A tale of the unexpected
IT’S Mayo’s third league final in six years and it concludes a campaign in which their graph as ever bounced crazily . . . before arriving at Sunday’s culmination.
It was Mayo football wild and unpredictable, playing with our emotions, manic in a way . . . battered by its unrelenting mood swings.
Mayo are where they are on Sunday by reason of an optimistic opening to the division followed by a serious dip in form after which came a three-match spell of excellence that transformed their football in the final weeks of the series.
Now Cork, who astutely set them up two years ago for a massive crash at Croke Park, await another tilt at the former league specialists.
Mayo had gone to Cork a couple of weeks before that final to finish off the series of Division 1A matches. Cork had already qualified, but a Mayo win would place both in the final and, fielding his weakest team, canny Conor Counihan orchestrated the fixture.
Mayo won the match, but Counihan won the battle of wits. In the final, two weeks later, Cork’s big guns were all rolled out . . . and Mayo lost by eight points.
There’s enough of a carry-over from that bitter experience to rouse some passion among the Mayo men for Sunday’s final. Seven or eight of that side will face Cork again. But will they remember the hurt?
There’s a link, too, with the team beaten in the league final of 2007 by Donegal. Nearly half are still involved . . . David Clarke, Pat Harte, Keith Higgins, Alan Dillon, Andy Moran, Conor Mortimer, Michael Conroy and Aidan Campbell.
In the two years since their last final, the league spoils have been evenly divided, Mayo winning by two points at McHale Park last year and, more pertinently, Cork reversing the result a few weeks ago at the same venue.
Unlike the previous final, Mayo will not be caught unprepared on Sunday.
League and championship success has festooned the footballers of Cork in recent years, and just now, to the chagrin of their old rivals across the border, Cork are shading the battle for football supremacy in Munster.
Despite a Kerry forward line emblazoned by the likes of Cooper, Galvin and the O’Sullivans, Cork’s six front men deliver greater collective accuracy, and force a more searching trial on every backline.
Bryan Sheehan’s marksmanship from frees has kept Kerry afloat in recent times, no more clearly than against Mayo in Tralee where he scored 1-6 . . . a penalty and six points from frees. Cork’s scoring power comes from all sources, however, and is more accurate from play, especially from long range.
Corner forward Colm O’Neill scored 1-6 against Down, three from frees. Donnacha O¹Connor kicked six against Mayo, two from frees. Significantly, their two midfielders figured high on their scoring list in the semi-final, Alan O’Connor finding the net and Pearse O’Neill bagging three points.
Midfield as ever is crucial. The marvel of Mayo¹s win over Kerry is that it was eked out in the absence of Aidan O’Shea. Without the Breaffy man, survival was thought impossible. The outcome will have arrested the growing notion that the midfielder was becoming indispensable . . . and as a confidence boost it will not have been lost on the rest of the team.
But I wish O’Shea were there on Sunday. Whatever sort of injury has befallen him is likely to keep him out of action for months.
If his brother Seamus has fully recovered from a hamstring injury, James Horan may choose him to partner Jason Gibbons. The Ballintubber man is rising in stature and although he and Seamus O’Shea are unlikely to outshine O’Connor and O’Neill, it won’t be for want of trying.
IF change in that sector were needed on Sunday, I personally would plump for Richie Feeney. He proved his versatility when drafted in at centre forward in the second half against Kerry from which he scored the winning point.
He is a good reader of the game, he is strong, lively, and passionate . . . all the attributes required of a midfielder especially when adequate reserves are scarce.
Even for a defender of proven ability there is no room for Feeney over the sitting six. All, in addition to goalkeeper David Clarke, played the Kerrymen with no sign of inferiority. And unless someone of the set-six has picked up an injury, it is difficult to envisage any change in that line-up.
But each will have his hands full in trying to stem the Cork tide created by Colm O’Neill, the roving Aidan Walsh, Donnacha O’Connor and Kerrigan who plagued Mayo in the second half at McHale Park a few weeks back.
Against Kerry, Mayo gambled a bit in search of consolidation. Asking Ger Cafferkey to shadow Colm Cooper was an unqualified success though. Kevin Keane, Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan and Colm Boyle have established their credentials despite the manager’s predilection for change.
Some of them — the likes of Vaughan, Cafferkey and Higgins — are the fastest players in training, faster than any Mayo forward, but a huge asset to forwards at the same time. There is nothing more disconcerting for a defence than an opposing defender thundering down field in full flight.
No radical change is expected up front. The selectors will mull over the choice of full forward longer than over any other position. Whether Barry Moran can restore their confidence in him is what will be carefully considered.
They need a man whom Cork will fear. Moran, or Cillian O’Connor or Alan Freeman, if he has recovered from injury, or Jason Doherty could fit the bill. Otherwise Alan Dillon, Andy Moran, Kevin McLoughlin and Conor Mortimer will start.
Having disposed of Kerry, Mayo would be expected to take on Cork with greater confidence. But the manner in which they allowed the league champions — reduced as they were to fourteen men — to claw back a five-point shortfall in ten minutes and win by one a few weeks ago is a worrying reminder of Cork’s potency.
The salient result from which Mayo ought to take heart cropped up last year when they ousted the reigning all-Ireland champions in the semi-final at Croke Park.
It was their first championship success over the Leesiders in nearly a hundred years. Since the championship is the ultimate test, the result is emphatic evidence of Mayo’s potential.
They had the O’Shea brothers operating at midfield on that occasion and together they virtually outshone the combined gifts of Alan O’Connor and Aidan Walsh.
In the absence of Aidan O’Shea, Mayo will struggle to repeat that significant achievement, and unless O’Connor and Pearse O¹Neill are sufficiently bridled another title will, I fear, be heading south.
But Mayo are in better mental shape now following their success over Dublin and Kerry. Conviction is growing. The forward line is more structured and cohesive. Even against Kerry they were surprisingly inventive.
Sunday’s is a test we had not foreseen some weeks ago. How they shape up may define their season.
Just a thought …
IN beating Ulster champions Cavan by five points in the All-Ireland U-21 semi-final, Roscommon proved worthy Connacht representatives, and we wish them every success when they take on Dublin in the final.