Down need what is seen from Mooney to be seen more often
IT’S an annual winter wonder that nobody has yet gathered up all the fastest inter-county stars, stuck them in blocks at Abbottstown and had them race over 100 metres.
Now that Jack McCaffrey has exited stage left, you’d be a brave man to bet against Caolan Mooney winning out.
Athletically, physically, pace-wise, Down’s brightest star is as fearsome as they get.
When he left Collingwood in late 2014, their club website described his pace as “withering”. It was a perfect description. Chasing him is a lost cause unless you give yourself a head-start.
AFL team-mate Harry O’Brien said that Mooney was “another level up” from anything he’d seen in terms of explosive pace.
Now 28, the Rostrevor native – who last year transferred his club allegiances to Downpatrick, where he now lives – hasn’t lost any of it.
There was a whole he could have lost, right up to and including his life, in the 44-second attack he suffered in December 2019 in which he sustained a single punch to the head.
Ruairi Connolly was given a two-year suspended jail sentence after pleading guilty to the strike that caused Mooney to fall to the ground and hit his head, knocking him unconscious and leaving him with a fractured skull and a small bleed on his brain.
It was eight-and-a-half months before the footballer returned to a club pitch and another couple of months again before he made his return to Down duty.
Yet if last year’s championship performances showed anything, it’s that perhaps he has found a sharper focus since that incident.
Mooney, more than likely, will play at midfield tomorrow.
That he’s played a lot of the last few years there sums up where Down are at. They don’t want Caolan Mooney playing at midfield. They just don’t really have any other choice.
It doesn’t lessen Donegal’s quandary. Neither Hugh McFadden nor Michael Langan would have the pace to cope with him.
The only men in Declan Bonner’s ranks who’d stand a chance in a foot-race are Eoghan Bán Gallagher and Ryan McHugh. They don’t want either of them playing at midfield.
Nor will Donegal fancy leaving Mooney unmarked and able to come on to the ball. Static defenders waiting to meet him are like sitting ducks. It’ll take a raft of them to slow him up.
At some point, they’ll be troubled by him. Part of the issue is whether that will be often enough to have any defining impact on who wins.
To break that down further, that’s partly on Mooney and partly on what’s around him.
If he turns in a first half at the level of his 2018 qualifier performance against Mayo, or Cavan last year, then Donegal will have to do something about him.
Those performances have been too infrequent though. For every first half against Cavan, there’s a few second halves of those games, in which he was nullified by Padraig Faulkner and Lee Keegan respectively.
Seasoned observers in Down tend to feel the same about their talisman: An unbelievable talent, a physically frightening opponent, pace and talent to burn, but whose inconsistency – both within matches and from game to game – holds him back.
Is it inconsistency or is it expectation? Is he really any different to the men he’s being compared to?
Did Jack McCaffrey excel every time he pulled on a Dublin jersey? Was every game Lee Keegan played at wing-back for Mayo laced with match-defining bursts?
You get away with the quieter games when you play for Dublin or Mayo or Kerry, but those men took the really big games by the scruff of the neck.
It’s seldom Mayo found themselves in a position to wonder ‘where’s Keegan gone?’ Only a small percentage would have asked, because the wonder would be split up. Where’s O’Shea, or O’Connor, or Durcan, or Higgins, or Moran?
When things go badly for Down, there’s only one man the supporters start to look for.
He’s been there more often than he’s given credit for, but still not as often as Down need him to be.
And that is in part positioning too. When he was given a regular wing-back berth in late 2017 and 2018, he produced his best run of consistent performances for Down.
Mooney is in the Shane Walsh bracket. An undoubtedly gifted individual, capable of moments of exceptional brilliance, but who frustrates as often as he delights.
Watch them on The Sunday Game or YouTube and you’d wonder why they aren’t regulars in the Allstar selection. Watch them over 70 minutes and you’ll have a greater sense of it.
In recent years, his defensive efforts have definitely improved. There is a lot more to his unseen than previously.
Down just need what is seen to be seen more often.