Mayo must rise to the occasion
NEXT weekend promises to be a very interesting one for all of us westerners. Roscommon minors get the day off with a semi-final against the championship favourites, Meath. After lunch, Leitrim tog off for their Tommy Murphy Cup appearance and face Louth. And by the time Mayo get out of the dressing room, the stadium will be swaying to the beat of the Dubs.
Many punters put the Kerry minor-Mayo senior-Kerry senior treble together last week without a lot of research but I fear this week’s treble will prove a little more elusive. Without stretching the imagination, one could do the ‘negative’ Connacht treble and go for all three teams to suffer defeat. Put simply, those of us from the west, face a tough day in the office.
At least Mayo followers can attend and support our neighbours without investing too much of our morale. It looks like we will need all the belief we can muster for this latest episode. It is all of 21 years since our last meeting with the Dubs and that particular draw and replay marked the re-emergence of Mayo as a serious footballing county again. We had of course surfaced in 1981 as provincial champions after a break of 11 years but the semi-final trouncing at the hands of the great Kerry team sent us tumbling back to square one.
To play Dublin in the new and revamped Croke Park with 82,000 patrons in attendance will be an experience for all of us. That experience can of course work out two ways: a winning and fantastic one or a defeated and harrowing clash. At this juncture the advice must be to fasten your seat belt.
If it is any solace to management, players and supporters, this was the scenario we faced 21 years ago also. And somehow we managed to survive ands eke out a draw. We might even had won it if a certain corner forward did not leave the ball behind him as the final seconds played out and a match-winning point opportunity presented itself!
The form team of the 2006 championship is undoubtedly Dublin and even Kerry, comfortably ensconced in another All Ireland final, cannot argue with this. They faced up to and beat all comers, some after a wobble or two, others with a little swagger. I do not give the Dublin team my full backing as areas of the team are yet to be tested. We do not know how they will react should they find themselves in arrears against quality opposition.
Only Alan Brogan, Conal Keaney and Tomas Quinn are regular scorers and question marks about their full-back line persist. Should Ronan McGarrity and Pat Harte fear the Dubs pairing of Ciaran Whelan and Shane Ryan? Hardly. The trick with Dublin is the sum of the parts. It is the collective effort that counts. It is unlikely Dublin have the best manager, the best players, the best medical guys but as a group, one suspects they have the best overall gathering of people.
Their teamwork is seriously impressive, their fitness and legitimate aggression far beyond anything I encountered this season and it is in these twin areas Mayo may suffer most. The Connacht champions have a certain athleticism and to date they have moved the ball at pace to avoid contact and keep their strength for when it is needed. No pointless hits are encouraged and that is the best piece of advice this team will get this week. The Dubs are voracious hitters and blockers and will gobble up any player who brings the ball into contact. John Morrison better get a few of his drills sorted to discipline our boys in this area.
In early March the column did the annual championship preview and felt an All Ireland semi-final against the Dubs was a distinct possibility. Anybody with a passing interest in the draw might well have arrived at the same conclusion. So, it does not surprise me that we are where we are; the problem from long way down the field was what we would do when we got this far. That day has come.
A few weeks ago we spoke about travelling in hope to Dublin but noting we needed a big improvement if we would not travel in fear of the Dubs. That improvement is not discernable to me but I draw a simple comfort. In 1985 it was a mirror image and this team creates a lot more chances per game than we did. Some day a Mayo team will peer towards the Canal and Hill goals and see posts as wide apart as the end lines themselves. And proceed to shoot the lights out. We will need to.
We don’t do routs,but if we did ...
MAYO are getting there, step by step, week by week. It seems we never take the straight route and have no wish to have matters tucked away neatly with ten minutes to go. No, it’s roller coaster all the way. The replay was a carbon copy of the drawn encounter in all but the score line. Different players stepped in this week; Geraghty, Clarke and McGarrity put on their game faces and gave us a performance. In the end it was the critical difference because men like Heaney, Higgins (Keith and Aidan), Dillon and Mortimer repeated the efforts of last week. On a day when our brightest star, Ciaran McDonald, failed to shine as brightly as usual, it was reassuring to note Mayo can still win a big match in Croke Park.I changed horses mid race for a simple reason. Having studied the scoring returns of the drawn match , it appeared a big ask for Laois that Chris Conway and Noel Garvan (0-6 and 0-3 respectively, the first day) would reproduce these exploits. In the end Conway rowed in with two points from frees.
Other than the injured Michael Conroy, all of Mayo’s starting attackers scored with Conor Mort’ adding two from play to his usual few frees. Mayo led by three at half-time and finished the game out, under duress it must be said, to win by the same margin. But not before Garvan’s fist connected with a high lob to give Mayo hearts a free medical.
Laois put in a shockingly poor performance and but for the kicking of easy chances into the hands of the grateful Fergal Byron, this game could have been a rout. But Mayo does not do routs. And so we chewed on nails to the long whistle.
The standard was average only and not good enough to beat Dublin but we can expect a big improvement. The extra games and training will improve fitness and morale and each season we generally expect one big performance from Mayo. That has yet to come and so we travel, once more, in hope.
In fairness, our record in recent years is one of consistency and must rank up there with the top-drawer counties. Since the introduction of quarter-finals in 2001 we have reached the last eight on four out of the six years. 2004 and again this year, we went a step further to the semi-finals and while one must accept this year has already improved on last year’s showing, we all know the bar was set to only one height since last we met the Dubs in 1985. It’s Sam or bust; totally unfair to present and past managers but the reality nonetheless.
HIDE AND SEEK Mayo’s David Clarke uses a disguise to try and sneak past Laois’ Ross Munnelly during last Sunday’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-final replay. Pic: Sportsfile