A possible question that might appear on next year’s honours English paper could be “Mayo v Kerry, All-Ireland SFC semi- final, 2017. Discuss”. Tricky and certainly not a question that would appear on the pass paper.
There are a few important questions to be asked and answered by the Mayo football squad on Sunday.
Can you stifle the nifty Kerry attack? Can you curb the influence of David Moran? Can you convert the gilt-edged goal chances that both Cork and Galway failed to score?
Will Cillian O’Connor hold his nerve and land his dozen probable frees?
The answers will be delivered over the course of 70 plus minutes. The only question Stephen Rochford will want answered correctly is this: “Did we win the match?”
I am not going to even attempt to psychoanalyse how the past has affected this Mayo squad. It should be irrelevant to the 26 players involved on Sunday. This game is unquestionably there for Mayo to win. How can they execute a victory?
A good starting point is always to pick the right team.
Easier said than done of course, but Stephen Rochford, Tony McEntee, Peter Burke, and Donie Buckley got it tactically right in Croke Park two weeks ago. I would go with a full-back line of Brendan Harrison, Donal Vaughan and Keith Higgins versus the probable Kerry inside trio of Paul Geaney, Kieran Donaghy and James O’Donoghue.
Vaughan is on form presently. He is physically equipped to tackle Donaghy both in the air and on the ground. He has the pace to get out in front of him and should be cute enough at this stage in his career not to fall for any potential Tralee theatricals.
Obviously, if you try to out-fetch Donaghy, the percentages aren’t stacked in your favour. You would imagine, that at this stage of the championship, a good defender will have worked that out by now. Vaughan has the chance to become this good defender. We all remember the Gooch chasing Philly McMahon around Croke Park. Vaughan must do likewise and make Donaghy chase him. If he can manage to break it away, Higgins, Harrison, and possibly Lee Keegan can sweep up the pieces.
The Mayo team is built on their defence and their ability to win their duels. Higgins and Harrison are equipped to win their duels. I’m not saying they will keep their opponents scoreless, but if they can keep Geaney and O’Donoghue to three points each, it’s a good day’s work.
I mentioned Keegan could help with the sweeping duties, but where do you start him? I would vote for midfield. From there he has the freedom to defend and attack, roles he can perform very comfortably. Put him man-marking and unquestionably he will deliver a good performance but Mayo may not win. Give him the full freedom to express himself and he can deliver a match-winning display.
He also has the pace to track David Moran or the quietly talented Jack Barry. He will also relieve Aidan O’Shea from coming too deep.
In my opinion, the more time Aidan O’Shea spends inside the Kerry 45-metre line, the better chance Mayo have of winning.
Seamus O’Shea would be a good option to partner Keegan in midfield as he will compete, unwaveringly, for as long as he physically can. That was the standout feeling I took away from Mayo’s victory over Roscommon. I was impressed by their complete focus on emptying their tanks, no-one was looking to pace themselves. It was all-out attack when they had the ball and all-out defence when they lost the ball.
No-one typified this trait more than Tom Parsons against Roscommon. Parsons requires no pit-stops or tyre changes. I would love to see Mayo play him centre-back against Kerry and man-mark Johnny Buckley. Buckley was class against Galway. However, on closer inspection, a lot of the kick-outs he won came after he drifted unopposed into space. Buckley can compete in the rucks also, along with winning the dirty ball on the ground. Parsons has the athleticism to compete with the Kerry captain. On the wings, we should see Colm Boyle and Patrick Durcan against ‘AN Other’ and Donnchadh Walsh. I say ‘Duine Eile’ because Éamonn Fitzmaurice has so many options for his other wing forward. Any one of Jack Barry, Stephen O’Brien, Jonathan Lyne, Michael Geaney, Kevin McCarthy, Barry John Keane, Darren O’Sullivan, Jack Savage could feature in the slot.
It’s some choice and some headache at the same time.
Colm Boyle mightn’t have a full game in him, but he’ll nip at the heels of whoever he’s on in the first half. Paddy Durcan is a fine footballer who will enjoy testing himself against Walsh on the other side. Paddy’s shot selection needs to improve though. He, or any of the Mayo defenders who like to shoot, can’t afford inaccuracy from 3.30pm to 5pm. Only clinical shooting will suffice this Sunday.
I think Mayo should and must continue their running game against Kerry. While there will be fears over their ability to turn out another stellar performance, it’s one of their main strengths. Kevin McLaughlin has the ability to score and engineer frees against either Paul Murphy or Tadhg Morley. Aidan O’Shea will probably be picked up by Peter Crowley.
Aidan is the provider in chief for Cillian O’Connor to test his dead ball accuracy.
I’ve no doubt the Kerry management will have strongly advised their defenders not to dive in on Aidan. They will be hoping to hold him up, akin to the ‘choke tackle’ in rugby. But don’t be surprised to see Aidan parked on the edge of the Kerry parallelogram for spells.
The reasons are two-fold: Firstly, and most importantly, because he can score and assist in goals and, secondly, to give himself the occasional breather.
While Mayo may struggle with Donaghy, Kerry would certainly suffer with O’Shea close to goal. Evan Regan, David Drake, Alan Dillon and Fergal Boland could start instead of Andy Moran, but I doubt it. Moran is better starting rather than impacting off the bench. He may even surprise us and last the game.
That leaves two spots up for grabs in the Mayo offensive line. Diarmuid O’Connor and Jason Doherty or the exciting Conor Loftus? O’Connor and Doherty will bring strength but Loftus would bring the unexpected.
Mayo have been crying out for a forward with a touch of class and Loftus has a touch of class. Mayo will probably opt to hold him and unleash him when they see some heavy breathing in the Kingdom rear-guard.
It’s a lot to ask of a young forward, but Loftus will be expected to kick four or five scores for Mayo to win this match.
But the biggest pressure rests on Cillian O’Connor to have a flawless day. While Kerry can rely on several place kickers, Mayo predominately rely on their captain.
This is nothing new to him or his team and this associated pressure can bring out the best in him.
Both sets of subs will naturally play a crucial roll. Kerry hold all the aces when it comes to attacking options and possess blistering speed and accuracy in the bullpen.
However, they have only introduced Killian Young at the back when required. Either Kerry don’t have too much defensive cover or Eamon Fitz is keeping them under wraps.
Mayo seem to have good cover for their defence with Stephen Coen, Shane Nally, and Chris Barrett expected to provide a positive impact both defensively and offensively.
They are quite limited with attacking impact subs though, Conor Loftus excluded.
For Stephen Rochford to stand in front of Marty Morrissey after the game and smile when he is asked the aforementioned question: “Did ye win the match?”, he will have hoped his Mayo lads have had a bit of luck and that all the questions they had prepared for so diligently, came up in their Croke Park exam.