KEY FIGURE Mayo’s Sarah Rowe in action against Sarah Lynch of Galway in the drawn Connacht Final this year. Pic Sportsfile
AT the start of the championship nobody outside of their own camp gave the Mayo ladies any chance of being in an All-Ireland semi-final this year.
I had faith in them, but I’ve been really surprised by how far they’ve come so quickly.
It’s a miracle really that they’re getting ready for a semi-final against Galway next Sunday at Croke Park, especially when you consider that there were 17 new players brought into the squad this year. Peter Leahy used 36 players in the National League and has used 25 so far in the championship; so this panel really has only been developing for the last seven months.
To have to go out and find 17 new players, some of whom had never played for Mayo before at any level, and to reach an All-Ireland semi-final, is incredible really.
These were players that were scouted at club games, their potential was spotted, they were brought in to train with Mayo, and then their attitude, work-rate and ability kicked in.
Those girls were either going to sink or swim, but it seems like the vast majority of them have dug in, shown a really good attitude, and embraced the challenge.
Players like Danielle Caldwell, who has only been on the panel for around 18 months I think, Nicola O’Malley, Roisin Durkan and Maria Reilly, who came in initially for some goalkeeping coaching, and scored a goal the last day against Armagh — they’ve all come on in leaps and bounds this season.
Kathryn Sullivan has been like a breath of fresh air too.
They’re all pushing the other players and I gather that the tempo at training is really high.
For me, the first miracle that Mayo produced was to beat a top four team in Donegal. And then to go on and knock out Armagh in the quarter-final, who’d beaten Cork, the league champions. That was a serious result.
It’s an impossibility really what Mayo have done. But from what I’ve seen, this management team has put everything possible in place for the players to reach their potential: they have mileage for them through a deal with Top Oil, they have employers looking after players in terms of time off for training and matches; they’re training six times a week between collective sessions, individual sessions and matches; and the girls are totally committed to it.
There’s obviously a lot of talent in the group, and a lot of players have taken on the responsibility and assumed leadership roles.
Sarah Rowe is an obvious example, She is very seasoned, and has a lot of experience and quality. The Kelly sisters have been really good too; Grace was Player of the Month for July and Niamh, the captain, has been incredible, she never stops working. Sinead Cafferky is playing well and her sister, Lisa, who I played with back in 2007, has come back in over the last few months. She’s a big addition.
Mayo’s game is built around work-rate, chasing back when they lose the ball, but the focus is on all-out attack when they’re in possession.
They definitely surprised Galway in the drawn Connacht Final but in the replay, there were times when Galway had 13 players inside their own ‘D’ when Mayo had the ball; it looked a bit like the old Donegal under Jim McGuinness. They just weren’t going to concede a goal.
That’s something Mayo need to be ready for on Sunday.
They aren’t a big physical team and they have a tendency sometimes to bring the ball into the tackle. They will need to avoid that this time around.
Another concern for me would be Mayo’s conversion rate from frees which is around 60 percent at the moment, so Grace Kelly, Sarah Rowe and Rachel Kearns, who kicks the long-range frees off the ground, will need to be on form in that regard.
Because considering the amount of physical tackles that Galway tend to put in, Mayo will need to be taking their chances from frees.
Given the history of recent fixtures between the two teams, and the two games they played last month, along with the physicality and sheer number of tackles that Galway put in, it’s easy to see why so many people are tipping them to beat Mayo.
But you couldn’t write this Mayo story this summer. It’s incredible to think they’ve come this far so quickly and I wouldn’t dismiss their chances at all.
They’re under no pressure and they’re learning from game to game.
They’ve shown great resilience in the last 15 minutes of games recently, they’ve battled back and shown great character and stamina and fitness. Against Armagh at one stage they managed to hold the ball for 90 seconds and worked a free.
All the pressure is on Galway, so Mayo will feel they can go and have a crack at this on Sunday. And going on what we’ve seen from them so far, I have no doubt they will.
In conversation with Mike Finnerty