The group-deciding Super 8 encounter this evening in Castlebar has the potential to be explosive, a real old-style knockout championship game. There is no love lost between Mayo and Donegal dating back to the now infamous challenge game in 2012 and there are a lot of ifs, buts, and maybes making it a hard game to call.
There are so many talking points and angles of interest. Are Mayo refreshed after their break from the road last weekend and can they rediscover their zest and sparkle that has been absent so far in the Super 8s? Can Donegal afford to absorb any more injuries? If Patrick McBrearty is out will they score enough? Is Mayo’s indifferent MacHale Park form going to be addressed as James Horan is anxious to once more make Castlebar into a fortress? Is it the end of one great team and the start of another - or have Mayo another real kick in them. Are they Croke Park-bound once more? Plenty of questions but I will narrow the focus on a few key areas here.
Donegal have developed incrementally this summer and are a coming team. However, they still over-rely on critical individuals - more so than any of the other top teams - namely Michael Murphy and Ryan McHugh. The pair also enjoy a serious football understanding and often look for each other in the key moments. Donegal have plenty of other quality players but if Mayo can snuff out this significant duo they will win, and James Horan will target them. Murphy’s complete performance against Kerry has been correctly lauded since. Like everyone else, and not for the first time, I was seriously impressed with him. The standard indicators of a top-class performance were all in evidence, winning kick-outs, playmaking, scoring 1-7 including the crucial penalty and the late frees and leading from the front with his work rate when Donegal didn’t have the ball.
In addition, I was impressed but not surprised with the bravery he showed when diving on the loose ball at the end of the game that led to the free that he kicked to level matters. His focus and attitude are phenomenal. Every opposition team identifies him as the main man, singles him out for man-marking and he deals with it admirably. His strong temperament means he never lashes back or gets involved in off-the-ball stuff. He will, however, leave a dent and hurt you when the ball is there. Paidí Ó Sé always told us as backs that you will get away with almost anything once the ball is in the general vicinity. (I loved the non-specific nature of the term ‘general vicinity’ and the flexibility it allowed). Murphy clearly subscribes to the same point of view.
Lee Keegan will most likely be designated to mark him and if he controls him, that is huge for Mayo. That battle will make for some viewing and is worthy of a specific duel-cam. I do feel that Keegan’s ankle injury has been hampering him and with Murphy in the form of his life, he will need everything in his armoury to get the better of the Donegal captain.
Remarkably (for me at least), Ryan McHugh played 18 holes in a golf classic in Ulster the Friday before the Kerry game. I heard it the morning of the game and I had a wry smile to myself. I thought there was no way he was going to influence a Croke Park match the way he can, with heavy legs from hiking a golf bag around a course. Just goes to show what I know! His energy and impact on the game was incredible. Nominally playing as a back, he is central to Donegal’s counter-attacks. In his defensive duties last time out, he did very well to stand up a composed Paul Geaney and dive at him to force Paul’s first-half shot over the bar. Paul Murphy played this role for us on occasions over the last few seasons. In soccer, this type of player would be regarded as a Fundell Libero, helping and sweeping on defence and then haring forward with and without the ball to add to their attack. A few years ago McHugh could be bullied out of a game but he has grown out of that phase and won’t be intimidated anymore. He ducks into tackles and can get opponents in foul trouble also. If available, Paddy Durcan would be a great match-up for him. Durcan has the legs and pace to track him all over the field and he also could hurt him on the scoreboard.
These duels will be intriguing and pivotal.
I was surprised when Stephen Rochford finished as Mayo manager last summer. I am not privy to the politicking and backroom manoeuvring that went on but I found the silence from the playing group telling and unexpected. He moved on quickly and has rehabilitated in remarkable fashion with the Ulster champions, credited with being central to their upward curve. With that said, I would hate to be in his shoes this evening. I couldn’t imagine facing Kerry in a big knockout championship game and plotting the demise of a group that you had been in charge of a year earlier and had been through so much with. Maybe that deafening silence has motivated him and he is coming with an axe to grind.
