury.
Kevin McLoughlin and Donal Vaughan were replaced during the course of Sunday’s joust and in a way, both are irreplaceable. In the past five years, no emergency of this nature has hit the Mayo camp. And in taking the reins, Stephen Rochford is unlucky to have been confronted with so much wreckage.
Still, it’s early days yet. The sap of the new season has just begun to rise and the windows of hope are being flung open again. Five years of hair’s breadth reversals have not yet conquered this soul. There’s a bit of life in the auld dog yet.
Mayo have left it very late, but surely, having consorted with the greats of Gaelic football for the past five years, full maturity is imminent when the current crop of injuries clear up.
I am reminded of the seed of the bamboo grass that takes five years to germinate. Five years under the ground before a green shoot appears. Then, in a single season, the grass pops up and matures ... growing some 90 feet high in the course of a few months.
Might some trace of the bamboo distinguish this Mayo character? Roots well tended those past five years ought now to be firmly established. This, their sixth successive attempt at scaling the mountain, should rouse one last enormous effort for those nearing the end of their careers.
A further opportunity is unlikely.