Time to show passion and pride
FOR Mickey Moran and John Morrison this is a first. What they have already experienced in their short reign in Mayo is quite unlike anything Sunday’s Connacht Final has in store. They are new to its passions, to the fury of its competitiveness, and the wild, flaming excitement of the respective supporters. It is like no other contest in Connacht.
Shorn somewhat of its glamour by the introduction of the qualifier system, a Connacht title is still a coveted honour, a symbol of high achievement in the province. But to lose is not to bring the dream to an end. Galway failed to reach the Connacht final in 2001 . . . yet won the All-Ireland. Mayo won the title two years ago, and lost the All-Ireland final.
The imprint of victory in Connacht fades more quickly now than, say in 1981, when Mayo regained the Nestor Cup after a lapse of twelve years. You knew then you were the best in Connacht. There was nothing to prove otherwise, no circuitous route to the All-Ireland for the losers. Now you cannot be sure. Galway’s achievement is convincing evidence that Roscommon were not the best team in Connacht in 2001.
There is, of course, more to Sunday’s final than the honour of a Connacht title. Pride is a greater incentive than the title itself. The searing thought of losing a battle in this century-old rivalry is the real spur to each to succeed. Defeat is the nightmare experience, an imploding emotion. It gnaws at the psyche for the rest of the year.
No other county stirs in Mayo and Galway hearts such a passion for victory; none is more fulfilling for their supporters than the triumph of either over the other. To lose to any of the other four counties carries less psychological bruising.
Outside Connacht, Galway have a clear lead over their rivals with nine All-Ireland titles. Inside, nothing much separates them. The two are neck and neck in the title race, have been so through the course of their seventy-one championship meetings of which Galway have won 36, one fewer than Mayo. In their 39 meetings in Connacht finals, the Tribesmen have won 20, shading it by one. It’s that close.
Adding a little cordite to their clashes in recent years has been the appointment of Mayo men as Galway managers.
Peter Ford’s ambition is to emulate the success of John O’Mahony. He has already led Galway to an under 21 title, and is among the favourites to coach the county to a senior All-Ireland this season. To Mayo supporters, the thought of their own countyman leading the enemy to victory is like walking barefoot in a field of nettles.
Ford has already left his mark. Victory by two points in last year’s Connacht final was followed this year by a further brace of wins . . . in the FBD League final and the semi-final of the Allianz National League. Those last two were comprehensive victories, and gave Mickey Moran a taste of what to expect in the final on Sunday.
His assistant John Morrison did not endear himself to either Galway or Mayo supporters when he complained publicly about the rough tactics adopted by Galway in their league victory.
He naively left himself open to a riposte from Ford about whinging. His observations sent ripples of laughter through Galway football circles and scripted the ideal dressing room speech for Ford before Sunday’s match. They don’t like being hit lads, you can hear him say. They are the Brazilians of Gaelic football.
To be sure, Ford did introduce an iron element to their play that had not been part of Galway performances. But that change of tactics had been signalled in the FBD Final in February. Mayo management did not appear to plan for that and seemed startled when Galway muscled their charges out of the league two months later. In each of those victories Galway had five points to spare.
It all makes for an intriguing encounter on Sunday . . . even if Galway are the favourites to succeed. In the light of their strong, determined performances this year, nothing Mayo has done in the meantime is likely to alter general expectations.
Tactical battle will be crucial
EVER since the draw was made Sunday’s was the predicted pairing. You expected knots of stubborn resistance from the likes of Sligo, Roscommon and Leitrim, but nothing sufficiently accomplished to check the march to the final of the present protagonists.
Galway’s was the more difficult route. Sligo presented a serious challenge and matched them in all of the positions except one. Almost single-handedly Michael Meehan ended their dream. His virtuoso performance was their undoing. Young Roscommon were outsiders, too, in the semi-final, and at half-time seemed on their way to the shock of the season. Eight seconds into the second half their dream had also collapsed.
Mayo’s looked a more gentle journey. But London were not so easily shaken off, and Leitrim came close to forcing 14-man Mayo to an embarrassing draw. . . or even worse. What niggled supporters was their lack of coolness when Leitrim began to pare back the lead. A team of their experience to lose the plot against Leitrim leaves questions hanging over their chances against stiffer opposition.
That situation might not have developed if Pat Harte had not been dismissed, or Alan Dillon or David Heaney were not forced off through injury. Harte had excelled at midfield, and is almost certain to resume in that position on Sunday, partnered perhaps by Ronan McGarrity. The outcome of the four-man contest in this area is vital. In their previous clashes Galway had Paul Clancy occupy one of those positions alongside Niall Coleman and together they had the better of the exchanges.
Clancy has been out through injury since and, if absent on Sunday, Coleman will be partnered by Paul Geraghty. That pairing did not run smoothly against Roscommon. In fact it was the switch of Michael Donnellan to midfield for the second half that changed the whole pattern of the game. Donnellan is back to his All-Ireland form and wherever he plays is a key man.
Mayo are pretty familiar with the Galway forward line in whatever form it is lined out. Anyone of them has the inventiveness to drill holes in a defence, but the greatest danger emanates from Michael Meehan. At right corner forward he will be shadowed by Keith Higgins, and this has the makings of a great duel.
Padraig Joyce may have lost a little of his old edge, but is still a formidable football brain. He did not start at full-forward against Roscommon but may do on Sunday in the hope of outmanoeuvring Liam O’Malley.
Having persisted with him up to now the Mayo selectors clearly have no intention of replacing the Burrishoole man at full-back. O’Malley is capable of meeting the challenge of any of Galway’s regular forwards. But if Ford decides to stick in at full-forward a player as tall and strong as Paul Geraghty or Barry Cullinane, the Mayo man will find himself in trouble.
Other fascinating duels ought to be between Peadar Gardiner and Matthew Clancy, James Nallen and Joe Bergin or Donnellan, Derek Savage and David Heaney, and Dermot Geraghty and Sean Armstrong.
At the other end of the field the Mayo forwards will have reason to remember the hard-hitting Diarmuid Blake at centre-half back, the source of most of the complaints by Mayo’s management after the league semi-final. The deep running Peadar Gardiner will be hoping to avoid contact with the Milltown man and Ger Brady will want to make a greater impression in his tussles with him.
The tactical effect of placing the three Mayo full-forwards in front of goal is beginning to wear thin. Opposing coaches have begun to counter whatever advantage it had. The plan tends to cramp the efforts of Ciaran McDonald and Conor Mortimer, in particular, and has not produced any worthwhile gain.
The possibility of the return of a fit Trevor Mortimer would be a boost to Mayo, although at whose expense it is difficult to say. Alan Dillon, Billy Joe Padden, and Andy Moran are all worthy of places.
What the team as a whole have learned from their previous games is what will determine the outcome of Sunday’s final. Too many of them have been brushed aside too easily. They have been too slow in pouncing on the breaks, too easily dispossessed, too often turned over. They have not convinced anybody that they are ready for the likes of Armagh or Kerry.
The very nature of the pairing suggests a close battle with little separating them at the end. In those last three vital meetings Galway have outsmarted Mayo, have hunted in packs, have harried and hustled them into subjection.
If Mayo have learned nothing from those tactics, they will find themselves on the end of a fourth successive defeat. That’s a bit much for a team that has been so closely in touch with Galway down the decades. Who knows, maybe they’ll rise to the occasion on Sunday.