Saturday 4 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
INPHO/James Crombie Sligo's Eugene Mullen, David Maye and Eamonn O'Hara tackle Donal Vaughan of Mayo
# Opinion
Gaelic football: 5 things we now know
Ewan MacKenna on the lessons learned from this weekend’s action.

1. It’s a long way to the top

Mayo won’t like criticism on the back of a provincial victory but if they want to considered All Ireland contenders – and their performances against Cork last year and throughout this league mean they should be judged by those standards – then criticism is warranted. You can talk about rustiness and a win being all that matters at this stage of the season but neither of those facts cover over the flaws that existed in their performance yesterday.

And they were flaws that surprised us because ever since James Horan took over he’s been the perfect man for the job in that he has coached these players and improved their skills. Yet what we saw against Sligo was a lack of basics that should be achieved every game regardless of the time of the year and the time since the last game.

Cillian O’Connor’s free-taking style looked suddenly awkward and was largely ineffective, Alan Dillon’s kick-passing was poor for long spells, as was Andy Moran’s handling even though he got on a lot of ball. But there are positives to take home along with the Nestor Cup. Barry Moran’s performance and Aidan O’Shea’s return mean there’s a serious midfield now in place while Kevin Keane looked solid if not spectacular at corner-back.

But it’s going forward that concerns us most and Mayo won’t create enough against better teams to be that wasteful again. They’ve now another long break. This time though, they’ve endless amounts of work to do if they are to continue their winning ways and reach the standards they’ve set themselves with their performances up to the Connacht final.

2. Not this time, Jack

After this morning, there’ll be even more parallels with 2009. The exit to Cork, a team lacking shape and motivation, a lucky qualifier win against a side they should squash with their giant boot, the motivation of a big game against a team they’ve plenty of history against to spark them back into life. It all seems so familiar when it comes to Kerry, except people are missing some major factors.

This time around there is no Darragh, Tom O’Sullivan, Mike McCarthy, Tadhg Kennelly or Tommy Walsh. On top of that Kieran Donaghy and Declan O’Sullivan are struggling for form and their roles now incorporate trying to cover for the inadequacies that are at the other end of the field. Throw in the age of key players and in a game that’s now more intense than it was even three years ago, it’s asking a lot of Kerry to make it back to even an All Ireland semi-final.

So to say they’ve all done it before is simply wrong. Jack O’Connor and a handful of this group have but there’s a serious amount of skill and will missing from what went before and to presume others can do what some of the greatest players ever did is unfair on them and based on emotion and not logic.

Home advantage will help them against Tyrone and they still have Colm Cooper and Darran O’Sullivan to terrorise defences. But after that, they don’t have a whole pile going for them other than a name synonymous with recent success and achievements. That name is the same, but the team most certainly is not.

3. No apocalypse now

The world kept spinning and the sky kept raining. After all that talk of Seánie Johnston, life didn’t end and football didn’t change. But while only the Mayans saw doomsday in 2012, no one saw football changing that quickly because of his transfer and his lining out in white. The problem is how it might change over the coming years because of his move. People who are saying it has now been put to bed having complained and made such a big deal about it all in recent weeks are every bit as wrong as the transfer itself. How can there be a moral outcry about Johnston playing for Kildare only for it to be over and alright once he has lined out?

Of course this should never be personalised, but it is such a huge issue it doesn’t mean it should just end because it’s become tiresome. And it’s wrong to say he’s been subject to more scrutiny than others when only the Thomas Walsh transfer can be equated to it and that made the news pages nationally and around the Carlow and Wicklow areas.

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But interestingly on a weekend when Johnston played for his new county after a manufactured transfer, John Heslin was lighting it up against Kerry. Indeed he and Brendan Murphy are the two best midfielders in Leinster right now yet neither will win anything in their careers. Does that mean they should look for a house in Straffan? And on a week when Conor Mortimer fell out with his management would it be okay for him to do the same? Yes it’s boring at this stage but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored now it’s happened.

4. Mindset as key as quality

If Galway and Antrim both played to their best, we think Galway would win most often. If Monaghan and Laois played to their best, we think Monaghan would win most often. If Wexford and Tipperary played to their best, we think Wexford would win most often. If Longford and Limerick played to their best, we think Longford would win most often. Yet none of that happened at the weekend and it’s one of the great distortions of the qualifiers and all these years later it’s strange that teams still lapse so badly when their season is still alive, every bit as much as it was before they were knocked out of the provincial championships.

Whether sides can’t pick themselves up from just one defeat, whether their training and behavior has become less disciplined and regimental, whether towels have been thrown in or whether there’s a presumption on the part of stronger counties, it’s hard to tell and it all varies from one circumstance to another. But what is sure is some good teams have been bumped out of the season when they shouldn’t have been and it all adds to the intrigue of the back door.

5. Just can’t help myself

Okay, as a journalist I know you aren’t allowed to have a second county on days off or any county on days on the job. It’s just that I always like the little guy and they get no littler than this. So I admit it, I’ve a thing for Leitrim. Despite their lack of resources, lack of numbers, lack of people staying put in this economic climate, they’ve finally won a qualifier.

That’s a wonderful story and even more so after seeing their manager Barney Breen talk about the hurt they felt having worked so hard only to be taken apart by Mayo. They’ll give Laois and rattle but even if they go out at that point, it’s still been a good season for them. And while everyone looks for the big draw in the qualifiers, in that part of the world, it’s have been quite some time since there was a draw as big as a round three qualifier.

Murph’s Sideline Cut: Mayo and nuns on Midwest Radio

Well played: Here’s your Gaelic Football team of the week