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Mayo look to go behind Tyrone’s iron curtain

Sean Rice

Sean Rice

Going behind the iron curtain

MAYO’S unruffled passage to the semi-finals has had archivists scurrying through the records for comparison. But there are none. Like the wind they have swept before them, attracting plaudits from unlikely sources and, in equal measure, posing questions about their true worth. They have set the nation gossiping ... and guessing.
By any standard it is an extraordinary achievement. It is not the course we had predicted when they set out in Pearse Stadium last May. Everyone has now been swept up in the pace of their achievement. It is surreal.
But the manner in which they breezed by their rivals in Connacht and the All-Ireland champions will become a lonely statistic if Tyrone trump them on Sunday and Mayo’s ambition is once more forestalled.
Sunday’s semi-final is a further taunting test of their character. No side they have met so far presents the challenge that Tyrone holds. It is tantamount to facing in one game the collective force of those they have already defeated.
In many ways it is a battle between the paragon of unflappability that is James Horan and Tyrone boss Mickey Harte, an innovative old fox who has conjured the most unlikely of victories, often from the verge of the abyss.
They are among the top teams now, but Tyrone saw many a poor day before they finally secured the holy grail in 2003. Their first Croke Park venture was in 1957 when they succumbed in the semi-final to a Louth side that went on to win the title with the help of two Mayo men, Dan O’Neill and Seamie O’Donnell.
It would be 15 years before they found a path back to headquarters and a further 14 before reaching a final, each ending in wretched defeat.
They reached their second final in 1995 when Dublin beat them in the final by a single point. It was a final notorious for the long delay by Charlie Redmond in leaving the field after being dismissed by the referee.
More galling for the Tyrone men was the disallowed point scored by Peter Canavan just as the referee was blowing his final whistle which would have forced a replay.
Like Mayo in 1997, the northern champions bounced back the following year with sky-high hopes of success, but again returned home dejected.
Mickey Harte was the catalyst. He had led the county’s minor and under-21s to national success, including the defeat of Mayo in the under-21 final at Sligo in 2001. On his appointment as senior boss in 2003 success was immediate. He steered Tyrone to two further All-Irelands, the last in 2008.
Shrewdly, this season he has managed to fuse the astuteness of the older members of the side with the enthusiasm of his young recruits. The Cavanagh brothers, Conor  Gormley, Stephen O’Neill and Pascal McConnell are seasoned links to the winning side of 2008. They are the exemplars. They set the pattern.
And what better tutor could a young footballer have than Seán Cavanagh. If there is one player to which Mickey Harte could attribute Tyrone’s success this season, it must surely be Seán Cavanagh.
The other four have brought power and endurance to their game, but Cavanagh has skipped through the opposition with the force of his imagination. Without him, Tyrone would not be where they are right now. And how he is handled may well decide the outcome of the game on Sunday.
Could be indeed that the former footballer of the year would be deployed at full-forward where in the past he has been equally effective. He is on record as saying once that the toughest defender he ever marked was Tom Cunniffe.
The objective of such a move would be to lure Ger Cafferkey out of position in order to prise open Mayo’s tight-knitted defence leaving more room for the likes of the experienced Stephen O’Neill to operate.
The other Cavanagh brother, Colm, will start at midfield, and in the unlikely event that Seán is shifted to lead the attack, Aidan Cassidy, a strong fielder, will take his place at midfield.
Cavanagh, Joe McMahon, Gormley and centre back Peter Harte have been a relentless driving force in all of Tyrone’s success, and on them the manager will be relying to cause an upset.

Gormley appeal is a huge boost

TYRONE will be without Martin Penrose, who received a direct red card at the start of the second half of the quarter-final for an offence arising at the break. But their successful appeal against the belated suspension of Conor Gormley for an alleged incident in the same match is a huge psychological boost to their confidence.
Tyrone will not play as they line out. They’ll have planned to negate the danger that the O’Sheas, Cillian O’Connor, Alan Dillon and Andy Moran pose. Theirs will be a blanket defence, and in the past Mayo have had difficulty in negotiating defences of that nature.
Faced with an iron curtain around the Tyrone goal, Mayo could be forced into hasty scoring attempts from long range. In such circumstances, accuracy and composure from those positions are vital.
Last February in the league, Tyrone beat Mayo by a point with a last-gasp penalty. At every turn they frustrated Mayo, holding them scoreless from play for more than 30 minutes. When Mayo did eventually hit the front, Tyrone held their cool and won the decisive penalty. How Mayo lost it ought to be a motivating factor in their plans.
Nobody knows better than James Horan the extent of the Tyrone threat. And the Mayo boss will deal with it not in trying to compete with Mickey Harte, but in plotting his own strategy. He will concentrate on the strengths of his own team and have his own inner thoughts reflected in their inventiveness.
And whatever about the opposition, the Mayo manager will not break up a midfield partnership that has flourished throughout the campaign. It would be churlish to expect a repeat of his Donegal performance from Aidan O’Shea, but he and his hard-working brother are a compatible midfield duo, the bedrock of Mayo’s push for glory, and on whose shoulders fall high expectations.
The hamstring twinge that forced Tom Cunniffe to retire in the quarter-final may not have sufficiently healed to allow him start on Sunday, and in that case Keith Higgins may again be asked to resume his customary role rather than have him geared for a striking position in the half-forward line.
Or perhaps James Horan will entrust to Chris Barrett the corner spot held so long by Higgins following the splendid showing of the Belmullet man in the quarter-final. Injury has blighted Barrett’s development in recent years, but his underage promise is now beginning to flower.
To the sturdy Ger Cafferkey will fall, more than likely, the responsibility of counteracting the wiles of Stephen O’Neill. And Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan and Colm Boyle need no reminder of the fierce competitiveness that Mattie and Mark Donnelly and Joe McMahon bring to their game in whatever positions they hold.
Without being over-stretched they take on a Tyrone side that has quarried out significant success since losing to Donegal in the first round, a side that knows what it takes to win.
But the ease of that Mayo march does not diminish the quality of their football, or the depth of their resilience. They are fresh and will have earned corresponding maturity from their defeats of the past two years. The experience has brought wisdom and composure; an ability to weigh up what confronts them and how to deal with it.
This time their character will be fully on trial, but as a unit they have the ability and the mindset to tease out weaknesses in the opposition. They are now a serious package, beginning to bring real life to the football dreams of Mayo people everywhere.

Just a thought …
LIMERICK minors were the victims on Sunday of a cruelly inaccurate decision by Hawkeye. It would be laughable if it were not so serious  ... a victory for the humans over the robots. They deserve a replay.