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Scoring statistics continue to haunt Mayo on the biggest stage as they chase All-Ireland title

Goals conceded and missed continue to hurt Mayo at the final hurdle.

Darren McCurry scored Tyrone's second goal on Saturday.
Darren McCurry scored Tyrone's second goal on Saturday.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

IN ONE ASPECT of their story in All-Ireland finals, Mayo did get something right on Saturday.

They didn’t ship any first-half goals. 

It took the outstretched boot of Robbie Hennelly to keep their goal intact when he denied Darren McCurry but it was a signal of improvement that they reached the interval with a clean sheet.

In the modern narrative of Mayo’s All-Ireland outings, Saturday was the seventh since 2012 for the county’s flagship side, 2016 serving up two.

This was only the second time they didn’t leak a goal in the first-half, the 2016 replay against Dublin the other such occurrence.

Too often their challenge has been rocked by the sight of opponents firing to the net early on. Think of Michael Murphy in 2012, Con O’Callaghan in 2017 and Dean Rock in 2020 all managing to raise green flags that rattled Mayo, just as they were trying to ease themselves into the action.

But that’s where the positive news ended on Saturday. 

In other key scoring metrics, familiar ghosts returned to haunt Mayo once again on All-Ireland final day.

To focus on a statistic like goals scored and conceded may well be regarded as simplistic analysis. Gaelic football has become such a multi-faceted and tactically varied sport that there are an array of factors that determine who lifts Sam Maguire and who departs a final with regrets that will roll around in their minds for the winter.

But given Mayo’s propensity for coming up short in finals, recurring patterns stand out all the more. It is becoming harder to ignore the actin at either end, when it comes to the task of putting the ball in the net on All-Ireland final day.

In those seven final appearances over the last ten seasons, Mayo have mustered three goals. Two of those were fired home by their wonderful leader Lee Keegan as he made incisive breaks from defence. Andy Moran in 2013 is the only Mayo forward to have struck a goal in that time.

So on four occasions, the Mayo goal column has not moved on All-Ireland final day. Look back over the last 20 campaigns and only four times have the eventual champions not bagged a goal in the decider. Three of those (Tyrone 2003, Cork 2010 and Dublin 2015) did succeed in not conceding any goals while plotting a route to victory. Kerry in 2009 were the one exception but Colm O’Neill fired home early that day and overall Kerry’s defending was impressive as evidenced by the low total of 1-9 they limited Cork to.

In the same time frame, Mayo have conceded 12 goals and it is something that causes them irreparable damage. They haven’t managed to keep a clean sheet in any of those finals.

It will be of little solace to Mayo at this stage but Saturday’s defeat did maintain a pattern in the defeats they have suffered. Between 2012 and 2021, their six losses have been by margins of one to five points. That is a gap which is attainable to close. But shipping goals at one end and coming up short at the other makes it harder to realise their ambition. 

Consider in the same time frame since 2012, the six All-Ireland semi-final victories Mayo have enjoyed. They have hit ten goals in those games and conceded three, all of which came in a madcap game against Tipperary last December, an afternoon where they hit five themselves. The clean sheets registered (Dublin 2012, Tyrone 2013, Tipperary 2016, Kerry 2017 and Dublin 2021) were a crucial ingredient in propelling them to those deciders but not something they could replicate as they faced that last hurdle.

Why is that semi-final form deserts them on final day? Dublin All-Ireland winner Paul Flynn described it as ‘emotional hijacking’ on the Second Captains podcast this week as he tried to sum up the slump in their fortunes this time around.

Saturday felt like a game which encaspulated those issues for Mayo. The clarity of thought was missing when pressure was at its greatest, their decision making was not where it needed to be and their skill execution let them down in those moments when they prised the Tyrone rearguard apart. Consider Bryan Walsh not attempting a strike with his left foot in the 15th minute and Conor Loftus casually sidefooting the rebound, allowing Niall Sludden to clear.

Aidan O’Shea opting to shoot early in the 26th minute rather than holding Ronan McNamee off. Tommy Conroy skewing a blast wide in the 39th minute after doing the hard work in skinning Padraig Hampsey and opting against a pass inside to O’Shea in a central position. Ryan O’Donoghue hitting a penalty into the same goalmouth where he netted in the Connacht final, but this time opting for a stop in his run-up and attempting to place the ball higher in the goal.

ryan-odonoghue-reacts-to-missing-a-penalty Ryan O'Donoghue reacts to missing a penalty for Mayo.

It was in stark contrast to how Tyrone’s choices and skills were on the money for those two critical second-half goals. Conor Meyler drops a delivery into the pocket of space between goalkeeper and full-back that Cathal McShane has drifted into. The Eoghan Roe O’Neills man doesn’t catch the ball to create the prospect of being swallowed up, instead diverts the ball to the net with his fist.

Then the second goal was a mixed bag of Niall Morgan’s kickout, Conn Kilpatrick’s catch, Conor McKenna’s run with the ball and Darragh Canavan’s run off the ball combining to allow Darren McCurry to avail of the chance to score. From that moment, Mayo didn’t look capable of overhauling Tyrone.

The goal misses and the goal concessions could be compensated by a forward stepping up to shoot the lights out. But Mayo’s conversion rate on Saturday went from 61% in the first half to 48% by full-time, an illustration of the mess of shot selection and inaccuracy that hampered their challenge in the final quarter.

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cathal-mcshane-scores-the-first-goal Cathal McShane scores Tyrone's first goal. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Again it is a recurring pattern. They badly need a starting forward to cut loose in a decider and weigh in with an invaluable haul. Darren McCurry did that with 1-4 for Tyrone on Saturday, 1-2 from play. When this losing streak began for Mayo, it was a similar story with Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden hitting 1-4 apiece in 2012, or Bernard Brogan surpassing that with 2-3 in 2013.

The biggest total from play of a starting Mayo forward in this series of finals is Andy Moran’s contribution of 1-2 in 2013. Conroy was the only attacker to score more than a point from play on Saturday, albeit O’Donoghue’s free-taking was largely excellent.

Look back over Mayo’s final record and their greatest performance in 2017 was when a bunch of forwards all starred. Cillian O’Connor, Moran, Kevin McLoughlin and Jason Doherty fired 0-10 from play between them. It was their misfortune that day that Dublin’s attack was slightly superior with 1-8 from play, principally fired by Dean Rock and Paul Mannion.

If the starting forwards are slightly off, can the inspiration come from the bench? In delicately-balanced matches, it is the input like the 1-1 which McShane and Canavan hit on Saturday that can be so crucial, just like it was in 2016 when Cormac Costello slotted three points after coming on for Dublin.

All these scoring issues combined to hurt Mayo when Sam Maguire is within reach.

Mayo remain in the leading pack of teams that will start at the front of the 2022 grid. Their team has been overhauled over the past two campaigns but they have not regressed. Get Cillian O’Connor back fit, retain the services of Oisin Mullin as his talents attract considerable interest from AFL clubs, integrate another couple of younger players and they will likely feature in the final four conversation again next year.

But getting to semi-finals and finals is not Mayo’s problem, it is converting those appearances into something tangible in the form of silverware.

If they are to get over the line, they need to find a way to redress their scoring statistics in finals.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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