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5 challenges James Horan faces as he bids to turn Mayo's summer around

Roscommon dumped Mayo out of the Connacht SFC on Saturday night.
May 27th 2019, 4:16 PM 14,283 37

1. Managing Cillian O’Connor’s return 

BACK IN JANUARY, Cillian O’Connor sat in the eir Sport offices at the Allianz Football League launch and said he hoped to return to training after knee surgery by early February. 

Cillian O'Connor Cillian O'Connor before the Division 1 final in March. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The 27-year-old clearly hit a few speedbumps in the rehab process and wasn’t even part of the Mayo squad against Roscommon at the weekend. He is believed to be close to a return, but James Horan didn’t want to risk him for the Connacht semi-final. 

Mayo badly missed O’Connor’s accuracy on placed balls in Castlebar. They went through four free-takers - Rob Hennelly, Jason Doherty, Evan Regan, and Kevin McLoughlin – with the latter missing a 75th minute free to send the game to extra-time. 

O’Connor is Mayo’s leading scorer and they’ll need to give him significant game-time to get him up to speed during the qualifiers, even if it means dropping a youngster that impressed during the league.

In addition, Horan will be keen to get Seamie O’Shea, Fionn McDonagh and Donie Vaughan back to full fitness to bolster his options.

2. Toll of another qualifier run

Before Saturday, Horan had overseen 18 wins from 18 in the province. However since 2016, Mayo have won just three games in Connacht – against Sligo, New York and London.

Mayo were on a high after delivering their first national title in 18 years, which seemingly turned them back into genuine All-Ireland contenders.

But the Roscommon defeat brought them crashing back down to earth and raised familiar question marks around whether they have the forwards to deliver Sam. They took the backdoor route to All-Ireland finals in 2016 and 2017, but the introduction of the Super 8s complicates things further.

If they’re to reach the decider from here, they’ll have to play seven games in eight weeks – which will be a major ask for some of Horan’s veterans.

Lee Keegan reacts to a missed chance Lee Keegan reacts to a missed chance. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

3. Address the shooting woes

Facing the team with the worst defence in Division 1, Mayo’s shooting badly let them down in MacHale Park. They converted just 17 of 38 scoring chances, for a conversion rate of 44% that is nowhere near good enough to win against any decent opposition.

“We made poor decisions. Our shot selection was poor,” said Horan.

“We had a number of shots blocked down, we had a number of shots wide, we kicked under pressure. Maybe we didn’t back ourselves enough to make sure we took the right shot at the right time. 15 wides is just too many.”

Lee Keegan wasted a glorious late opportunity to send his team in front, while Andy Moran telegraphed his 72nd-minute shot that was blocked by Niall Daly. That missed chance started the move for Fintan Cregg’s winner. 

4. Improve their collective defending

Part of the reason Mayo ran Dublin so close over the years was the ability of their defenders to match-up one-on-one against Jim Gavin’s side.

Roscommon exposed some frailties in the Mayo rearguard, highlighted by Cathal Cregg’s early goal where he exploded past Keith Higgins with worrying ease.

And when Fintan Cregg popped up just inside the 45m line to pop over the decisive score, the Mayo defence gave him far too much space to get a shot away despite the presence of three defenders in his immediate vicinity.

Conor Cox and Andy Glennon caused their direct markers numerous problems in the full-forward line.

Both goals Mayo conceded were sloppy and they now have a month before their next game. Shoring things up at the back will be high up Horan’s list of priorities.

Keith Higgins and Conor Cox Mayo and Roscommon players clash during the game. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

5. Goalkeeping issues

David Clarke’s injury near the end of the league provided Hennelly with a chance to stamp down his claim for the number one jersey in the Division 1 final.

He performed brilliantly in the win over Kerry and deservedly retained his place for the championship opener against New York. But a misplaced kick-out led to Roscommon’s second goal, while the Breaffy man also missed three long-range frees.

With a two-time All-Star sitting on the bench, Hennelly will come under pressure from Clarke ahead of the qualifiers. Horan needs to make a call for their next game and stick with it for the rest of the season.

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