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This is Mayo’s game to lose

Sean Rice
Sean Rice

This is Mayo’s game to lose

IF Sligo’s triumph is the foundation on which a new football vista can be built, how much more appealing might the whole Connacht setting seem if Leitrim were to join them in the final?
The curtain opens on that unique possibility on Sunday at McHale Park and a Leitrim victory over their perennial conquerors is the climax for which every mortal outside the borders of Mayo will fervently wish.
It is a novel and an exciting objective for the minnows. And what better incentive could Leitrim have to topple the Connacht champions from their perch than the example set by Sligo at Pearse Stadium, and Carlow’s unforeseen draw with Meath.
Make no mistake the minnows are biting back. This time last year Mayo were recovering from the jolt of being pushed all the way into extra time by London. Afterwards they went on to contest the All-Ireland semi-final.
A couple of weeks back Leitrim survived the London pitfall in normal time, a further stimulus in their bid to surprise the high achievers.
Because they are at opposite ends on the scale of achievement, Sunday’s semi-final does not have the drawing power of a Mayo/Galway confrontation, but curiosity will have thousands tuning in for the faintest sign of an upset.
When they met last — in 2006 — Mayo scraped through at Carrick-on-Shannon by a single point . . . having led by eight at the interval. They eventually recovered from that shock to reach the All-Ireland final that same year.
It was the counties’ first championship clash in nine years. In 1997 Mayo, on home ground, won by seven points launching another All-Ireland bid that failed at the final hurdle.
Keith Higgins, Alan Dillon, Conor Mortimer, Andy Moran, Ronan McGarrity and Pat Harte were first team selections on the side that struggled over the line in 2006. The first four mentioned are still serving dauntlessly.
McGarrity, to whom James Horan reached out in desperation a few weeks ago, is likely to be on the bench on Sunday. Harte is now in a supporting role while Barry Moran who had a cameo part six years ago is the current midfield anchor.
Only one of the Leitrim fifteen is still playing six years later . . . Cathal McCrann who survives between the goalposts. James Glancy and Daniel Lowe, who now feature in defence and at midfield, were among the subs on that occasion, and together with McCrann, the only connection with 2006.
For a while in the second half at Ruislip, Leitrim’s hopes of victory were hard to sustain. They were trailing the ex-pats by four points, but the strong wind was with them and they stayed calm. And as London began to run out of steam, superior fitness cranked Leitrim into a higher gear. Unremitting pressure yielded vital scores, none more valuable or more worthy than the winner from James Glancy . . . a rocket that sailed all the way gloriously over the bar.
Of their 26 championship meetings, Mayo have lost to Leitrim only on three occasions . . . and never at McHale Park. And while bookmakers suggest no surprise is imminent on this occasion, the fact that they have waited so long to get off the mark this season calls for caution from the league finalists.
According to all reports they are straining at the leash to get going and are without serious injuries, other than whatever has kept Aidan O’Shea on the sideline and from partnering Barry Moran in the middle of the field.
The selectors have a few choices for that position. Jason Gibbons, Danny Geraghty and Pat Harte have all featured at centre-field throughout the league. All three can justify claims to the position on Sunday, and all three have the ability to command the position.
Richie Feeney, who is at a loose end since Lee Keegan took over his wing-back role, has a slimmer chance of a midfield role, but he is adaptable and his versatility should not be overlooked.
Unless last minute injury upsets the selectors’ intentions the back line will remain unchanged from that which did duty in the league final. David Clarke is still first choice for goal. In front of him, Kevin Keane, Ger Cafferkey and Keith Higgins are pretty well bedded in, and Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan and Colm Boyle have nailed down the half-back positions.
It is the front line, however, that will test the nerve of the selectors. Alan Freeman has been pushing hard for a first-team place since returning to full fitness after injury. And the thought of Jason Doherty’s three goals in a recent challenge with Westmeath will poke the mentors’ qualms.
Kevin McLoughlin, Andy Moran and Alan Dillon will make up one half of the forward line. But who might lose out if Freeman or Doherty were chosen . . . Conor Mortimer, Cillian O’Connor or Michael Conroy?
I think the selectors will stick with Mortimer and O’Connor, but Michael Conroy may be under pressure from the Aghamore man. Indeed, Freeman is the type of player who will fill any position adequately . . . maybe even midfield in a pinch.
In any case, James Horan dismisses any sense of lesser standards being branded on his subs. It’s a toss of a coin between first choice and them, all five intrinsic to the team as a whole.
Mayo are runaway favourites, as they should be, to qualify for the final. Predictions can be no other way between league finalists and a division four side the population of whose county would not fill McHale Park.
Complacency is their enemy, though. They’ll tell you sincerely they are looking no farther than next Sunday’s match, that they are taking nothing for granted, that Leitrim will give them a good game. If the players haven’t cleared that fence already, all of their followers have, so caution is essential.
It is in games of this nature that complacency and conviction frequently collide. Deep down in the comfort zone of the psyche warm favourites feel no real challenge.  And when the underdog begins to scream back halfway through the game paralysis often sets in. It’s a problem with which some managers have been unable to cope.
Leitrim will not be easy. They have nothing to lose. Carlow’s draw (even though heavily beaten in the replay) rather than Sligo’s win might be their exemplar. In the not too distant past the Leinster county failed to field a team in the national league.
Leitrim beat Longford in a challenge recently and have some fine players, notably at centre-forward where Emlyn Mulligan is seen as an inspirational leader. Shane Moran, Enda Williams, Colm Clarke, Adrian Croal, Glancy, Egan and Lowe will test Mayo’s strengths to the full.
In their most recent challenge Mayo drew with Monaghan in an uninspiring result, but enough perhaps to have brought a note of realism to their preparation.
The gap in standards on Sunday is obvious and it is Mayo’s to lose. But to win they cannot afford to be a force less resolute than if they were meeting the All-Ireland champions.

Happy birthday to an Achill legend

WE cannot let this opportunity pass without congratulating that man for all seasons, Achill’s John Cooney, on reaching another milestone in a long and colourful journey.
Joy pealed around the island and messages of goodwill poured in from near and afar when the clock struck midnight on the morning of the ninetieth birthday of that grand old man of the island.
They tell me the celebrations for one of the great survivors attracted friends from all corners of the island and the well deserved revelry reached far into the night.
The Sound man will list many reasons for reaching the venerable age of ninety among which surely will be a football career that lasted well beyond those of so many of his more youthful colleagues, and was one of the longest in the county if not the country.
It has been a few years since our paths crossed and indeed one rarely passed through Achill Sound without being greeted by the legendary John Cooney. His is a template for a long and healthy life and we wish him continued and sustained good health for years to come. May he also remain forever young.

Just a thought …
Roscommon will not be jumping with joy in meeting Armagh in the first round of the qualifiers. But it is a good chance for them and manager Des Newton to restore some pride in their football.