Moment of destiny for Mayo’s bid to continue pilgrimage

The fact it’s Kerry providing the opposition in Croke Park is a huge motivating factor for Mayo to show their maturity andreadiness for battle
Moment of destiny for Mayo’s bid to continue pilgrimage

ALL-IRELAND SFC SEMI-FINAL:

Mayo v Kerry

SURELY Mayo’s greatest fear ahead of tomorrow’s semi-final is that having run a great big circle these past four seasons, they could end up back at the starting line, slightly older and wiser, but still basically their same old selves.

When the sides last met in the semi-final, much of the pre-match guff centred, as it does today, on the quality differential between both sets of forwards. As in 2011, Kerry apparently have a few inside the marquee whereas Mayo might be lucky to squeeze one into the tent.

Then as now, Mayo have the better defensive set up but four years into project Horan, individuals within that system are more acutely aware of their roles. Where in 2011, Kevin McLoughlin seemed uncertain of his new role as an extra defender, he, like so many of his colleagues, has grown older and wiser. He is now a more orthodox wing forward and is, surprisingly, one of Mayo’s top scorers from play in this year’s championship.

But what else has changed about Mayo, really? What can they do to surprise us at this stage? Is it too simplistic and lazy to say that with a bit of luck and one or two extra forwards their pilgrimage on the Via Dolorosa would have reached its end some time ago?

Cervantes believed the road to be better than the inn — el strada es meior al il camino — but he never reckoned with Mayo and their never-ending quest for glory. How long before it all stops making sense, and how long before they fold the tent and walk away? Are they any better now than they were when they had Dublin players reeling and hopping on their backs to see out the game 11 months ago? It is now five minutes to midnight for this current Mayo team in their second All-Ireland-or-bust season in a row. This time, as luck would have it, they are presented with an opportunity to settle up with their tormenters in chief from all the bad days of the recent past.

For Mayo, it is a chance for self-actualisation before another hopeful tilt at September. The fact that it’s Kerry in Croke Park is a huge motivating factor if they are to address lingering questions about having the stomach and maturity for battle, as was suggested by Larry Tompkins earlier this week.

And what of Kerry? Apparently in decline, they stumbled from punch to punch in springtime only to pull their now familiar rope-a-dope stunt for the championship. One of these days we might discover that the alchemy we have all been admiring was just an illusion, but up to now they appear to be making a decent fist of this transition business.

It doesn’t take a whole pile of insight to see where the battle ground is going to be tomorrow.

Rob Hennelly tends to trust that his midfield scrappers and skyscrapers between numbers five and 12 will overwhelm the opposition and, the Roscommon game aside, they’ve given him no reason to doubt them. If Hennelly starts to go short tomorrow, we’ll know that Kerry have disrupted the Mayo game.

The fact that both Johnny Buckley and Aidan O’Shea both play as false-40 men, drifting into midfield at every opportunity, should make the scrap beneath the foliage all the more interesting.

Peter Crowley has given two of the best legitimate hits seen in top class football this year (Michael Darragh McAuley and Colm Cavanagh the victims) and his standing up of Tomás Flynn in the second half of the Galway game suggests that he is ready to take on the challenge of going toe to toe with O’Shea.

He appears to have recovered a bit of form, did a great job on Paul Flynn, Dublin’s key player, this time last year and provided he resists the temptation to reproduce those hits in areas of danger, Crowley could be a key component of the plan to limit Mayo’s attacking options. We saw in the build up to Richie Hogan’s goal in the hurling semi-final between Kilkenny and Limerick how damaging these impetuous lunges can be and if Crowley aims to take on O’Shea, there are smarter ways of going about the business than bulldozing into one of the strongest footballers in the game.

In the press room after the quarter-finals, Eamonn Fitzmaurice made the prescient remark that teams are peaking physically for that end of August/September phase and that, traditionally, semi-finals can be a lot more physical than finals.

There is a lot in that because we can probably take it as a given that neither David Coldrick or next weekend’s referee, Joe McQuillan, are going to be on the whistle for the final. Thus they may choose to referee these games as they see them as opposed to how their assessors see them. Provided both teams approach the physical stuff in the right spirit, tomorrow could make for a great spectacle early on.

Kerry folk will hope that their midfield pairing of Anthony Maher and David Moran will engage fully in the marking of territories. Those of us who spend far more time than we should online will know that the Maher/Moran axis is perhaps the most intelligent ever pairing Kerry have had out the middle. If you don’t believe me check out James O’Donoghue telling us on the ‘Spill the Beans’ segment on the official GAA site that Maher (a value stream specialist with Pfizer Ireland Pharmaceuticals according to his Linkedin profile) “knows his stuff about most things”. David Moran, last time I checked, is a transaction advisory services analyst with Ernst & Young. It is obvious that they are two bright lads giving as much, if not more, commitment to the game in Kerry as any of their predecessors, but have they both as much, ahem, hitting in them as some of their predecessors? That question has been asked of both more than once. Tomorrow could be a day to find out.

