How Mayo forwards are sharing attacking duties without O’Connor

JAMES HORAN FACED the unenviable task of replacing the championship’s all-time leading scorer on the eve of Mayo’s Connacht campaign.

Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor watches on from the stand.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Still only 28, though it feels he’s been round forever, O’Connor’s numbers are remarkable.  

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He already has 10 years and 100 competitive games racked up. He has scored 30-337 in his 60 championship outings. He finished top of the All-Ireland scoring charts in five of the last 10 seasons.

He boasts a scoring average of 7.1 points per game in the championship, and his scoring rate rises to 7.8 points in All-Ireland series games against Dublin.

He’s a big game player and one that sets the tempo on Mayo’s last line of attack. Last season, no Mayo player forced more turnovers than O’Connor. 

It goes without saying that a player of his calibre and experience can’t be easily replaced. Factor in the six retirees over the winter and that’s a significant amount of know-how lost from the dressing room since their run to the 2020 All-Ireland final. 

O’Connor’s season-ending Achilles injury was softened somewhat by their relatively easy path to the provincial final with just Sligo and Leitrim standing in the way of the Connacht champions. 

It gives Horan the opportunity to find out what Mayo’s attack looks like without O’Connor, before they most likely face Roscommon or Galway in the Connacht final. 

On the first day out against Sligo, it was a collective effort by the Mayo forwards to replace what they’ve lost in O’Connor.

Given O’Connor is a elite free-taker, right up there with Dean Rock, the big question was who’d assume the placed ball responsibilities. 

Belmullet ace Ryan O’Donoghue, a 2020 All-Star nominee, lined out in the corner and clipped four frees in addition to one from play. The real test of his mettle on frees will come later in the summer, but it was a bright start. 

But it was debutant Darren McHale and old warhorse Aidan O’Shea who hit the headlines by firing 3-7 between them.

Obviously, the standard of the opposition must be taken into account. Sligo lost their last three games in Division 4 and were powerless to prevent Mayo from freewheeling to victory.

Horan’s men looked on a different level athletically and they had this game wrapped up by half-time. 

Mayo’s scoring threat without O’Connor won’t be properly road tested until they reach the provincial decider and possibly until the All-Ireland series. So it’s important not to read too much into this 70 minutes, but there were some interesting aspects about how they set-up. 

O’Shea’s deployment at full-forward gives Mayo that aerial threat. His strength and quick hands means that when Mayo get runners off him, like this Stephen Coen score, he’ll draw defenders and set-up scoring chances for others.

In this scenario it takes three Sligo defenders to halt O’Shea, and Coen times his run off the shoulder and kicks a good score.

Sometimes O’Shea gets criticised for his lack of scoring threat, but Kieran Donaghy was never judged by his contribution to the scorers column. It was his ability to create havoc and shooting opportunities for others around him that made Donaghy special. 

Mayo will miss O’Shea in the middle, but with Matthew Ruane, Conor Loftus and Diarmuid O’Connor all capable midfielders they can make do without him.

With the speed and direct running of Tommy Conroy and O’Donoghue either side of O’Shea, there’s plenty to like about this full-forward line. Again, the real tests will come down the line, but it’s a start. 

One of O’Shea’s best attributes is his tackling so Mayo’s strong pressing game won’t suffer too much without O’Connor.

The first goal arrived after O’Donoghue and Kevin McLoughlin doubled up on a Sligo defender before O’Shea pounced to drive forward and hit the net.

Earlier in the game, Sligo tried to work the ball out of defence through the hands….

…and O’Shea eventually forced the turnover…

…before feeding Conroy’s run at the posts that resulted in a fisted score.  

Another excellent run along the end line from Conroy created McHale’s goal after the initial shot was blocked.

Conroy has added a few kilos of muscle since last year and he may well be the man that ultimately takes a more central role in the Mayo attack without O’Connor. 

McHale’s tally of 1-5 from centre-forward on his first championship start was a welcome boost for Horan. He starred on Knockmore’s run to the Mayo SFC title last year and looks to have the ingredients to make it at this level. 

In addition to O’Donoghue’s free-taking, he displayed great unselfishness when setting up O’Shea’s second goal.

After racing through, many young forwards would have shot themselves in that situation so the Belmullet star showed his maturity in picking out the man in the best position.

It’s a trait that will serve his team well as the championship rolls on. 

Mayo have exceptionally powerful ball carriers in defence with Oisin Mullin, Lee Keegan, Eoghan McLoughlin and Paddy Durcan all suiting a running game from deep.

It will result in a steady supply of ball for the forward line so the trick will be making it stick inside. 

With McHale at centre-forward and the inside trio of Conroy, O’Shea and O’Donoghue, there’s still plenty of attacking quality in this group.  

Can they make up for O’Connor’s prolific scoring together? Time will tell. 

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