Mayo manager James Horan, right, with selector Ciarán McDonald. McDonald’s influence on the development of the Mayo senior squad has been keenly felt. PHOTO: PIARAS Ó MÍDHEACH / SPORTSFILE

Better bench options central to Mayo's 2021 planning strategy

by Aiden Henry

WITH 2021 just days old and less than three weeks since Mayo failed at the final hurdle to win the Sam Maguire Cup, we are already looking forward to the season ahead with a certain degree of confidence that Mayo will be very much in the mix when it comes down to the business end of the inter-county championship in the middle of the summer.

After a year like no other in 2020 where the Coronavirus brought the entire world to a standstill, the GAA must be commended for putting plans in place which allowed club and inter-county championships run off in a very safe environment and brought a much-needed respite to sporting followers up and down the country who had been starved of being able to see little or no sporting activity over a six-month period.

But while most things weren’t normal in 2020, one could say the All-Ireland inter-county GAA football championship was as close as you could get to normal, in the circumstances.

Before everything came to a halt last March most GAA pundits would have put Dublin and Mayo on the short-list to capture the Sam Maguire. When this championship started up in October it all came down to a final meeting between the Dubs and Mayo.

The end result was no different than it had been for the previous seven or eight years when these two sides clashed in the final. Dublin had always come out on top and Mayo were left to suffer another All-Ireland defeat.

So, while the world was turned upside down in 2020, one of the few things that didn’t change was the result of Mayo and Dublin in an All-Ireland final. But while Mayo lost there was plenty of confidence for the future that the long wait to win Sam might not be far away.

Bench now the key

Now, as we look forward to the 2021 GAA season, especially the Connaught and All-Ireland championship where the GAA plan is to have it concluded by mid-July, I am sure Mayo manager James Horan is well aware now more than ever that if Mayo are to win the All-Ireland, he needs to have a strong and experienced bench to do so.

This message was hammered home to him in the recent All-Ireland defeat by Dublin. This was more than anything else the reason why Mayo lost out again to their great rivals.

Before going on further let me say that Horan and his management team did remarkably well in the championship.

They brought in a number of new young players who, along with many of the experienced players in the team, brought a great freshness to the team which enabled them once again to compete with the best.

However, while Mayo were able to regain the Connaught title and inflict a heavy defeat against Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final, their lack of experience and power on the bench proved costly when they came up against Dublin.

To put it in a nutshell, the players Dublin were able to call on from their bench during the final and Mayo’s bench was like chalk and cheese. It was the reason why Dublin were able to win their sixth title in a row.

Deep down I feel Horan knows this very well and maybe if he could turn back the clock, we might have seen the likes of Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle and Seamie O’Shea sprung from the substitutes bench with 15 or 20 minutes to go against Dublin.

Not having Boyle and O’Shea on the bench was a huge mistake. Let me also say this is not taking anything away from the players who did come on in the final.

Maybe it wasn’t fair to them to be brought on at a crucial stage in the biggest game of the year when it was there to be won or lost by either side.

In the end it was a harsh lesson for Mayo to learn. However, as Mayo go forward and try again this year the harsh reality is that you need 20 players of equal status if you hope to come out on top against the big teams, especially Dublin who have a wealth of talent sitting on the bench as we all saw on December 19.

McDonald’s influence

While Mayo manager James Horan has to be admired for bringing a lot of new young players throughout 2020 and giving them the opportunity to stake a claim on the senior team (a number took this chance with great authority and look to have a bright and long future in the team), we tend to forget the influence that one of Mayo’s greatest Gaelic footballers of all time, Ciaran McDonald, has had on the team during the last year.

It was little wonder Horan was delighted to have secured the services of McDonald in December 2019.

Said Horan at the time: "I am really delighted to welcome Ciarán on board. He brings a wealth of experience, vision and skill to our coaching set-up."

He continued: "This will also fit in very well with the development phase we are currently in with this senior squad. We have a clear vision for the Mayo team — to develop and grow as a squad, one that is relentlessness in its ambition to perform at the highest level, and that takes individual and collective responsibility on and off the pitch to get us to our goal.

"Ciarán embodies very many of those qualities and principles. Our players will benefit enormously from his insights and presence."

To say that McDonald has already played a huge part in this development stage the Mayo senior squad is in would be an understatement.

The new and the experienced players in the Mayo squad have benefited enormously from McDonald over the past year.

Indeed, I feel what McDonald did with the county senior squad last year was the main reason why Mayo regained the Nestor Cup and reached the All-Ireland final.

Let’s all hope McDonald continues to stay involved.

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