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Noel Connelly says: Put Cork under pressure

ECHOES OF ’96 Next Sunday’s game between Mayo and Cork reminds me of our All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry in 1996. Here, James Horan takes on Liam O’Flaherty.?Pic: Sportsfile

Put ’em under pressure

Noel Connelly

I DON’T know if James Horan went to Mass on Sunday morning, but his prayers certainly weren’t answered in Sunday night’s draw. Mayo couldn’t have got a stronger team to play than Cork, who put in the outstanding performance of the weekend, and look a good bet to retain the All-Ireland title.
Cork have a lot of strengths going for them all over the field. They’ve a good full-back line, an attacking half-back line, and a huge, athletic midfield. They have class and pace all over the field. Given the young team that we have, and having been well beaten by Cork in the league final last year, the game may have come a bit too early. Mayo could have done with getting another team first. I think James Horan would rather have got Limerick.

Remember Kerry in ’96?
MY neighbour John Stagg has given odds of 5/1 on Mayo beating Cork. You probably have to go back to 1996, when we played Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final, to find the last time we were such rank outsiders in Croke Park. So maybe that’s a good sign!
We had been hammered in Tuam in ’95. We won a Connacht title in ’96 against the odds and some people thought we were going up to Croke Park to keep the ball kicked out to Kerry.
James Horan had a fine game that day. When you’re underdogs – and even when you’re not – it’s all about attitude – the way you impose yourself on the day and on your opponent. If you psyche yourself up for each ball and give 100 per cent commitment for the whole 70 minutes, anything can happen – as it did that day. Everything went our way.
We had a big, strong, physical team then, which is something we’re lacking at the moment. Maybe we’re just not physically strong enough for this Cork team.
Looking at Cork on Saturday, their conditioning looks a step above Mayo’s – and better than any team we’ve met in the championship so far. Their big men don’t just work in their own area; they travel to every corner of the field. You could see Alan O’Connor turning up on the 21-yard line, or slipping easy ball to his full-forward line. He and Aidan Walsh offer serious engines and athleticism in the middle of the field.
Do the two O’Sheas have the ability to stick with them over 70 minutes of a championship game? At this stage, you’d have to say that all the balls are in the Cork court.
You can see the swagger that’s in their play as of last Saturday, and that’s one of the things winning an All-Ireland last year has done for them.
Every game last year was a struggle for them – against Down in the final and Dublin in the semi-final. But now, the belief is there. They’ve won the title. Their big stumbling block is if they’re to meet Kerry in the semi-final, that’s where they might have doubts.
Cork don’t have any obvious weaknesses, but James Horan was in Croke Park on Saturday, and he’ll have seen that Down were extremely poor. Their defence was at sea.
Every time a Cork forward got the ball in hand, he had four or five yards of space to move into. You can’t allow the quality of players that Cork have to have that much room – on a big open pitch like Croke Park, they’ll crucify you. Down gave Cork too much respect, and they’re better than any team in the country at playing ball if you let them play.

Tight squeeze will be needed

SO what do Mayo need to do? Well, for starters we need to close Cork down in every corner of the field. We’ve got to win our fair share of ball at midfield, and put their defence on the back foot. We can’t allow John Miskella, Noel O’Leary and Paudie Kissane to start coming forward. Make them work early on in the game. We need to see plenty of running off the ball. Keep them tied down in their own half of the field and put them under pressure.
Michael Shields is a quality full-back. Eoin Cadogan is a very experienced, pacy corner back. I’d be hoping for a dry day for the likes of Alan Freeman and Jason Doherty to get a good chance against these guys.
Ideally they’ll get on the ball early, take on their men and get a few early scores. But on paper, you just have to say that maybe  Mayo should be 6/1 or 8/1!
Even given the bad weather on the day of the Connacht final, the quality of ball that went into our full-forward line against Roscommon – especially in the first half – was very, very poor. For the likes of Jason Doherty to have any chance, they need to get some kind of middling quality ball to run onto.
Based on the Roscommon game, at least now if we win a couple of frees in scoreable positions, we actually have a freetaker who can put them over.
We need Cillian O’Connor to be on song with the frees too. Donncha O’Connor scored 1-7 on Saturday between play and frees. So we need to have everything right.
Aidan and Seamus O’Shea need to have the games of their lives the next day if Mayo are to have any real opportunity of taking the game to Cork. We really need to win our fair share of possession in midfield and win breaking ball. Without that, we’ll struggle.
Don’t put the house on mayo
IF it’s a dry day, I think it’ll be a good open game of football. But when Cork get ahead, they don’t give the ball away. Even if they’re in trouble coming out the field, they’ll go back – maybe even to their full-back line. They work the ball around.
So it’s vital if we’re to stay in the game that we don’t let them get ahead by too much, because then we’ll be chasing shadows, because they’re excellent at keeping possession of the ball.
But it’s up to Mayo to take the game to Cork. It needs to be a high-tempo game from the word ‘go’. Alan Dillon and Andy Moran need to impose themselves on Noel O’Leary and John Miskella. It’s important that we don’t hand the initiative to them.
We’re down to the last eight now and you’re not going to get away with pure defending at this stage. You need to win your own ball and express yourself in your forward play. But our defence needs to be on top of the Cork forwards at every juncture – close them down at source. It’s going to take a lot of intensity and work to nullify them.
I think we’ll struggle, but I hope I’m wrong.
You don’t shirk from your own colours, so as a Mayo man, I’d probably back my own team, but at the same time, I wouldn’t be putting all that much money on! There’s a lot of bad memories there from last year’s league final.
Mayo should go up there and just put those to one side; play your football and express yourself – the same as Waterford hurlers did on Sunday.
Maybe Cork won’t wear the favourites tag too well in Croke Park, and if you get inside them and they’re not playing that well, hopefully Mayo have the tenacity and the will to close the game out if the chance does come their way.

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