One of the major concerns Kerry carry into the game is the frightening ability that Mayo forwards have shown all year in stripping defenders of possession as they come out with the ball. Marc Ó Sé and Aidan O’Mahony are far too experienced to be getting caught walking into the blender, but Shane Enright will be well advised to avoid the type of jittery ball carrying into cul de sacs that did for Cork three weeks ago.

The Kerry forwards could take a lead from relish for tackling shown by Cillian O’Connor, Alan Freeman, Andy Moran and McLoughlin. Further examination of Tomás Flynn’s quarter-final goal for Galway illustrates that the issue wasn’t so much the red sea parting at the back but the reluctance of the players at the other side of midfield to nip the problem in the bud.

The calamity began when Paul Geaney was turned over in possession and the ball spilled to Gareth Bradshaw who transferred to Flynn. By the time Kerry sensed danger two players who have more mileage than the Galway team combined (O’Mahony and O’Sullivan) and Flynn’s marker David Moran were chasing shadows.

This is perhaps, one of the many reasons Stephen O’Brien is restored to the forward line.

It has been clear for some time that he offers the type of selfless tracking runs you get as a default setting from forwards like Donnchadh Walsh. Against a team like Mayo, such work-rate is gold dust.

O’Brien, in his first championship game in Croke Park will do well too, to recall the bother his sharp turn and direct bee-line for goal created in Castlebar earlier this year, but I imagine he will drift outfield a bit and leave as much space as he can for O’Donoghue and Geaney inside.

Much has been made of O’Donoghue’s form all summer and he is, without doubt, one of the reasons Kerry have made their way to tomorrow’s showdown. But he is fortunate to have a form player like Geaney alongside him. In that brief few minutes when Galway pared Kerry’s lead back to two points a few weeks ago, it was Geaney’s two superb points, within a minute of each other, that pushed it out to four and steadied the ship again. For the first time in his adult life as a Kerry footballer, Geaney is injury-free and getting better and better as the year goes on. He could have a major say in the outcome yet.

All week in Kerry, I’ve listened to football people wrestle with their sense of logic as they try to persuade themselves and others that the Kingdom can and will win this one.

Charlie Chaplin, whose life in comedy and film is being celebrated this weekend at the annual film festival in Waterville, used to say that “we think too much and feel too little”.

Well, I feel that Kerry will beat Mayo but I think that Mayo will beat Kerry. So, where does that leave me? Based solely on the fact that they are two years further down the road in terms of development and big-match experience, I take Mayo to continue on theirpilgrimage.

Mayo v Kerry: A quick history

MAYO

Last championship win over Kerry

IT was in 1996 (2-13 to 1-10) and especially sweet for manager John Maughan, at the helm in Clare when the Kingdom were shocked in the Munster final four years earlier. James Horan and former selector James Nallen got the goals and Maurice Sheridan was top scorer with six points from frees.

Largest victory over Kerry

Victory by 0-13 to 0-3 in 1948 was noteworthy because Kerry’s total was just one point more than their lowest ever (against Antrim in 1912). Sean Flanagan, winning captain in 1951 and 1952, rated the Connacht final replay win over Galway that year as the best game he ever played “for sheer drama and excitement”.

All-Ireland semi-final record v Kerry

In a word – poor! Just four wins, spanning six decades. The first was by two points in 1936, 1-5 to 0-6 in Hyde Park, marking the last of eight semi-finals at provincial venues. The other wins were in 1948, 1951 and next in 1996.

KERRY

Last championship win v Mayo

Colm Cooper was one of the stars in the 1-20 to 1-11 triumph in the 2011 semi-final, his contribution of 1-7 bringing his total in four games against the westerners to 4-15. Midfield superiority, with Anthony Maher excelling and superb play from Tomás Ó Sé in a dominant half-back line were also significant.

Largest victory over Mayo

On the way to achieving four-in-a-row in the All-Ireland series, a 2-19 to 1-6 in 1981 testified to their dominance on the day. Mayo pushed them hard up to the interval, but had nothing left to offer in the second half and failed to score. Eoin Liston and Ger Power got the goals.

All-Ireland semi-final record v Mayo

A dominant 12 wins out of 16, starting in 1903 in Limerick, with wins also recorded in Ennis, Tuam and Roscommon before all of their games were played in Croke Park from 1939 onwards. Only one of their last five championship clashes was at the semi-final stage and that was two years ago.

THE OVERALL RECORD

The counties have clashed 23 times in 108 years. Kerry were victorious on 17 occasions — the finals of 1932, 1997, 2004 and 2006, 12 semi-finals (including a replay in 1939) and the 2005 quarter-final. Mayo won four semi-finals, including the only other replay in 1951 — en route to their third and final All-Ireland.

- by Jim O’Sullivan

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