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Home comforts

Kevin McStay
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Mayo’s Conor Mortimer is likely to come up against his old adversary from Galway, Damien Burke
TIGHT MARKING Mayo’s Conor Mortimer is likely to come up against his old adversary from Galway, Damien Burke, in next Sunday’s Connacht final in Castlebar. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Mayo to enjoy home comforts

Kevin McStayKevin McStay
AS Eamon Dunphy might or might not say about the Connacht Final next Sunday: ‘It’s game on now, baby!’
There are twenty-four counties still standing in the senior championship and if there are a dozen and a half of those marking time or running on empty, be sure there are a few teams out there who are approaching this week’s training with renewed belief.
Cork’s hammering of Kerry (and let’s face it — that is exactly what it was, eventually!) has opened up all sorts of possibilities. Sure, the champions are still breathing but this could be a mortal blow.
This Kerry team is two years on from 2006 and may not have the powers of recovery it had then. Whisper it; they might even be in decline. We all said at the beginning of the season that the All-Ireland was Kerry’s to lose. It appears they are contributing to their own downfall with a stunning lack of discipline.
I have now covered games in all four provinces this year and let me put it this way: Armagh, Dublin, Cork, Galway, Mayo, Tyrone and Derry at a push will feel no team is so far ahead of them to cause wobbles and make their championship redundant.
We know the provincial champions will play the round three winners and that particular bowl will possibly/probably include Kerry. So, who wants to win next weekend in Castlebar? Might you be better off in the round three bowl? But these are scenarios no self-respecting Connacht man can allow himself in the week that’s in it.
We are expecting a full house in the old stadium and if Munster displayed apathy about their decider, be thankful ours still has real meaning. Especially when it is Galway providing the opposition. No doubt the Leinster and Ulster finals will also pack the supporters in.
It’s completely appropriate that our keenest rivals from Galway should face Mayo in this, the last final to be played in the ‘old’ McHale Park.
When next we visit, it will have had a €10 million makeover: a 42,000 capacity stadium, state-of-the-art floodlighting and TV broadcasting facilities and covered seating for 10,000 people. God, you would nearly come out of retirement just to get a run around in it. But it should prove an ideal venue for the big clashes in the province and a neutral address for Munster and Ulster qualifiers in the future.
I am on a bit of a roll with the tipping this year; Dublin and Armagh are already on the betting slip to win their province and of, course, Cork obliged on Sunday. Not sure you want to read this but I have Mayo down for the fourth leg. But can they do it? I expect the odds will be more or less evens with a slight touch for the home team.
Indeed recent form has indicated the home venue is the key to winning the Nestor Cup and there is little to suggest much will separate the teams this year. So, in these times of recession, it could well be a matter of ‘Location, Location, Location’.
The story so far is straightforward. Galway, playing at home, cantered past Roscommon, had a bit of a scare against Leitrim but ultimately emerged unscathed but with plenty of questions remaining.
Principal among them is the potential or otherwise of their midfield. To date, in the absence of the superb Joe Bergin, management has failed to settle on a pairing because no pairing has settled! It’s only now that Galway supporters realise how big a loss Bergin is and so Liam Sammon has a real headache.
The good news for Galway is JB is recovering but the other welcome news concerns the return to full fitness of Kieran Fitzgerald, Niall Coyne and Diarmuid Blake. This will give the Galway management real options in defence and they will need them here. Against both Ros’ and Leitrim that sector failed to inspire and certainly Finian Hanley needs a big game.
I expect Hanley to come up trumps. He is the real deal in my opinion but the selection of the tight-marking Damian Burke (a man with some success in marking Conor Mortimer) appears to be fraught with danger. His on the edge marking and tackling is attracting referees to his department and he finds it hard to play when on a yellow.
Up front Galway have a few jewels. Padraig Joyce is playing well, is scoring well and is positive about his football again. However, his deep reserves of fitness are no longer evident and if his burst of pace remains, the jury will wonder if he can keep supporting the attacks from centre-half forward.
Michael Meehan and Matt Clancy are the other key marksmen in this team and I suppose Nickey Joyce, if left free, can hurt defences too. The match-ups here are crucial and that will have occupied John O’Mahony and his management team this week.
Keith Higgins is likely to pick up Meehan as Kieran Conroy will hardly hold the number 3 position with the Galway goalador playing close to goal. But if/when Clancy goes out looking for work around the middle of the field, who better to shadow him, and perhaps add to the scoreboard for Mayo, than Higgins? Decisions, decisions.
Expect David Heaney to have another tussle with PJ, a confrontation the Swinford man has held his own in over the years. But the beauty of these local rivalries is the knowledge we each have of our opponents. If Mayo can boast of natural and proven markers for Galway’s best be assured the opposite is true.
We know Burke can give Mort’ plenty of it but the star Mayo attacker is in great form at the moment and will be a handful. Kieran Fitzgerald will have a go at Andy Moran and again, both will know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
But the great battles of modern championships are conducted in the middle third of the field and midfield should once again provide the tipping edge. Can you win a championship match these days if you lose this sector? Could you ever win a championship match if hammered here? Even in the old days?
Last Sunday Cork obliterated Kerry for the last 40 minutes and provided a platform for a deluge of possession and scores. And we feel the Mayo midfield is as good as any left in this championship.
Tall, athletic, rangy and with an eye for a score, we feel Ronan McGarrity and Tom Parsons will form an excellent pairing. With strong support from a rejuvenated Pat Harte, Mayo will hope to dominate this region. Galway can pick any two from Cullinane, Lydon and Coleman with possible support from the bench in the person of Bergin.
If Mayo are to win this final and make a real impression later on then we must start to show a cutting edge up front. In other words, Mayo will need at least three forwards capable of putting two or three points at least on a scoreboard. Conor Mortimer is a proven commodity in this department but who will join him?
There are scores in Austin O’Malley but are there enough? Can he mine the few extra that will make him a real danger man? What about a returning Alan Dillon? And Andy Moran?
We must start to see consistent point-taking from them. If Trevor Mortimer and Pat Harte land the odd bomb Mayo might be a real force in this championship. Otherwise, we are continuing to fool ourselves.
As I view matters this morning, the All-Ireland championship is wide open and if a team can hit and hold form for five or six weeks anything and everything is possible. The teams are levelling out, there can be no doubt about that. This morning Armagh and Dublin will feel their time is now. Cork will also look forward to redemption in Croke Park.
And here in Connacht the days will tick slowly down but the pulse will quicken just after lunch on Sunday when the Green and Red line up in the famous old field. Galway, the old border foxes, will face them.
See, similar to Armagh, Dublin and Cork, both Mayo and Galway realise its game on both in the province and at HQ for ultimate honours. They can now see the weeks stretch out before them. And all the dreams and possibilities that come with them.