FLYING HIGH Mayo’s Conor Loftus and Tipperary’s Conal Kennedy contest possession during Sunday’s All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park. Pic: Sportsfile
IF someone asked you in 20 years time to explain what Mayo were like under James Horan, you could make your job altogether easier by sitting them down to watch this All-Ireland semi-final.
It had everything we both love and moan about Mayo this last decade all in one 70 minute game. Superb high octane play, athleticism and brave to a fault in their approach in the positive column.
But defensive jitters, giving up any amount of goal chances and looking uncomfortable with even the most commanding of leads.
Like the little girl with the curl, when they were good, Mayo were very, very good.
But when they were bad, they were horrid.
Talk in advance that Tipp’ would push Michael Quinlivan inside with Conor Sweeney led most of us to conclude Mayo would play a sweeper in front.
Have we learned nothing in the last ten years?
A sweeper would be a step backwards, and James Horan doesn’t believe in doing that.
He looked at that inside pairing and said, ‘We’ll take our chances’.
It was a statement of intent. ‘Ye might have two of the best inside forwards in the country but we’re confident we’ll create more chances and scores at the other end’.
It was high-wire stuff at times. Both Quinlivan and Sweeney had gilt-edged goal chances inside ten minutes. David Clarke was at his All Star best in denying Quinlivan and stood up strong to Sweeney’s shot.
It may have been a different game if either or both had went in, but we think Horan would counter it would not have been a different result.
His faith and his conviction in this approach was emphatically justified by Mayo on the front foot in that first half.
Though they started shakily at the back, and also with some poor kick-pass turnovers in the Tipperary half, Mayo settled and Cillian O’Connor’s tenth minute goal, after Sweeney’s shot had been saved by Clarke at the other end, appeared to have Mayo comfortable.
Again, have we learned nothing? Tipp’ goaled from the next attack, but it was a blip and Mayo then hit the underdogs with the full force of their power-play.
When they hit fifth gear, when the runners hit the line at the right time, and when the passing is crisp, Mayo are a force of nature. We think Horan would contend that playing a full-time sweeper would take from them in an attacking sense. With so many players driving on, Mayo playing with such precision and skill, they were a sight to behold.
Tipp’ set up with bodies behind the ball, but they could do little to stem the tide of Mayo bodies running at them in that first half.
They were authors of their own downfall in the sense they crumbled after Mayo’s second goal went in, but that goal from Cillian O’Connor put them to 2-9, nine points clear.
The damage was done.
Tipp’ might point to the amount of Mayo’s scores which came from turnovers – of which more anon – but it is a well-established source of Mayo scores with high-intensity tackling from the full-forward line back.
Indeed, under James Horan, every defender has a license to attack and is encouraged to do so. Every forward has an order to defend and failure to do so is a cardinal sin.
Sixteen points clear at the break, it was game over.
Mayo have often looked uncomfortable with less significant leads and, while the result was never in doubt, they did not look comfortable for stages of the second half here either.
It is their wont to leave the door ajar.
Credit to Tipp’ who rallied and threw everything at it, meaning their season ended disappointingly rather than embarrassingly.
But Mayo teams have a habit in the last decade of never looking as secure as they should with leads.
It’s a mark of James Horan’s teams and other Mayo managers too in that time, but maybe more reflective of the playing personnel than the managerial approach.
Or maybe the management approach is because of this – attack being the best form of defence because Mayo do not tend to be brilliant at playing games out in a composed, steady fashion.
In all we tallied eleven goal chances Mayo gave up in the game, eight in the second half.
In so many ways how Mayo approached this game and how it played out sums up James Horan and his footballing philosophy. High risk, high reward.
Not cautious, quite the opposite. Not defensive, quite the opposite. Going for it.
“Today you learned what we are good at and you learned what we’re bad at,” surmised Horan afterwards. It wasn’t so much learning it as having it confirmed.
There’s enough in the best parts of Mayo on Sunday to be cautiously hopeful for Saturday week; there’s enough in the bad parts to keep the Mayo manager awake at night.
Lean much more towards the former than the latter, and Mayo might have a chance.