Archive for July, 2012

Mayo’s Marquee Men

Posted: July 27, 2012 in GAA
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YOU may have heard the term ‘Marquee Forward’ a few times during the course of this year’s championship, if not you will do before the summer is out. After a lot of searches that mostly ended with results such as “Open sided large tent,” I found its academic definition:

*Marquee Player/Forward(A top-tier athlete and major selling point of a team or league)

In the somewhat amateur environment of the GAA, a Marquee Forward is less to do with selling points and more a prerequisite for All – Ireland Glory.

Ever since the misleadingly gentle sounding ‘Blanket Defence’ came into our lives ten years ago, the search began for the solution. The ‘Target Man’ was the remedy back in 2006 with Kieran Donaghy making it the must have item for every managers full forward line. Having brought it back into fashion it was a case of you can’t get too much of a good thing, so they threw Tommy Walsh into the mix too.

It took Mayo a while to catch on to this one, our version of the twin towers emerged three years later. The august bank holiday should see them reunited again but this time in a more traditional location on the half way line.

The big man on the inside line can and is still a potent weapon in the game, Tomas O’Connor of Kildare an example of the not so potent. But in the last number years it’s been all about the rarest, most mystical creature of them all, the aforementioned nouveau GAA-ism, the ‘Marquee Forward’.

There has always been an onus on high profile forwards to perform. However, with defences dominating over the last decade, All Ireland contenders are now required to have at least two outstanding forwards who can unlock Donegal style, vice-like defences.

The Brogan’s, Gooch and O’Sullivan2, O’Connor and Goulding, Murphy and McFadden… and em Bolton and O’Flatherty? When Mayo are mentioned as All – Ireland contenders it’s the supposed lack of these players, (the last inclusion was a joke in case you were wondering – half backs don’t count) which is cited as our major stumbling block in reserving our place at the top table.

Comparisons between this year’s team and Horan’s team of the 90’s would not be too far wide of the mark. An assured and attacking defence, a formidable midfield with impressive strength in depth, and a hard working half forward line with some scoring ability. Unfortunately like the 90’s, doubts remain about the makeup of the inside line.

The performances in the League and Connacht Final only added strength to that argument. There has been a loss of form and a lack of cohesion among the forwards, but those with short memories must remember two things;

  1. Andy Moran –      2011 GAA GPA All – Star Team, Full Forward
  2. Cillian O’      Connor – 2011 GAA GPA All – Star Young Footballer of the Year (Corner      Forward)

Last year Mayo had the best full forward and the best young player in the country, two stars operating in their inside line. It may be a slightly basic way of looking at it but Donegal can’t boast those credentials. It’s likely that O’Connor will move back into the corner for the quarter final. It could be a sweet release for him. He looked burdened by the centre forward role and he’s too good to allow the game to pass him by.

Injuries and lack of options may prevent Moran joining him in the full forward line; eventually Mayo will need their two biggest threats nearest goal. The loss of Pat Harte and the doubts over Seamus O’Shea’s fitness leaves Mayo lacking a physical presence in the half forward line. Rumour has it that this will result in Andy Moran moving to centre forward and Alan Freeman returning to the edge of the square, probably at the expense of Varley.

Moran is suffering slightly for his talent and versatility. He would probably prefer to remain at Full Forward but the need is greater at 11 at this stage. Superheroes are all the rage at the moment and if (please insert preferred Mayo town now) is ever threatened by an evil entity, Andy would be the man you’d look for. His performances and the encouragement he gives younger members of the squad seems to have created a real togetherness among this group of players.

Alan Dillon and Kevin McLoughlin will resume on the wings. Dillon was one of the composed when indecision was endemic against Sligo, while McLoughlin is one of the most underrated footballers in the country. His skill level and work rate is sometimes overlooked in a game where brawn is the new brain.

Mayogaablog.com raised the issue regarding the forward replacements looking fairly threadbare at the moment. Padraic, another of the Ballintubber O’Connor’s, was required to make up the numbers in an extremely competitive A v B game recently but fresh call ups seem unlikely.

This means Conroy and either Varley or Doherty will be the only cover for the full forward line. Michéal Forde is the only recognised half forward replacement fit at the moment, with Horan using him as a wing forward in training. Despite being a big fan, it’s doubtful if Horan will give the 19 year old much game time having never played a competitive game for the seniors.

Aidan O’ Shea will return in some capacity, but if Horan decides to stick with the Connaught Final midfield, another option rears its head. O’Shea is no stranger to playing centre forward in Croke Park. If Mayo progress beyond the quarters, players returning from injury will bring further options back into play.

