MAYO faces emerging from the raw bowels of MacHale Park on Saturday evening conveyed all the signs of disappointment. Not so much hopelessness or pessimism; more a sense of regret at the county’s failure to take advantage of the first of four home games in the Allianz League.
Injuries and the late return to serious conditioning – a legacy of their achievements last season – have stalled their progress to the level of fitness that Monaghan have already reached.
And while the Mayo skeletal side was not short of effort, there was no doubt about the merit of Monaghan’s two-point victory. That edge in fitness and aggression told. They have reached the pitch of Roscommon’s vigour in last year’s league, and will be a handful for others as well.
It was a not a convincing selection Mayo fielded. Without eight of the side that started in the All-Ireland final replay, they looked disjointed at times. But those are the cards Stephen Rochford has been dealt. You juggle them as best you can and hope those selected turn up trumps.
In many areas Mayo competed well, and the manager will be pleased with the performance of Donie Newcombe at corner back, his first in the league in a Mayo jersey.
Investing all of his dependability and energy in his new calling, the Castlebar Mitchels man might have posed the question why only now when his prowess with his club has long been recognised.
Fergal Boland from the successful under-21 side, although less involved in the action, has the potential to fit in, and the good work of Danny Kirby in the first half ought to ensure further trials.
Kirby is a big man with good hands. He is never far from the action, but needs to impose himself on the midfield exchanges, to fight aggression with aggression, to use his power in holding possession and shaking off the irritant that Monaghan brought to their tackling.
It wasn’t easy. The visitors chased every opportunity, were in the faces of every Mayo man in twos and threes, harassing and bullying, firing sparks like an angry log. Even a full Mayo team would in their present state have found it hard to surmount such an aggressive challenge.
No opponent personified the character of Monaghan’s performance more than wing forward Gavin Doogan. A thinning hairline belied his mobility. In no position on the field did he fail to appear, tackling, spoiling on and off the ball, full of zeal and belligerence.
In taking a lead of four points in the first half, Monaghan had left Mayo standing at times, bewildered and floundering. Although Boland posted the opening score of the game, strong running by the northerners eventually reeled the Mayo forwards into a defensive mentality, until a few fast counter-attacks lifted the siege in the second quarter.
Improvised though it was, coverage by the defence was fairly effective. All of Monaghan’s first four points came from the accurate boot of Conor McManus, and their first from play by Darren Hughes in the 21st minute.
Lacking nothing in the way of courage or commitment, the home back line forced Monaghan into hasty and inaccurate shooting on occasions.
ALTHOUGH not fully cohesive all individually were diligent – Paddy Durcan, not yet the Paddy of All-Star fame, but well on the way, Keith Higgins covering sensibly, Colm Boyle dogged and determined, Stephen Coen at centre back with vitality and clever distribution, David Drake no less hard-working and David Clarke commanding the box with customary flair.
Evan Regan commenced Mayo’s recovery with a long-range point in the 24th minute.
The Ballina man is blessed with natural ball skills, but these are not always underpinned by the robustness that is demanded from forwards in the top flight. Like the rest of the side he, too, is only reawakening to the new season.
That point was followed by the first of Cillian O’Connor’s seven points, five of them from frees. The Ballintubber star grew in stature after a slow start and won judicious yardage for some frees from clever manipulation.
Kevin McLoughlin at centre forward pushed himself around, but the forward line as a unit lacked penetration. The power of Aidan O’Shea was missed, not so much his scoring power as his ability to attract the opposition in numbers and pull forwards out of place. Sometimes I think the big man would be most effective at wing or corner forward.
Alan Freeman has yet to realise his potential. At full-forward on Saturday, he caught cleanly and scored one point beautifully with his left foot.
To protect possession and to fully execute his talents, the Aghamore man requires greater body strength. Against Monaghan he was buffeted like a leaf in the wind, unfairly at times, but clearly short of sufficient muscle to shake off tenacious defenders.
Donie Vaughan got little chance to use his customary speedy thrusts from midfield. Monaghan’s Hughes brothers stood on no ceremony in their borderline tackling and general command of the area. Jason Doherty was also targeted for some rough tactics and, like the rest, is in need of his old sharpness.
Having weathered Monaghan’s early storm, Regan shunted Mayo into an unlikely half-time lead with his second point from a free. But any high hopes entertained by Mayo at the break were shattered a couple of minutes after the re-start when midfielder Darren Hughes finished a centre from McManus to the net.
It was the decisive score around which the second half revolved. Mayo brought in Diarmuid O’Connor, Tom Parsons, Conor O’Shea and Andy Moran in a bid to wipe out the deficit, but stubbornly Monaghan held out to grab the kudos in a riveting second half.
So it’s onwards next Saturday to Tralee and a date with the Kingdom. How much less onerous it would be if Mayo received a positive result last Saturday.
A different brand of football can be expected. Monaghan’s style is not Kerry’s style. There will be no lessening of toughness, but there will be no clinging, no furtive off-the-ball negativity. Negative tactics are foreign to Kerry. But the Kingdom is thirsting for a return to the top, and they will not spare Mayo in their efforts.
If injuries persist it will be difficult for Rochford to field a side capable of surprising the Kerrymen. And heading that list of problems is his vain search for an adequate full-back.
An astonishing aspect of last year’s trek to the final was that Mayo got there without a credible full-back. The absence of Ger Cafferkey left a void that no amount of experiments has managed to fill. And Kerry are sure to exploit that situation.
Ominously, Donegal felt the full force of the blast from the south last weekend.