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Novel championship

Sport

 

Novel championship pairing awaits 

Sean Rice
The award winning voice of experience

YOU don’t normally associate Laois among the teams that must be beaten before you consider a county worthy of All-Ireland honours. Kerry, Cork, Galway, Meath, Dublin are the traditionally formidable. In recent times Tyrone and Armagh have joined that elite group. But Laois? . . . somehow they have not figured, and might not have been challenging Mayo on Sunday but for their acquisition of Mick O’Dwyer as their coach and manager.
Their clash with Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-final on Sunday is the first meeting of the two at championship level for seventy years. Not since Mayo crushed the O’Moore County in the All-Ireland final of 1936 have the two confronted each other in the championship. And if Laois have yet to savour All-Ireland success, the momentum of the wave which Mayo rode so triumphantly in the first half of the last century is long since spent. Both counties badly need the tonic of an All-Ireland. Bar a draw on Sunday the ambitions of only one will still survive.
While championship meetings have eluded the two ever since, they have had regular national league jousts down the decades. In that competition, Laois can claim one incontrovertible record: they were the first ever National Football League champions. In the various formats of the competition they and Mayo have been thrown together on sixteen occasions ranging from the mid thirties up to 2003 when Laois, re-emerging on the scene as a genuine football force, pipped Mayo at Ballinrobe.
   The balance of success in their clashes, however, weighs heavily in favour of Mayo with thirteen wins. Laois did not have their first win until the league of 1996/97 when they had a point to spare at Portlaoise, a defeat attributed to the fact that Mayo were forced to field without seven of their star players, all suspended following the All-Ireland final replay debacle with Meath.
There was one draw between them, in 1998, and the O’Moore men’s last win came with the advent of Mick O’Dwyer and the rise of the present team when they had a point to spare at Ballinrobe.
Mayo have one link with the under-strength side defeated by Laois in 1996. James Nallen was centre half-back on that side, and after more than a decade of service to the county team the Crossmolina man retains much of his old effervescence . . . and  a considerable amount of experience. Nor are all of the Laois team as fresh as many tend to believe. Goalkeeper Fergal Byron and forward Ian Fitzgerald were members of that league side of ten years ago.
In November 2000 when Mayo won by a goal at Portlaoise five of the present Laois team were in action. Only David Brady, James Gill and Trevor Mortimer of the current panel were in the Mayo lineout.
Eight of the team which grabbed a point win over Mayo at Ballinrobe three years ago lined out against Offaly in the recent qualifier. Only three members of that defeated Mayo squad hold first team positions at present . . . David Heaney, Conor Mortimer, and Andy Moran.
Those facts would suggest that Laois are the more experienced of the two teams battling on Sunday for a place in the semi-finals. To have rebounded with such determination following their demoralising defeat by Dublin is a credit to the motivating skills of Mick O’Dwyer. The Kerryman took charge of the training of the team since that defeat and their performances reached new heights in their qualifiers . . . against Tyrone whom they beat by three points, Meath over whom they had six to spare, and Offaly by eight.

