Billy Joe Padden
AFTER Mayo lost to Roscommon in the Connacht semi-final nine weeks ago, you can be sure that James Horan and the players would have taken a home game against Donegal to get to an All-Ireland semi-final. They’re where they want to be right now.
I’ve said in the past that this team only seems to be at their best when it really matters.
Now it really matters.
Horan will be preaching this week that all the hard work and battles that have been fought all over the country over the last five weeks have led to this point.
He will also be stressing the importance of bringing physicality next weekend, but being very disciplined. Mayo are going to have to win the battles in the full-back line and win a lot of ball and breaks around the middle. And they’re going to drive out through the half-back line a lot to get momentum. So it’s about controlled aggression.
The most important thing in the Mayo camp over the last week will have been rest and recuperation, and trying to tidy up as many knocks, niggles and injuries as possible.
We shouldn’t underestimate just how mentally taxing playing for five weekends in a row is on players. So last weekend will have been a chance for them to recharge their mental batteries, as much as their physical ones.
Instead of being in the bubble for a big, pressurised championship match, on live television, travelling up or down the country, staying in a hotel, they got to train in Mayo, go home and relax, and spend time with their family.
They can mentally switch off before building it up as the days go by this week.
As for the game itself, from Mayo’s point of view, James Horan has to have a plan for Michael Murphy and Ryan McHugh. And whichever Mayo players get the job of marking them, they have to be careful.
Because there was so much third man tackling and pulling off the ball when Donegal played Kerry, that you can be sure that the referee will be looking to clamp down on any of that sort of stuff, especially early on.
I expect that Lee Keegan may be the man to pick up Ryan McHugh because he’s very dangerous in an attacking sense as well. Plus, Keegan has got the ‘star power’ to be able to deal with marking a super player like McHugh.
He’s physically stronger than him as well so that will be a factor.
I don’t see Mayo giving the job of picking up Murphy to either of the O’Sheas because it’s too taxing given Murphy’s versatility. I could see Stephen Coen tagging the Donegal captain because he’s big and strong enough, and could survive in the full-back line for periods too.
I expect Murphy to spend 80% of the time out the field, because Donegal have got the likes of Patrick McBrearty and Jamie Brennan close to goal.
So maybe Coen is the man to track Murphy out there.
On the flip-side, Donegal will be pretty clear on who they want to mark in our full-forwardline. I expect Stephen McMenamín, one of the stand-out corner-backs in the championship this year, to pick up Cillian O’Connor because Donegal will feel that he’s the biggest threat.
If Neil McGee is back fit, he’ll suit Darren Coen from their perspective.
In terms of the game being played in MacHale Park, I think psychologically that’s a big positive for Mayo. So will be the huge Mayo crowd that will be there.
Because Mayo are underdogs on Saturday, I’m not expecting any nervousness or expectation in the crowd. I’d urge Mayo supporters to get behind the team with everything they have for 70 minutes, through thick and thin, because we don’t know what the future holds.
They always do anyway, and I’m not expecting any different this time.
It’s going to be some occasion and hopefully we get a game to match.
Rochford’s role adds an extra edge
DONEGAL’S coach knows more than any of us about this Mayo team, and he’ll know all about their strengths and weaknesses.
Stephen Rochford’s inside knowledge is going to be absolutely vital in terms of giving one-on-one match-ups to the likes of Stephen McMenamin or Neil McGee, and filling them in on their oppenents.
Because Rochford is the coach of the team, as opposed to the manager, I think he’ll have had more time to put together a plan of action and really drill down into what Mayo have been doing in recent games.
I don’t think Donegal are going to deviate from their game-plan too often, but they’ll have noticed the specific trends, patterns and weaknesses in Mayo’s game.
Rochford will also be very aware of the potential for Donegal to put serious pressure on the Mayo kick-out, particularly in a smaller pitch like Castlebar and particularly when you have Michael Murphy out around the middle of the field.
That’s an area that I expect Donegal to attack.
From his own personal perspective, there will be no divided loyalties for Stephen Rochford next weekend. His loyalty in his current role is to the group of players he’s coaching.
He will be absolutely committed to putting the best plan in place to beat Mayo.
And it’s only human nature that he will want to go down to Mayo and show the players, County Board and supporters what they are missing in terms of his abilities as a coach.
I’m absolutely fine with that, I encourage that, because you want coaches and players to be the best of themselves and compete at the highest level at every opportunity.
As a Mayo manager, he demanded that and, as coach of Donegal, I think it’s only right that he behaves in the same way. He’s got a job to do.