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Our nemesis watches and waits

Sean Rice

Our nemesis watches and waits

rice_sean_thumb LODGED somewhere in our subconscious is the picture of tearful 10-years-old Fergal Owens taken after Mayo’s defeat by Kerry in the All-Ireland final two years ago. “It all ends in tears” was the caption of the poignant full-page picture in The Mayo News as, with furled colours, the little lad watched Kerry celebrate their 33rd Sam Maguire success.
Similar pictures of Paul Caffrey’s son following Dublin’s defeat  triggered memories of the Mayo snapshot, and it was a stark reminder of the rivers of tears that have flowed for Mayo football down the decades.
Pity, however, is nothing other than an ‘anthem for the doomed’ as Mayo followers have learned to their cost. Without the hard nosed decisions, without the application of tough, resilient minds, and players bristling with belief and vitality nothing will be achieved, and the Fergal Owens of Mayo will continue to dominate our sports pages.
More than a glimpse of those essentials were on display for the first time in decades against Dublin. If they are repeated next Sunday we might have something to celebrate. But against Kerry we have every reason in the world to be guarded. Kerry has been our nemesis, the scourge of our dreams.
Over the past decade Mayo and Kerry have met four times in the championship. Mayo have had one victory, the first of their four meetings . . . in the semi-final of 1996. We have been paying for that one win ever since. Of the other three, one defeat could have been avoided, but our complacency had exceeded our ability.
In the lead up to that 1997 final we had avoided critical comparison, skipped over every analytical argument, refused to listen to reason. Having beaten Kerry the previous year, and been unfortunate to lose the final to Meath, we thought we had shed our lousy luck.Rice pic
Purged thus of misfortune we had come to Croke Park in 1997 confident that the gods would not desert us for the second year in a row. Defeat had been left behind in the torrid events of the previous year.
Kerry, perhaps the least impressive Kerry team of their thirty-three successes, delivered a salutary blow to our preening pride that September Sunday in Croke Park. With blunted ambition we traipsed home weary and disillusioned.
Other than in that final of 1997 complacency has scarcely ever been a factor in Mayo’s games with Kerry. But the laws of averages have been invoked often enough. Our luck must turn sometime, it is said. Mayo are overdue an All-Ireland title.
One of the coolest heads after Mayo’s unexpected win over Dublin was Conor Mortimer. “Look it, there’s a 50/50 chance we can win the final,” he told reporters. “There’s no point saying any different, regardless of who we’re playing. We’ll be hoping we don’t lose it as we have in 2004 ‘97 and ‘96. None of those Mayo teams wanted to lose either but that happens on the day. God isn’t going to come down and win you an All-Ireland. You have to do it yourself. Things have to go right for you on the day . . .”
Mortimer’s reaction personified the after-match mood of the team in general. The same coolness with which they faced their seven-point deficit was reflected in their quotes to reporters. Realism was the essence of their predictions about the final. A new, genuine maturity seemed to have filtered through the team.
Mortimer was not a member of the team beaten by Kerry in the final of 1997. But three members of the present side - James Nallen, David Heaney and Ciaran McDonald - have reason to remember the one-man show of Maurice Fitzgerald on that occasion when points from every angle on the field gushed from the boots of the corner forward. He scored nine of their thirteen points.
Nallen was at centre-half back, and has been one of the most dedicated and committed members of the Mayo team throughout the past decade. He has been the silent man of the side. He is not one to flaunt his skills, but his experience, speed and intelligence have been the hallmark of a career that has served Mayo well, a career that truly deserves an All-Ireland medal.
David Heaney was at midfield nine years ago. He has filled many other positions in the meantime with distinction. It was from wing-half  back this writer saw him give the finest performance of his career, against Kildare at Newbridge some years ago. Circumstances have ordained that he fills the full-back berth now and in that position he has been a tower of strength.
Ciaran McDonald’s genius has not waned. Maturity has bounded him to national prominence, and his inspirational left foot has won more plaudits than that of the late Christy Brown for his autobiography  “My Left Foot”.
All three were members of the Mayo teams beaten by Kerry in the final of 2004 and the quarterfinal last summer. Eight points separated them in the last final and three in the quarterfinal. None has yet had the satisfaction of dismissing Ireland’s greatest football county from the championship. It is probably safe to say that no greater satisfaction would it give them  than to win an All-Ireland title at the expense of the masters themselves. Sunday’s could be the last chance for this gallant trio.
There are altogether eight of the team that played in the final of 2004 still playing for Mayo. Missing are Peter Burke, Gary Ruane, Pat Kelly, Fergal Kelly, James Gill, Trevor Mortimer and Brian Maloney. Missing from the Kerry side are Eamon Fitzmaurice, William Kirby, Liam Hassett, John Crowley, and Dara O Cinneide. Of last year’s starting side, Mayo are without six.