While publicly he would never admit this, I’m sure deep down he will be seriously motivated to do a number on his previous charges. Either way his intimate knowledge of the Mayo players, their mindsets and skillsets will be invaluable to Donegal.
On the the flip side, Mayo will be hugely motivated to make sure their former supremo doesn’t get one over on them. Horan, both from a pride and a practical point of view, certainly won’t want the man he replaced trumping him tactically. Regardless of the result, it is a win-win for Rochford. If Donegal win he will get plenty of credit and if Mayo win Declan Bonner as bainisteoir will ship all the blame and Rochford will get to support his native county for the rest of the campaign.
Every weekend we analyse — ad nauseam — each team’s goalkeepers and their kickouts. It is so central to the game now that to overlook it would be negligent. As stated on these pages before, I have been very taken with Shaun Patton. He had another excellent day against Kerry but I think Mayo will test his pulse more. Minus David Moran, Kerry elected to give him a lot of his kick-outs short but Mayo, at home, in a must-win game, will definitely need to apply more pressure. MacHale Park will have a partisan atmosphere, it plays a lot tighter than Croke Park and Mayo have plenty of big bodies around the middle if he is forced long. How Patton and Donegal react to this pressure will be interesting and significant.
The other end of the field will be even more compelling. Donegal did well on Shane Ryan’s kickout in the final quarter last time out. McHugh and Murphy combined to expertly snaffle a Ryan restart that led to Murphy’s final point from play. They will have seen what Kerry did to David Clarke in Killarney and will try to replicate it. That day Donie Buckley’s inside information played its part and this time around it could be Stephen Rochford’s knowledge of Clarke that could prove Mayo’s undoing. Could Horan attempt something from the Rochford playbook and play Rob Hennelly who could bomb it out over a Donegal press? Clarke’s long kickouts hang in the air and invite the opposition to attack them.
Through a combination of Mayo going short and opposing teams breaking Clarke’s restarts back in, Aidan O’Shea has, remarkably, only fielded two long kickouts in the entire Super 8s. Hennelly’s kicks have a flatter trajectory and are easier to run onto and catch. Because of his longer range, it is possible for Mayo to create more space further out the field and the claustrophobic feel of their restarts — as evidenced in the first half in Killarney — evaporates. Mayo’s best day out so far this season was the League final when Hennelly was in goals. He kicked well, with many of his long restarts successfully directed at his clubmate O’Shea. A revival of Hennelly and O’Shea’s chemistry could tilt the balance in Mayo’s favour. If Horan did go down this route successfully I’m sure the cruel irony wouldn’t be lost on Rochford after the 2016 final debacle.
Both sides have had injury issues during the frantic Super 8 schedule. (As an aside, the matches are now 80 minutes plus with injury time, which is in my opinion too long for amateur players. Is it time to go back to 30 minute halves, and with the injury time added on it will be closer to 70 minutes anyway?)
Mayo have had plenty of bad luck on the injury front. By many accounts, Diarmuid O’Connor, Patrick Durcan, and Keith Higgins are all in the frame and possibly Matthew Ruane also. Donegal will also hope to have nursed back to health some of their injured players, in particular their midfield pair of Jason McGee and Hugh McFadden. It is also vital for them to have McBrearty available. While returning players naturally strengthen the squads I would have a question mark over their match fitness, depending on the length of their absence.
There is a natural tendency for a manager and his selectors to go with their best players, particularly as the air gets thinner towards the end of championship. However, with experience, I learned that if a player misses time through injury they are going to be off the pitch of it. Nine times out of 10, when a player has missed sessions and/or matches, they underperform, regardless of their calibre.
By the end we felt it was almost like a scientific formula such was the certainty with which it would unfold. Even in the Champions League final this year, Harry Kane, a player operating at the top of his profession, looked off the pace. I will be interested to see what roles the returning players will have, how much game time they get and, most importantly, how they perform and impact on the result.