These are the dilemma’s Horan has. He was always a forward who performed on the big day. A slight reshuffle of his pack may and an upturn in form is all that’s needed for his players to carry on this most precious of traits.

CONNAUGHT finals have traditionally been the concern of Mayo and Galway. With 43 Nestor cups to their name, Mayo will hope to draw level with Galway on 44 titles with a win against Sligo on Sunday.

Those pesky sheep stealers – aka Roscommon, and no stealers isn’t a misprint – have been known to spoil the Mayo/ Galway monopoly on quite a number of occasions with a respectful 20 titles to their name.

As for Sligo, their record is not so impressive. To quote their Nobel Prize winner W.B Yeats, their record “is a load of sh**e,” with just three wins to date, just one more than Leitrim.

Having said that Sligo have had the better of Mayo in recent years and history has proven they always put up it up to Mayo on the big day. I’ve been trawling through the archives and my own hazy memory, to try and unearth some of the more controversial and entertaining of these encounters.

 

Sligo 0-1 Mayo 1-1 – Connaught SFC Round 1 Replay, Showgrounds, 19th June 1927 (Match Abandoned after 12 minutes, Mayo awarded match)

If you believe Pat Spillane’s endless eulogies about the good old days when football was pure, referees were good and everyone shook hands at the final whistle, then the Connaught Semi Final replay of 1927 is proof that things weren’t always so wholesome back in the good old days.

When Sligo won the original encounter in Castlerea by two points, you would’ve presumed that was it, case closed. Not so. In those days simply winning on the field was not enough. The Connaught Council in their infinite wisdom decided the game had to be replayed because the senior and junior games had not started on time. A big price to pay for the tardy Sligo men.

Given the backdrop, the replay was never going to be the most harmonious affair and it took all of 12 minutes of the replay for things to take a turn for the worse. Mayo scored a goal that was initially disallowed by the officials, only for the decision to be overturned seconds later and the goal awarded by referee, Tom “Indecisive” Shevlin.

What happened next would even make Louth fans blush with shame. After two of the Sligo team walked off the field in disgust, the referee was surrounded and according to The Connaught Telegrapgh, “there was jostling from one end of the field to another amid shouts of ‘Up Sligo’, ‘Give us back our money’, others shouted ‘Give it to him.’”

The Western People reported that there were enough Gardai present “to prevent him from getting a bad mauling,” before he was escorted to the local station. The joys of being a referee.

The gentile Mayo team, who offered to forgo the disputed goal, were awarded the match but went on to lose the final to Galway. As for Sligo, they managed to get a full complement of players back on the field the following year to win their first ever Connaught title.

 

Sligo 2-10 Mayo 0-15 – Connaught SFC Final Replay, McHale Park, 20th July 1975

The final of 1975 is one for all you GAA romantics out there as Sligo claimed their first title since 1928. It was a win long overdue especially for the likes of Sligo legends, Barnes Murphy and the immortal Mickey Kearns. The Dromard man, Sligo’s first All – Star, scored 1-4 that day and finally claimed a Connaught medal, 14 years after he made his debut.

The sides had finished level the first day in Markevich Park with Mayo coming from behind to level it late on. So it was off to McHale Park for the replay, with a fresh-faced John O’Mahony lining out at corner back for the home side.

Sligo held on for the narrowest of wins in the end triggering a huge outpouring of joy among the Yeats men; Tom Courell of the Western People, described the scene:

“The drudgery of countless seasons in the doldrums; the disasters, the frustrations and the agony of failure were swept away in the enthusiasm which ignited in McHale Park...The chant which rose from all corners of the ground – packed to capacity – must have echoed around Benbulben.”

It must still have been echoing a few weeks later when they met the irresistible force of Kerry in the semi – final. Not the first Connaught side to get a pasting from kerry, nothing could take away from Sligo’s sweetest victory.

 

Mayo 0-11 Sligo 1-7 – Connaught SFC Final, Hyde Park, 3rd August 1997

Selected highlights of the year 1997 include; a cloned sheep, the release of Harry Potter and ehh Titanic. Lowlights also include the release of Titanic, the election of Bertie and Evander Holyfield’s ear. If forced to categorise it, the Connaught Final of 1997 would definitely be in the same category as the unfortunate Mr. Holyfield’s mangled ear.

It was a dour game that Mayo scraped by a point thanks in the main to some steady free taking from Maurice Sheridan and some not so steady free taking from Sligo. Significantly, this was the last time the counties met in a Connaught Final and like next Sunday, Mayo went into the game as hot favourites. Take note James Horan.

There was some controversy however, and low and behold it again involved a referee. This time it was Mick Curley prematurely blowing for full time with at least two minutes of injury time still to be played.

It was a nice change from the usual play for the draw, get another day out, GAA attitude but Sligo were denied a chance to secure the draw they probably deserved. In the wake of the game, John Melvin of The Connaught Telegraph, had a novel idea for getting rid of the draw altogether in case of future incidents.

“The decision will be based on such important matters as colour of the team strip, the team with the best march behind the band prior to the throw in, best groomed full forward, and, most importantly, the manager with the most hair on his legs.”

Having lost their best groomed forward this week, Mayo should be glad this proposal never reached congress.

AS AN old wise Chinese man once said, “An ounce of breeding is better than a ton of feeding”.  Well maybe he wasn’t Chinese but in Irish agricultural circles this translates to, you can feed a bad animal all you like but it’ll never be as good as one with a bit of pedigree.

Maybe it’s the west of Ireland blood that flows through some of their veins (we have to try to claim some of the credit) but Meath have grade A football pedigree. On Sunday they showed Kildare that when it comes to football, natural instinct and skill still has a place in this game.

The reality is though, Kildare have beaten no – one. They have the look of a team who are completely over awed by the unwarranted expectation that’s been placed on them.  The fact that some commentators had them placed as the fourth team in the country and the one to challenge  the trio of Dublin, Cork and Kerry was laughable, considering counties such as Donegal and Mayo have actually challenged and beaten members of the supposed ‘Big 3’  in the last year.

Last year they had Donegal and Dublin on the ropes, only to let them slip away. In retrospect, Down in the 2010 semi – final was probably their biggest opportunity. An inexperienced Down team on the same upward curve as Kildare at the time scraped through to the final. As has been the case over the last number of years that loss was blamed on a bad square ball decision. This time excuses are thin on the ground.

A lot of the expectation on Kildare comes from McGeeney’s involvement. On Sunday it seems he hit a psychological wall with his players.  He is a winner and notoriously serious competitor from his time as a player. But instead of inspiring, such a legendary figure within the game has had the opposite effect on his players. They seem to be over awed by his presence and the expectation that he brings.

The perception seems to be that McGeeney will emerge from this job, reputation untarnished regardless of what happens over the rest of the summer. The focus being on the Kildare player’s inability to fully embrace McGeeney’s and their lack of mental toughness approach rather than the manager’s game plan and inability to get the best out of his players.

There has been a lot made of the professionalism of the Kildare setup and the clearly noticeable focus on conditioning and physique. But to watch the two teams yesterday it wasn’t the physique that caught the attention but the heart warming freedom of the Meath play

As a Mayo man, the sight of a Meath jersey will forever pain me but you can’t but admire their football mentality. Completely written off, you always know that if the mood takes them, Meath expect and think they can beat anyone. They are Royal men, who remember homecomings and Sam visiting school. To them Kildare are simply a county with footballing notions above their station.

That’s the way Conor Gillespie, Damian Carroll and the rest of the younger members of the team played on Sunday. In total opposite to Kildare’s rigidness and obvious fear of any attempt at spontaneity or possible detour from the game plan, Meath’s forwards played had an openness and off the cuff nature that few teams now play with. Joe Sheridan epitomises this. The GAA should be glad he reconsidered his sojourn to the States. A player who plays the game on instinct, his point in the first half was a thing of beauty.

Go to 5.00 to see Sheridan Meath in full flow…oh and 6.45 for one of the most bizarre refereeing decisions you’ll ever see.

Credit must go to Seamus McEneany for all this. A GAA warrior, he deserves to lap up all the praise that comes his way after the indecent way he was treated only a few months ago. Back then it was the Meath county board who were accused of bringing the game into disrepute. This mantle has now been passed on to their neighbours.

No matter the right and wrongs of the situation and your opinion on the matter, the Seanie Johnston transfer has damaged the county’s and Johnston’s reputation. There was something very uncomfortable about his brief appearance for the Coill Dubh hurlers on Saturday evening. A feeling that the ‘Community Centred’ ethos of the GAA had been terribly compromised by a cynical act that placed County firmly ahead of Club.

So when the draw took place yesterday morning on the spiritual home of GAA coverage, Ireland Am… there was only one possible draw. If Seanie was watching in his semi-d in Staplestown it must have been a tough moment. There’s no way he wants to face his native county. You would have to feel sympathy for Johnston; the whole saga has escalated further than he ever could have imagined.

The way Kildare react to the media circus that will inevitably surround the encounter in two weeks’ time will tell a lot about how much further they will go in this year’s championship. A quarter-final could be the height of their expectations.

As for Meath, let’s hope this was no once off and the mood will strike them again against the old enemy. Meath v Dublin in a Leinster Final, there’s something very reassuring about that.