Offaly performance very notable
THE manner in which they dismissed Offaly left no one in doubt about their state of mind. In terms of football they were streets ahead, and emerged from the spoiling tactics of their close rivals with buckets of credit for their fearless application and will to win.
Mayo’s journey to the quarter-finals has been less dramatic. None of the turbulence experienced by Laois reached their relatively short campaign. Nor, of course, did the quality of their performances quite compare with that of Sunday’s rivals. We did hold our breath during the final ten minutes or so of the Connacht final when they squeezed out a win over Galway. But the questions raised afterwards were why Mayo had allowed the game to come down to the wire when the title should have been decided by half-time.
They had come into the game as outsiders. Galway’s victories over them in key games earlier in the year, and their own listless performances against London and Leitrim, left little room for optimism. Even though Mayo had thirteen points to spare over London, they did not light up Ruislip with any imaginative football. Conor Mortimer, with a total of 1-8, was the star performer.
It was not a victory that armed you with excessive confidence for their semi-final slot with Leitrim. Nobody expected Mayo to lose, but it was with a certain apprehension that Mayo people travelled to Carrick-on-Shannon. They survived by the skin of their teeth, but criticism of their performance was counterbalanced by the fact that they were reduced to fourteen men for most of the second half. Whether Leitrim would have done as well against a full team we’ll never know. But before his dismissal Pat Harte had been Mayo’s star performer.
That close shave fattened scepticism about a Connacht final win. When the crown was regained, however, it was the failure of Galway to reproduce their old dashing form that attracted most attention. Mayo played well, only because Galway played badly, was the general feeling.
Consequently, the buzz of similar occasions has not gripped Mayo followers for Sunday’s match. In the face of Kerry’s awesome display last week there is no expectation of a Mayo All-Ireland victory. Even if they do win next Sunday, goes the argument, further progress is beyond reach. The semi-final is the ultimate aim.
We have not heard from the Mayo camp. A blanket of silence has enveloped training quarters. Nobody was allowed watch preparations, nobody except those in close contact with the team knows the form, the plans or the state of fitness of all of the players.
Concern for the full fitness of Trevor Mortimer, David Heaney, James Nallen and Liam O’Malley was expressed following the club championship ten days ago. You have got to feel for Trevor Mortimer if the suspected hamstring injury which forced him to retire is to keep him out of featuring in Sunday’s match. The Shrule man has been plagued with injury for the past year or more and a further setback must be a devastating blow to his morale. How serious the injury is we are not sure. Maybe his withdrawal was a precautionary measure.
James Nallen was also nursing a hamstring injury following Crossmolina’s club game with Breaffy, David Heaney was forced to withdraw during Swinford’s match with Kilmeena and Liam O’Malley has not partaken in recent training sessions . . . three sterling backs any of which Mayo can ill afford to lose. It is thought that neither injury is serious enough to keep Heaney and Nallen out of the game. But there is cause for concern about O’Malley.
Sunday’s is a clash of similar styles. Like Mayo, Laois play it short and at a staggering pace. In Brendan Quigley and Padraic Clancy they have a pair of midfielders equal to the best in the country. The outcome of their tussles with Ronan McGarrity and Patrick Harte could be decisive.
Quigley had an outstanding game against Offaly, and Clancy, who replaced the experienced Noel Garvan in the first half, made a significant contribution to their win. On the evidence of his performance in the Connacht final and for Ballina McGarrity is enjoying his brightest period in the Mayo jersey and together with Harte will not be found wanting.
In defence Aidan Fennelly, Darren Rooney, Joe Higgins and Tom Kelly are pretty well seasoned backs. Kelly is acknowledged as one of the most dedicated in the country. There ought to be some interesting duels between Conor Mortimer and Higgins, Ciaran McDonald and Fennelly and Kelly and Ger Brady.
If Mayo have a wandering star in McDonald, Laois have Billy Sheehan who plays a similar role. He, Chris Conway, Ross Munnelly, Ian Fitzgerald and Brian McDonald are all talented frontline men. If injury does not deny Mayo of their big defensive names there will be a classic battle between Dermot Geraghty, Liam O’Malley, Keith Higgins, David Heaney, James Nallen, Peadar Gardiner and their opposite numbers, a battle of speed, intuition and passion. The winning of the breaks is going to be vitally important.
Mayo are once again outsiders. O’Dwyer will tell his charges that Mayo lack heart and if Laois stick tight to them, Mayo will throw in the towel. He’ll be cocky and confident in his assertions. This is his last term in charge of Laois and he’ll spare none of the old cunning measures he has adopted over the decades to plot a victory. I think, however, that a fully fit Mayo are well capable of turning the tables, that they have better ball skills and lack nothing in determination. With a bit of luck Mayo can reach the semi-finals once more.

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