Real Mayo need to stand up
THERE are two schools of thought doing the rounds about Mayo’s performance in Ruislip. The first is that their struggle to win against a disparate bunch of ex-pats is proof that Mayo are what they have always been… a team without a cutting edge; the other is that their close brush with acute embarrassment will, paradoxically, buttress a strong championship challenge.
Since Mayo football has never been anything but unpredictable, the two opinions stand up. Outside Connacht, lack of character has been their constant. Inside the province they have occasionally shown a capacity to display the belief they lack outside it, to bounce back from calamity, to confound the doubters.
And it is based on that rickety theory that some fans hope for a Mayo victory over Galway on Sunday.
Volatility has been the theme of the Mayo saga down the years. You never know from one week to the next what their form is going to be. Is it any wonder Mayo football has been analysed, scrutinised, critiqued almost to death, and fans pushed to the verge of distraction?
If ever self-belief was necessary it is now, after Ruislip, when the wings are down, when Galway seem ready to re-assert themselves and Roscommon at last challenge the stability of the big two of Connacht football. A picture in The Mayo News of a duel in Ruislip painted more than words ever could which of the two players had the greater conviction.
The rivalry between Sunday’s contestants is more intense than if Sligo, Roscommon or Leitrim were their opponents. “Anyone but Leitrim” was the wail of dejected Sligo fans tumbling out of Markievicz Park following Leitrim’s surprise win in the championship recently.
Many fans of Mayo and Galway hold similar feelings. “Anyone but Galway” is a common sentiment of Mayo followers when beaten, and vice versa in Galway. Pride dents deeper. Defeat to any of the other three seems infinitely more tolerable.
Their respective league campaigns have not augured well for the championships prospects of either county. On the scale of All-Ireland favourites neither is very high right now.
Although Mayo clung on to their Division 1 status, their scrambling win over London has opened old scar tissue. Nothing has changed. If they were in Leinster they would scarcely survive the challenge of Carlow or Wicklow.
The verdict is no more persuasive in Galway… except that while they slid back to Division 2, a win over Armagh and a draw with Dublin in the latter stages have been a greater boost to their morale than retention of first division status has been to Mayo who faltered against Dublin and Armagh.
A decade ago Mayo, in the reign of Pat Holmes, won the National League… a game distinguished by the character that they exhibit in most of their games with Galway, but which inexplicably fails to surface on the bigger stage. A single point separated them in that final at Croke Park. It was one of their better days.
A couple of months later Roscommon, having already dismissed Galway from the Connacht championship, pipped Mayo in the final. And our interest in the championship came to a sudden end when Westmeath beat us in the qualifier.
At the same time, Galway were striding confidently onto their second All-Ireland in three years, once again magnifying Mayo’s inconsistency.
Padraic Joyce and Joe Bergin are Galway’s links to that success, ten years ago. Trevor Mortimer and David Clarke are the Mayo connections.
The Galway pair are integral parts of the plan of manager Tomás O’Flatharta for Sunday, Joyce at corner forward and Bergin in the middle of the field accompanying former full-back Finian Hanley.
Their experience is invaluable to a side that will probably include three of their All-Ireland winning under 21 team Colin Forde at full-back, corner back Jonathan Duane, and Mark Hehir at centre-forward who played a leading role in their U-21 All-Ireland win. Ó Flaharta has blooded all of them in the league. . . and they have a settled look about them.
Michael Meehan, too, is close to a full return to Galway, and when in form he is one of the best in the country.
MAYO are still trying to sort themselves out. Three months of leagues or more has failed to nail down most of the central positions. You feel at times that some players are still in an experimental frame of mind… waiting to be called aside in order to put the next man under the spotlight.
Three are in contention for the centre-back berth… Donal Vaughan, who was the selectors’ choice in London, Ger Cafferkey, who has frequented the position more than any other, and maybe even Trevor Howley who it seems is being coached as an all-purpose player.
Midfield, the engine room of the team, has not been sorted despite months of trials. James Kilcullen and Jason Gibbons were the chosen pair in London, but in the end the selectors had to call Aidan O’Shea from the bench — where he never should not have had to sit — to help out.
It goes without saying that the key places ought to have been secured by now. Different teams were fielded throughout the league to ensure that no position was an automatic choice. But the experiments have spilled over onto the championship, and to many that smacks of indecisiveness.
We don’t know right now who will operate at midfield. Ronan McGarrity would have been a cert had he not picked up an injury towards the final stages of the league. He has been out for several weeks, and failed to turn out for Ballina in their recent championship match.
He has, however, been training with the Mayo squad, and although not match fit may make an appearance at some stage on Sunday. James Kilcullen and O’Shea may be the starting pair. They are similarly styled players and do not complement each other. You need an anchorman and a runner at midfield… and neither is a runner. In the absence of McGarrity, O’Shea and Gibbons, although still short in self-belief, would be this writer’s ideal pair.
Alan Feeney seems at last to have convinced the selectors that he is full-back material, and his brother Richie is likely to hold onto the right-wing spot with Tom Cunniffe behind him in the corner. Who will fill the other four posts is anyone’s guess, although David Clarke will almost certainly be in goal, with Ger Cafferkey, if fit, perhaps returned to centre-back.
In a team tangled in contradiction Alan Dillon and Andy Moran are two strands of stability that Galway will want to subdue. Gary Sice, a tough root, may be assigned to Dillon while Moran will do battle with Greg Higgins, both significant duels.
As in all Mayo/Galway battles, nothing about it suggests it will be anything but close.
In the long history of their contests no avenue has been left unexplored by either side in a bid to gain the upper hand. Neither of them holds a psychological advantage over the other. Conquests are temporary, victories habitually avenged.
Mayo will win only if they have the will to win, if they can find enough passion to salvage something from the wreckage of Ruislip, if they can find the composure to think their way out of problems, and the heart to drive themselves on… something, anything to restore the self-esteem so seriously damaged in Longford last summer.
Just a thought …
THEY have been our proudest boast even if the All-Ireland gap is widening, so our good wishes go to Tony Duffy and his charges in the championship as Mayo minors host Roscommon on Sunday.