Something special about derby day
FOR more than half a century we have followed their wars and romanticised their history. Theirs is one of the celebrated football rivalries producing contests that burrow deep into the sensibilities of their followers.
Each has enjoyed cycles of dominance over the other throughout the decades unleashing primal instincts for redress. Sight of the other’s jersey is sufficient to activate the adrenaline.
Their games are a great attraction, great theatre, and the intensity of their exchanges is an indication of the prestige that a Connacht title has to offer.
Mayo have won 45 of those championships. In overtaking the Tribesmen’s 44 last season, they recorded the third in their history of four consecutive titles. In none of their periods of dominance has a Mayo side been so assertive as in the past four years, Galway on three occasions among their conquests.
In 2011 Mayo were six points to the good in their semi-final with Sunday’s adversary. They had seventeen to spare in 2013 at Pearse Stadium and last year they were better by seven points in the final at MacHale Park.
They are now aiming for an unprecedented five successive provincial titles, a distinction achieved only by Sunday’s opponents when the great Seán Purcell led them from 1956 to 1960.
In breaking the record in Connacht, Mayo touched on a nettling enigma. It is that for all of their success in the province they have not matched Galway’s distinction outside it. Since the Sam Maguire last graced a Mayo sideboard in 1951, the men in maroon have claimed it on six occasions.
There were moments during the past four years when the gallant efforts of the Connacht champions were inexplicably denied the success they deserved. And it is beginning to dawn on many that if the current crop miss out, Galway might again win the race to the summit.
It’s a challenging thought as they prepare for the journey to Pearse Stadium for a semi-final that Mayo enter as favourites. But badges mean little in local derbies as competitive as those between Mayo and Galway down the decades.
While the Tribesmen have been at their lowest those past four years and Mayo, conversely, at their peak, there are signs of an awakening around the Claddagh, originating in Corofin’s All-Ireland club win.
They were without the Corofin stars for most of the league, a reason perhaps why promotion escaped them. But they did beat high-flying Roscommon which is another indication of the unpredictability of close rivalry.
So far Galway have had two outings in the championship, beating New York and Leitrim, and while neither victory was an achievement of note, they have gone out of their way to ensure they are perceived as underdogs in Sunday’s semi-final.
It has been a long, slow build-up for Mayo. Not a competitive outing since drawing with Donegal in their final game of the league last April, a league of fluctuating results, but which finished on a high note.
No workout beats the real thing, and Mayo will not quite know their true form until they step onto Pearse Stadium on Sunday. They do so with a full team, although the extent of Cillian O¹Connor’s fitness is not clear and he is crucial to Mayo’s performance.
Midfielder Tom Parsons picked up a foot injury last Tuesday in an impressive workout by the squad in Pearse Stadium and had to leave the field. He was playing well at the time and it is to be hoped he will be ready for Sunday’s joust.
It was a full dress rehearsal, the whole outfit on parade. Almost all of the panel, including seven players from Dublin who arrived by bus were there, managers, backroom team, kit man, the lot, in a serious piece of drill.
Hard questions to be asked of Mayo once again
NO selection will be announced until later this week, but with Kenneth O’Malley let go from the squad, goalkeeping will be entrusted to either David Clarke or Robert Hennelly, the Breaffy man likely the preferred choice.
If the league is the gauge, Kevin Keane will resume at full-back with team captain Keith Higgins occupying his familiar role at left corner.
Who will win approval for the other corner is uncertain. Ger Cafferkey, while injured during the league lost ground to Keane, and on his return moved to the corner spot where against Cork he was sharp. But Tom Cunniffe, who held that position throughout most of the league, is also battling hard for his place.
In choosing the full-back line, the selectors will have in mind the agility of the Galway attack in which Damien Comer starred against Leitrim. The Annaghdown man was the powerhouse of Galway’s under 21 defeat of Mayo in championship, scoring 1-5 in the process. Peadar Ó Griofa and Danny Cummins moved swiftly and astutely alongside him in the front line.
We are accustomed to a Mayo half-back line of Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan and Colm Boyle and, barring injury, and a switch or two of positions that looks certain to remain intact.
Reining in Gary Sice, Comer and the fleet-footed Michael Lundy, will demand all of their concentration. Galway will badly miss star forward Shane Walsh however, after he was injured in a car accident last weekend.
Manager Kevin Walsh could be tempted to recall Michael Meehan to the front line following a notable performance for his home club recently. In scoring 1-4 the Caltra star, troubled for years by recurring injury, has lost none of his old inspirational qualities.
Midfield could present problems where Paul Conroy and Fiontan Ó Curraoin have been impressive. Seamus O’Shea is fancied to start, but who will join him is a big question.
Tom Parsons, maybe, if he has recovered; Barry Moran if he is hitting the form he produced against Donegal, or maybe Aidan O’Shea. High work rate is vital for whatever pairing.
On club form Diarmuid O’Connor is nudging for inclusion, although it is difficult to see who might make way for him. Not Kevin McLoughlin, hardly Jason Doherty and certainly not Aidan O’Shea if he is at centre-half. Be sure though, the Ballintubber man has reached the degree of form that is difficult to ignore.
Mark Ronaldson, Cillian and Alan Dillon might be the preferred choice to start up front. But then there are Danny Kirby, Andy Moran, Mikie Sweeney and Michael Conroy, if fit, straining at the leash.
Pitted against the experienced Finian Hanley and Gary Sice, who likes to help out in defence, and the maturing Cathal Sweeney, Liam Silke and Seán Denvir, Mayo may be forced to change tactics to deal with the hunger of these opponents.
Finding solutions to unforeseen problems during performances has not been their forte. Against Galway you must be ready for the unexpected. Pride is at stake, vengeance in the air. After four years at the top Mayo’s mental resilience is up for scrutiny.
How they respond could define their year.