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Battle royal in prospect

Sean Rice
Sean Rice

Battle royal is in prospect

IT’S not what we had envisaged, and it evokes no passion among Mayo people like the drama of a Mayo/Galway confrontation. The black and white of Sligo out fluttering the green and red of Mayo will nevertheless be a rare sight in Sunday’s Connacht final . . . with the chance of an upset hovering over general expectations.
Measured against opposition of comparative riches, Sligo’s is a modest dream. They journey to Hyde Park in search of a fourth Connacht title against a county with a stack of 42. It’s equivalent to the ‘haves’ versus the ‘have-nots’.
In over fifty years of championship meetings with Mayo, the Yeats County has won no more than eight times. That gap is unlikely ever to be closed, but recent history suggests that the gap in standards between them is diminishing.
Having failed to build on their second title — in 1975 when they beat Mayo in a replay at McHale Park — Sligo’s possibilities since winning 2007 are patently brighter. Two years ago they took Mayo and Galway on a merry dance in the championship, then swaggered onto McHale Park to be crowned.
In the haze of that July day, however, the dream died . . . smothered in the hype that a run of unpredicted wins had generated. And Roscommon, lurking unobserved in the shadows, ran home with the honours.
In his preparations for Sunday, manager Kevin Walsh will have factored in the disappointment of that lost opportunity as a warning against any lingering complacency. He has also taken the step of refusing whatever incentive Mayo offered to have the final played at McHale Park, lest the pain of that memory returns to prey on their consciousness.
There will be no fiddling with fate this time. Bitter experience dictates that you play the cards as they lie, not how others would have them lie for you.
Sligo may not yet see themselves as All-Ireland material, but victories over Galway and Mayo would spin the imagination again and perhaps elevate the county to a place among the dark horses.
The closest they have come to an All-Ireland final was 1922 after beating Tipp in the semi-final. They never got to play it, however, having had to take on Galway afterwards in the Connacht final replay . . . which they lost.
Walsh has mined a wealth of new material since beating Mayo two years ago. At least nine new faces adorned the team that shocked Galway at Pearse Stadium. Six of them occupy vital positions . . . Johnny Martyn at full-back; Mark Quinn at centre-back; Shane McManus and Eugene Mullen at midfield; Pat Hughes at centre-forward and Adrian Marren spearheading the attack.
None is familiar to Mayo, but all wreaked havoc in Pearse Stadium. It’s a measure of Walsh’s ability as a coach that his young tyros managed to upstage so many of Galway’s experienced hands . . . none more crushingly than Marren’s demolition of notable full-back Finian Hanley.
The full-forward scored 2-6 of Sligo¹s 2-14, and he was also man of the match in their preliminary game in New York, much of his success due to the midfield performance of Shane McManus.
There was more to it than that, of course. In fact Marren thrived because Sligo crowded midfield, allowing Hughes, sub Tony Taylor and Mayo man Alan Costello to gorge on a feast of broken ball . . . from which the full-forward reaped his own bountiful harvest.
Mayo will have to think hard about how to play midfield. The centre has presented James Horan with some anxious moments ever since Aidan and Seamus O’Shea left the scene. In their absence experimentation has uncovered no satisfactory partner for Barry Moran.
The return of Seamus O’Shea to training offers some hope. He lined out with Breaffy recently showing no loss of his old vitality and if considered match fit may be asked to fill the vital role.
But whatever partnership they choose is sure to be hassled by a prowling Sligo pack scrambling for the scraps if primary possession is not won. For Mayo the responsibility for dredging the lower regions of midfield falls mostly on the two half-lines of Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan and Colm Boyle, and Alan Dillon, Kevin McLoughlin and Cillian O’Connor . . . if the Ballintubber man is installed again at centre forward.
The young man looked less than comfortable in the central position against Leitrim, and may be more at home at corner forward where fleet of foot is a less demanding attribute.
Who would fill the centre though is the big question? While Alan Freeman was less prominent than we had expected in the semi-final, his freewheeling style might be adaptable to that slot. It is, however, a vital position that needs a combination of agility, toughness and guile.
Leitrim also exposed weaknesses in the centre-back position until Lee Keegan executed the necessary repairs when he switched with Donal Vaughan. The Ballinrobe man will have learnt from the Leitrim experience and should be more mentally prepared for the final.
No fundamental changes in the team that started against Leitrim are expected from James Horan. But whatever team he fields has not yet been tested. Since Cork beat them in the league final in April there has been no true examination of their progress.
After twenty minutes Leitrim wilted, and no one came away from McHale Park believing Mayo had found the formula to go all the way.
Sligo is not Leitrim. With the demolition of Galway to motivate them, the Yeats county men will be strengthened further if Stephen Coen, who scored two goals against New York, returns after missing the semi-final. He is another string to Walsh’s bow.
Whatever odds divided Sunday’s finalists before Sligo’s defeat of Galway will have been slashed considerably since then. Lying a couple of divisions lower than Mayo in the league will not bother Sligo. Endeavouring to open up the potential of his young men, Walsh will have them dismiss their lower league rung as inconsequential.
We do not have to impress on Mayo the seriousness of the challenge that awaits them.  They know what to expect. They are more experienced than Sligo, are capable of winning, and are expected to win. There are times though when tradition counts for nothing. Remember how Carlow almost toppled Meath!
In ousting the Tribesmen, Sligo’s capacity is palpably obvious. The evidence is there in black and white. And they believe they can win.
After Mayo’s defeat two years ago, Galway thought they were prepared for whatever Sligo had to offer. They weren’t, and if Mayo are not mentally ready on Sunday to see Sligo as a Cork or a Kerry they, too, will pay a heavy price.
It will go down to the wire. It may even end in a draw. But a replay would be no bad thing for a Mayo team in need of the edge that only stiff challenges can hone.

Major test for county minors
THE minor contest ought to lure Mayo people early to Hyde Park for the county’s slog out with rejuvenated Roscommon.
While they have lost no standing in terms of Connacht success, Mayo, unlike Roscommon and Galway, have been unable to make the breakthrough at All-Ireland level. It is all of 27 years since Mick Burke led the minors to their last success, and although they have come close on occasions, a seventh title has somehow managed to elude them.
This year’s bunch looked sharp and hungry in the first half of their semi-final with Sligo. They were skilled and inventive, but for some reason lost their shape after the break and never regained the fluidity that permeated their football throughout the opening half.
Roscommon beat Galway in a thriller to qualify for the final and on home ground ought to provide the type of test that will indicate whether Mayo have at last found a team capable of bridging that yawning gap.

Just a thought …
GALWAY’S comprehensive win over Kilkenny is not only a boost for hurling in every part of the country but an example for every underdog in football too, that no team is invincible.