Friday 15 December 2017

Blue horizon in Mayo

FOR Mayo All Star Andy Moran, Dublin are the template. Under Pat Gilroy they developed a system of play, tweaked it, improved it ... and ended up as All-Ireland champions.

Now Mayo are embarked on a similar programme in pursuit of the same dream, hoping to banish the type of boom-to-bust oscillations that blighted Mayo's quest for Sam in the noughties and which used to be a Dublin trademark too.

The green-and-red have already made major strides during James Horan's first season, reclaiming Connacht and reaching an All-Ireland semi-final. Now for year two, and a home league clash against Dublin serves as a perfect early-season benchmark.

"I hope we are in a similar transition, that we are improving," says Moran, speaking to the Evening Herald ahead of Saturday night's Allianz Football League encounter with the Dubs at McHale Park (throw-in 6.30).

This time it's Dublin playing catch-up, as they lost their opening Division One fixture (against Kerry) on the same night that Mayo were running out six-point winners in Laois.

But Moran harks back to Dublin's previous visit to Castlebar, two years ago, to highlight the extent of their transformation. The visitors had already won their opening two NFL games while trying to bed down a new (initially ultra-) defensive system introduced in response to Dublin's Kerry debacle the previous August.

They duly made it three on the bounce with a battling 1-9 to 1-8 victory. It was a strange game: Mayo tallied 18 wides, Dublin just three, and the home side almost sneaked victory at the death.

In the game's final play, trailing by two, they won a close-in free and up stepped Andy Moran with one thing on his mind: top corner.

"It hit someone (on the line), went over and Dublin won by a point," he recalls, adding: "That was the first day Dublin tried their defensive tactic, and I don't think we could cope with it at all. They probably should have won by more on the day.

"They have developed that system. It has come on a heap since then (2010). Last year they had four goals scored on us in 20 minutes -- they were way more free-flowing," Moran remarks, harking back to the counties' last league encounter, a 4-15 to 3-13 scorefest at Croke Park 11 months ago.

"The amount Dublin have improved in the last three or four years is actually amazing. From 13 or 14 men behind the ball, and now they have three or four of the best forwards in the country.

"Hopefully we are going the same route. At the minute we have quite a strong panel. I'm not sure if I'll be playing after last Saturday."

That Moran even made the starting 15 in Portlaoise is a fair achievement, considering how he suffered a broken leg at an Irish International Rules training session last September.

"The leg is okay, it's good actually -- the rest of me isn't great at the minute!" he admits.

"I just have to get up to the fitness levels of the boys. I suppose I got a rude awakening last week against Laois. I thought I was further along in fitness, but the NFL is different than the FBD."

The 28-year-old dynamo reckons Laois had targetted Mayo as "one of the games they needed to win", adding: "They came pretty hard at us. I'm not sure we played particularly well, but if you don't get the two points in your first game you are looking up above. We are in a good position to drive on."

He continues: "We need to improve everywhere. Last year we conceded the most amount of goals (11) in the top three divisions of the National League.

"As a unit we have improved there. A lot of that has to do with midfielders and forwards tracking back. I remember playing half-forward last year against Dublin, and their half-backs were destroying us going forward.

"All our backs got the blame, but it's a unit."

However, while James Horan has made a point of making his team harder to break down, Moran reckons they will never revert to a completely defensive system, partly because Mayo fans would "never allow it", and partly because "the way Mayo play, we wouldn't be able to play 13 or 14 defenders anyway".

All of which should be good news for those descending on Castlebar this weekend.

"I think they are planning for about 11,000," Moran points out. "It's like a championship game in the middle of February -- brilliant."

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