Posted by Ewan MacKenna
Sunday 5 August 2012
If there's an image that defined Saturday's double-header in Croke Park, it was that of James Horan standing on the sideline with his hands on his head.
His team were well on their way but his on-field leader, Andy Moran, had just been carted off the pitch after cruciate damage to his knee and the team doctor had just broken the news. That was the most important piece of information we can take from the day.
With him, you would have fancied Mayo to give the semi-final a real go. Without him, it's hard to see them travelling any further despite being so impressive against a pathetic Down.
There isn't a more important player to this Mayo team, even if the foundations of their latest win were built on the continued form of possible All Star Barry Moran and the return of Aidan O'Shea.
But having the ball is all well and good, doing something with it is another matter and for all Alan Dillon did yesterday, and even taking into account the improvement of players like Michael Conroy, Jason Doherty, Kevin McLoughlin and Cillian O'Connor in open play, they are an attacking group that will be left without a focal point.
Moran isn't the quickest or the tallest, but always manages to win his own ball by drifting into space while staying close to goal, he's not the best sharp shooter but he can take a score and he's not the number one playmaker about but he always picks the right pass.
He's a fascinating and unique player as he's a jack of so many trades, and he's one of the more rounded and by extension, deadly, forwards in the game right now. It's all that which Mayo are losing.
It's a cruel blow because they'll have seen Dublin struggle so badly after them and the All Ireland champions are a curious case right now. They can't get any worse but they have to get a lot better if they are to stand a chance of retaining their title.
They've just under a month to go until their semi-final and they've enough work to fill every one of those days. Against Laois, Ross O'Carroll hardly excelled on Pádraic Clancy while all around him there was defensive frailty of a different kind to what had gone before.
Against Wexford and Meath, at the back Dublin had lacked the sort of intensity that had seen quantity cover for quality in 2011, but against Laois there was too much and the lazy tackling and over-the-top hustling was like a throwback to 2010 when this side couldn't avoid giving away dead balls. In total yesterday they conceded seven frees and it nearly got the better of them.
None of this is to take away from the performance of Laois, who will be distraught for a few days but will see the sun shining when the clouds clear later in the week. Suddenly they can look forward to next season knowing they can compete and knowing they have the right manager, even if they need to unearth one more forward at least.
But Dublin have earned the right to be judged by higher standards and away from defence there were issues too. Their passing into the half-forward line was as bad as the passing of the half-forward line while their midfield took three quarters of the game to get on top. Colm Begley and Brendan Quigley were superb, but Denis Bastick after an early point withered, Eamon Fennell was average and Bryan Cullen was anonymous. And inside there were further problems.
We credited Eoghan O'Gara after the Leinster final as having learned his limitations, but what we got on Saturday was the old, headless player as his shot selection and basic skills looked poor. Bernard Brogan was given Man of the Match in that Leinster final but we thought he was hit and miss. In the quarter-final he was simply miss and Kevin McManoman must have been sitting on the bench wondering what he does wrong to be slid down this pecking order.
But the key is they are still there although the questions continue to mount and we are still looking for answers. The return of Alan Brogan of course transforms the attack but there's much more wrong with this side right now and while reaching September is a huge achievement, you don't want to face better teams with a lack of form and confidence.
For that reason alone Mayo would have fancied their chances. But after that striking image of James Horan with his hands on his head, we don't.
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