Galway caught Mayo off guard but Roscommon will present a very different challenge, writes Dara Ó Cinnéide.
In contrast to the scenes of jubilation that greeted the dethroning of Mayo in Castlebar last month, the build up to tomorrow’s Connacht final in Galway appears to be a little subdued.
While the streak of defiance shown by their team against Mayo was something that Galway football folk have waited a long time to see, the sweet sense of relief after that victory appears to have given way to a more circumspect mood.
By scuppering their neighbours’ bid for a sixth Connacht title in a row, Galway became one of the stories of the summer, but an ambush in the rain against a surprisingly inept and insipid Mayo hasn’t really rekindled belief in the county. Several people I spoke to in Galway during the week were predicting defeat on Sunday, based on the belief Roscommon are a little higher up the food chain and that Mayo were either seriously out of sorts in the semi-final or else in terminal decline.
It’s a legitimate viewpoint and one, no doubt, underpinned by an appreciation of the realities of modern football and an awareness that although every underdog will have its day, the gulf between the top tier and the rest remains vast.
So despite all there was to admire in Galway’s victory over Mayo, the disrespect Kevin Walsh bemoaned prior to that game hasn’t disappeared entirely.
Whatever happens tomorrow, Galway deserve plenty of respect for tearing up the script and sending a top-four team reeling through the back door, but maybe it will take a Connacht title to get Galway folk really believing again.
And maybe it will take a Connacht title for this team to find its own identity.
That search for an identity has been a problem for all Galway teams since the end of the Joyce, Donnellan, and de Paor era. Not only did Galway have to negotiate a fallow spell after a time of plenty, they also had to readjust to a new style of football that jarred with their idea of who they were. Sometimes they just haven’t had the necessary talent to challenge, but there have also been times when they gave the impression of finding the whole business of adapting to change a little distasteful.
Whereas the likes of Kerry, a county with an even healthier sense of entitlement than Galway, have always made the necessary compromises to remain competitive, the Tribesmen have often come across as being either unwilling or unable to reconcile themselves to new realities.
During last year’s quarter-final against Donegal in Croke Park, a large section of Galway supporters in the Hogan Stand began to jeer and boo as the opposition slowed the game down by passing the ball laterally and backwards.
The suggestion was that a tradition of attacking and positive football was being undermined by negative forces.
The problem for the Galway supporters venting at the destructive impulses of the modern game was that they were outplayed in the end by Donegal.
And that, in a way, has also been the biggest problem faced by a succession of Galway teams. In clinging to a sense of who they were, Galway lost sight of what they need to become. Winning teams always have a healthy mistrust of the vagaries of tradition.
Against Mayo, there were some signs of that conviction returning to Galway football, but have we seen enough yet to declare the identity crisis over?
The unexpected win against Mayo was born of a hunger and an anger within a Galway camp that felt they had been ignored and disrespected. That type of motivation can only be drawn upon once during a championship season.
The bankruptcy of the Mayo challenge must also be acknowledged. Much has been made of Mayo’s decision to play Kevin McLoughlin as a sweeper and Keith Higgins as a half forward in that game. I don’t think that made the difference between winning and losing for Mayo. More revealing was the body language of three of the top players in the country, Keith Higgins, Cillian O’Connor, and Aidan O’Shea.
Higgins looked disinterested when up front. O’Connor indulged himself in pointless attempts from play, and, in the case of two crucial sideline balls, he went for a score despite the fact that several teammates were available for a pass. O’Shea never adapted well to the constant harassment from Galway’s backs.
On the hour mark, another incident showed how ill-prepared Mayo were for the Galway challenge when Lee Keegan fouled Damien Comer and took a yellow card having found himself in the full-back position for the preceding two minutes. You’d have to ask yourself why the best attacking half back of his generation was floundering in that position at such a critical stage? Galway took full advantage and kicked for home.
Roscommon won’t be so naïve or undercooked.
They will have noticed that when Galway attack David Wynne, Liam Silke, and Gareth Bradshaw like to make decoy bursts from the middle of the pitch towards the wings. This has the aim of dragging key players out of the central area to expose weaknesses and create space right up the middle. While these decoy runs must be tracked, Roscommon will surely shore up the middle after conceding 2-2 to similar tactics in their bizarre semi-final win against Sligo. Having looked similarly vulnerable against Kerry in Croke Park in April, they simply must hold a better defensive shape tomorrow.
We saw last weekend in Ulster how seemingly solid defensive set ups such as Cavan’s can become badly exposed when nobody holds the middle and nobody takes a look over the shoulder to see what sort of space lies behind. Despite all the changes in the game, this is the one constant. Dublin and Cian O’ Sullivan know it, as does Colm Cavanagh of Tyrone and Aidan O’Mahony of Kerry. I imagine Cathal Cregg, listed at number 15, will be very conscious of his defensive duties tomorrow.
With quality forwards such as Shane Walsh and Damien Comer lurking, Roscommon can’t afford the type of shootout they’ve been having thus far in league and championship. The selection of Darren O’Malley in goals and the midfield pairing of Niall Daly and Cathal Compton is a nod to the general excellence of Paul Conroy and Tomás Flynn against Mayo last month.
O’Malley (apart from a late blunder against Monaghan in a league game in Kiltoom) has shown that there is more craft to his tactical kickouts compared to Geoffrey Claffey’s booming efforts.
Daly, a centre back by nature, has defensive attributes and a sense of responsibility that could prove valuable tomorrow.
Roscommon will also hope that Cathal Compton, one of the most talented U21 players the county has seen in a long time, is finally ready to put his injuries behind him and deliver at senior level. Because of the relative inexperience of both teams we simply don’t know how many of the players will react to their first Connacht final.
Because of Mayo’s grip on the Nestor Cup this past half-decade, it’s all too easy to forget that when Mayo and Roscommon met on a howling mad dog of a day in Hyde Park in 2010, Roscommon were the Connacht champions and seemingly on the cusp of a period of rare dominance. Roscommon have been exposed to a higher level of football this year and appear to have the stronger bench, with Donies Shine and Smith, Niall Carty, Senan Kilbride, and Ultan Harney waiting in the wings. For those reasons, I take the Rossies to upset the odds and leave Galway to continue their search for that elusive identity.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved