I got a text message not long before half time of last Sunday’s All-Ireland football semi-final between Dublin and Mayo. “Mayo bossing it big time” the message read.
The Mayo team were bossing it – at that stage of the game. I thought about my answer for a few seconds before replying, “Dublin are really missing Mickey Whelan”.
Above all other reasons; such as players living the highlife, players getting injured or the mental strain involved in defending the All-Ireland title; to my mind the absence of Mickey Whelan’s coaching was the greatest difference between the Dublin side of 2011 and the team of 2012.
Whelan, who was inducted into the Kick Fada Hall of Fame last week, brought a wealth of coaching experience to the Dublin management during the 2010 and ’11 seasons. He won an All-Ireland senior medal as far back as 1958. After he moved from his original club, Clanna Gael he won an All-Ireland club football medal with St Vincents in 1976. He coached Dublin in the 1990s and coached St Vincents to win the All-Ireland club title of 2008. That team featured Dublin manager Pat Gilroy at full-forward.
The Dublin teams of the previous manager Paul “Pillar” Caffery were strong and robust but they were lacking in the basic skills of fetching and kicking and were also very tactically naïve. It took three years to build Dublin into an All-Ireland winning team. During that time, the basic skills of the players improved enormously which greatly helped the team employ the successful tactics of last year.
The smart talk has always been that Mickey Whelan revelled in the role of coach under Pat Gilroy and played a key role in last year’s success.
The sharpness of last year was missing from Dublin’s play all this season. Many people mistook this for an effort to pace their charge to retain the All-Ireland. That may indeed have been the plan, but there were other signs too. These were not signs of sluggishness; they were signs of regression. The scoring rate dropped, the kicking accuracy dropped, the discipline standards dropped.
Nowhere was this more noticeable than in the second half of last Sunday’s game. Even though Dublin dragged themselves back into the game by reducing a 10 point lead to just two during the second half, it was a chaotic and wasteful recovery. It had more to do with bludgeoning a flagging Mayo than outsmarting them.
This effort got Dublin a chance of winning the game, but in the final minutes when skill as much as effort was required, the Dubs failed. Like an old boxing champion, they went down swinging, but swing they did. In the last 10 minutes of the game Dublin looked more like a “Pillar” Caffery team than a Pat Gilroy/ Mickey Whelan team.
None of the above should take from Mayo’s success. If fact, it enhances it. The Mayo management were forced to make eight alterations to the starting fifteen during the game. OK, three of these changes were blood subs, but how many teams, even Dublin, Cork and Kerry with their supposedly strong panels could change more than half a team during 70 minutes and still win?
Mayo’s loss of Kevin McLaughlin, with a nasty head wound at the beginning of Dublin’s revival, was a particularly bad blow to their chances. His impact on the game could not be appreciated until he returned to the fray in the last 10 minutes of the game. McLaughlin picked up three vital balls after his return to the game. He nearly set up a goal from one of these, and the others helped breakup the Dublin pressure.
The Mayo senior county football team are one of the great enigmas of the GAA world. The county have caused this kind of an upset many times before only to fall on their backside the next time out. I must say that I have fancied this Mayo team to have a say in the destiny of the All-Ireland since the start of the year.
In the week preceding the National Football League final between Cork and Mayo I wrote the following in this column.
“There have been signs in the Mayo performances since last summer that the current squad may be – and I stress MAY BE – serious contenders for the All-Ireland title this season. The team looks fitter and sharper than it has been for years. While team manager James Horan, seems to know and understand the deeper issues within Mayo football in the same way that Ger Loughnane understood Clare’s shortcomings in the 1990s.”
I think that is about as near as any sane person should go towards saying “I fancy Mayo”. This is not to be disrespectful to the team or to the Mayo supporters. That is a learned response from years of watching Mayo nearly win. It would be great if Mayo won because as a football county, they have suffered enough. The same could also be said of Donegal.
Especially in these stringent economic times when rural Ireland, and the western seaboard in particular, is being neglected and rundown by almost every administrative body in the state. For that reason alone it is great to see two counties on the Atlantic coast grabbing the limelight for the biggest sporting occasion of the year.
It is not only their economic neglect that both counties have in common. They both also have teams that work so hard for one and other that the whole of each team is greater than the sum of its individual parts. In arriving at this stage of development, both managers have dealt with their difficult or maverick individuals in much the same way.
Kevin Cassidy of Donegal and Conor Mortimer of Mayo have been two of the better-known players from their respective counties over the past decade. Last winter it emerged that Kevin Cassidy had contributed to a “behind the scenes book” on Donegal’s 2011 Ulster championship campaign. This brought him into direct conflict with manager Jim McGuinness who felt that Cassidy had breached a confidentiality agreement between the squad members. McGuinness dealt with the problem by removing Cassidy from the panel.
Conor Mortimer actually played with Mayo earlier this year. He threw a strop when he was not named to start the Connaught championship against Leitrim and again for the Connaught final. Manager James Horan did not have to tell him “go”. Mortimer took the hint and walked from the panel. The Mortimer family even issued a statement in support of their outcast son. The statement makes interesting reading in the light of last Sunday’s win over Dublin.
Both Cassidy and Mortimer are amateur players and it would not be fair to blame them entirely for the misfortune that had befallen them. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see that the removal of strong individual personalities from both squads had helped develop their ‘all-for-one’ team ethic.
There-in lies the key to which of these teams will win the All-Ireland crown. It is unlikely that any one individual will take the game by the scruff of the neck and dominate the play. So it should be the team that shows the most cohesion on the day that will win. Mayo have lost five finals in 23 years. Each one was more heart breaking than the previous one. That run had to end sometime. Donegal have had the tougher tests in getting to the final. Neither side has played particularly well in the final quarter of their semi-finals. We could be looking at the first drawn final since Kerry and Galway in 2000.