What to do with Donaghy is vital
KERRY got to the final by the back door. They eventually avenged their defeat by Cork in the Munster final with a relatively easy win over the new Munster champions in the quarter-final, and a thoroughly convincing victory over Armagh in the semi-final.What transformed the Kingdom and have set them up once again as firm favourites to take their 34th title was one simple move . . . the selection of Kieran Donaghy at full-forward. Donaghy has destroyed defences since he took over the role of leader of the attack. No fullback has been able to touch him in the air, and the basketball flicks of his nimble hands have set up easy scores for others.
Mayo have already experienced the toughness of the three O Ses, and the speed and thrust of Eoin Brosnan and Colm Cooper. But Donaghy at full-forward will be new to them, and it is likely that behind the closed doors of the training camp the brilliant Kerry full-forward has been the focus of much of their attention.
Two years ago Jack O’Connor calculated that one big man in attack could destroy the Mayo defence. They opted for Johnny Crowley, gave him his head at left corner forward, pelted him with high ball and together with Gooch and Brosnan he finished Mayo off.
Maybe they’ll slot Donaghy to the corner on this occasion. Or perhaps they’ll change their long ball strategy entirely; opt for the strong running of Darragh O Sé through the centre, to do the damage, and for the lightening pace of Darren O’Sullivan, Brosnan, Gooch and Mike Frank Russell to complement his work. Not like Kerry, but not to be discounted.
No point in guessing. Kerry are capable of coming up with almost any new combination of elements in plotting another victory. Something new, that might derail Mayo’s plans. Dublin had been the focus of their preparation until Mayo upset their plans. But after their demolition of Armagh, Mayo will scarcely have Kerry shaking in their boots.
For all that, their defence is not impervious to the chipping ability of nippy forwards. The success of Donaghy has papered over some of the cracks in their backline. The afternoon of Seamus Moynihan, Aidan O’Mahony, Michael McCarthy and Tomas O Se may not be as settled as they would like when Alan Dillon, Ger Brady, Ciaran McDonald, Conor Mortimer, Kevin O’Neill, Billy Joe Padden or whatever combination Mickey Moran comes up with, apply their own attacking principles.
Midfield is, as always, significant. Darragh O Se managed to take Nicholas Murphy out of the game with some rough handling in the quarterfinal with Cork. Ciaran Whelan achieved similar results with Ronan McGarrity without appropriate sanction. O Se’s duel with McGarrity and Pat Harte’s with Tommy Griffin, or whoever, will stir the emotions.
Breaks will be vital as they have been throughout the championship. How sprightly Mayo pursue this aspect may decide the trend of the game. How efficiently the Mayo half backline of Aidan Higgins, James Nallen and Peadar Gardiner  control O’Sullivan, Brosnan and Galvin, and how Dermot Geraghty, David Heaney and Keith Higgins deal with Kerry’s potent full-forward line will determine the result.
Mayo know the extent of the challenge that faces them. All year they have been outsiders. All year they have flummoxed the commentators, presenting a side of Mayo that has not been seen for many a long day, a Mayo with new belief, new heart. They have changed the parameters. I think they have it in them to change half a century of dejection.

ENJOYING THE VIEW Kerry manager Jack O’Connor behind the Sam Maguire Cup at a photocall last summer. Pic: Sportsfile

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