NOT MEN BUT GIANTS Mayo captain Ronan McGarrity feels the full force of Galway’s Barry Cullinane during this year’s National League match in Castlebar. The two renew rivalries next Sunday. Pic: Sportsfile
Let the battle commence
NOTHING releases the adrenalin so swiftly as the thought of Mayo and Galway in mortal combat. Nothing brings to life more quickly the butterflies of suspense.
Almost five decades of experience have failed to subdue in this reporter the excitement of their confrontations. In a way, their meetings define the seasons.
More than any other rivalry, theirs is a convincing argument against any thought of ever scrapping the provincial championships.
So far Connacht has been as lacklustre as the weather. Shrewd aficionados stayed away from the preliminaries. Since their names were pulled out of the hat an old-firm clash was always on the cards. It’s the only attraction in the province this summer and they’ll travel in hordes.
Of their 73 meetings over 107 years, Sunday’s is their seventh in a row, and of their last six clashes, Galway have won four. Three of the six were Connacht finals, two won by Galway at Salthill, the other by Mayo at Castlebar.
The results underline the advantage of playing on home turf. In the early part of the last century their jousts were on neutral grounds, mostly at Castlerea, and rarely covered by radio.
To that venue Kevin Dwyer’s father thought nothing of cycling all the way from Tuam for the games, as did many supporters from Mayo. Kevin, of Galway Bay FM, recalls his father telling on one occasion of two men coming into the match carrying boxes and wondering what kind of lunches they had in them.
At half-time one of the men reached into his box, took out a pigeon, tied a note to its leg on which he had scribbled the half-time score, and released the bird to fly back to Tuam with the news. The pigeon in the other box, he assumed, was for the full-time score — if it was allowed to fly home with the bad tidings that Mayo won.
No homing birds will be required on Sunday. For those unable to travel, TV3, with our own talented Mike Finnerty as commentator, are sparing no effort to ensure the finest coverage possible of their first provincial football final. On hand, too, with analytical acumen are David Brady, Paul Earley, Peter Canavan and Liam Hayes.
AN uncommon lack of exposure has had Mayo folk somewhat stumped about the quality of their team this summer. A gap of two months between the end of the league and championship opener has fed their curiosity.
Mayo had not faced a home audience in those two months. And when they emerged for their first game - the semi-final on home turf — the opposition wilted inexplicably, exacting no special effort from their challengers. We expected some blanks in Mayo’s form sheet to be filled in by Sligo. But the Sligo we expected never turned up.
Amid the rubble of their defeat, however, the champions left behind a few question marks for Mayo to dwell on. The flaws that should have led to a brace of Sligo goals cannot be fully attributed to an easing of the throttle after Mayo had secured the game . . . or to the rustiness of a late entry into the campaign.
Anxiety is rife about the overuse of the hand-pass out of defence. Before the semi-final was five minutes old Mayo had passed themselves into a crisis which Sligo failed to exploit.
Short passing is an integral part of the modern game, however, and when used intelligently is more efficient than long aimless clearances out of defence. But it can be overdone, and lead to silly and expensive slips. If repeated on Sunday, Michael Meehan’s predatory instincts will reap a rich harvest.
Mayo need no advice from this source about the dangers Galway pose. They know that Meehan is not alone in posing danger, and that Padraic Joyce has rediscovered his old devastating form. Neither the years nor a brace of All-Irelands have dimmed the passion or the hunger in the Killererin man. They are the central figures of Galways¹ attack. Guile and physical strength are their traits.
Opposing them most likely will be Kieran Conroy, at full-back, and Mayo’s great servant David Heaney — in the absence of Trevor Howley — at centre half. Heaney and Joyce are longtime eyeball-to-eyeball foes. Each is acutely aware of the capabilities of the other.
Kieran Conroy’s first experience of Meehan was in their league tie in April which Galway won by a point. The Shrule man acquitted himself satisfactorily, but is still in learning mode. To repeat that performance will demand all the coolness and sharpness he has exhibited in the last number of months. In a position to which he scarcely aspired a year ago Conroy has done well.
While Mayo have managed to meet the challenge of Meehan and Joyce with relative success in the past, they have rarely succeeded in reining in the wanderings of Matthew Clancy. The Oughterard man is wily and elusive, and often Galway’s match winner.
It is on their forward line that Galways’s hopes mainly lie, and to the main three in that line the rest look for guidance. It would be an enormous help to Conroy, Heaney, Tom Cunniffe, Colm Boyle, James Nallen and Keith Higgins, who is likely to mark Clancy, if Mayo were to win control of midfield.
Singularly successful against Sligo, Tom Parsons is certain to be a marked man on Sunday. He and Ronan McGarrity ruled midfield conclusively, and Galway’s plan will be to deny both possession if they can.
While acknowledging the splendid talents of Tom Parsons, David Brady has, because of his youth, warned about expecting too much from the Charlestown man on Sunday against a midfield pair as tough and merciless as Barry Cullinane and Niall Coleman.
With characteristic directness, the TV3 analyst put things in perspective: “. . . Tom Parsons did play well against Sligo, and the talk is that he’s the great white hope of Mayo football. He’s not, and he won’t be for another three years. It’s as simple as that. Because in the cut and thrust of it, it takes three or four years to cut your teeth in senior football. Ronan McGarrity is an established player now, but he’s playing four years . . .”
Galway won’t dally about if Coleman and Cullinane are beaten in the air. They’ll try to knock down the ball at midfield in the hope that their half forwards and halfbacks will be faster to the breaks. If the Mayo halfbacks are alert to the ploy they can spoil it for Joyce and Meehan and, with the support of McGarrity and Parsons, work a productive supply to their own front lines. I have high hopes for the Mayo pair.
Profiles on the same scale as Joyce and Meehan do not bedeck the Mayo forward line. The Mortimers may have something to say about that. Neither Conor nor Trevor will concede inferiority to the Galway pair, and they represent as big a threat to Galway as Joyce and Meehan do to Mayo.
Pat Harte, Alan Dillon, Andy Moran, and Austin O’Malley complement the Shrule brothers with their own individual qualities, all of which will be called for to squeeze scores from the likes of Finian Hanley, Kieran Fitzgerald, Gary Sice and Damien Burke.
Mayo come to the final disadvantaged by a dearth of real tests. Galway have had two serious outings to reach the final. Whatever challenges Mayo have had mean nothing. In the run up to the semi-final Sligo were buoyed by impressive results against Laois and Fermanagh.
If Mayo believe in themselves they can win it. In some quarters they are favourites to win. David Brady thinks it may end in a draw. On occasions they have taken on Galway with a mock confidence, only to be exposed in the white heat of battle. They lost to them by a point in the league, and by seven points in the championship last season. If that has not tweaked their pride nothing will.