Now that Tipperary have assured themselves that they are good enough to breathe the same air and contest the same ball as their opponents tomorrow, we need to see more signs that they are truly worthy of inhabiting the same world into the future.
In 2008, Wexford arrived in from the margins at this stage of the championship but found out that you need to bring more than one or two stones in your sling to bring down the big boys.
Wexford haven’t been back to a semi-final since.
Two years later, Down had the audacity, the boldness and the luck to get as far as the final but defeat also sent them into a tailspin and a struggle for consistency and stability since.
I’ve heard words like ‘fairytale’, ‘sensational’ and ‘romantic’ used to describe Tipperary’s subversion of the established order this summer. The obvious implication is that the dirty realism of the modern game is about to subsume them at some stage against Mayo tomorrow.
There is an expectation too that Tipperary’s expansive style will allow Mayo to play what it perceived to be their natural game.
An innocent, likeable high-scoring, entertaining shootout awaits us then?
As with most games of this nature, the outcome depends almost entirely on the mindset and the approach brought to bear on the battle by Goliath.
We must assume that Mayo still have their humiliation in Salthill in June seared into their collective psyche and the evidence from the Tyrone game two weeks ago suggests that they are a better, wiser and stronger team for their journey on the road less travelled.
No doubt Mayo are as desperate as ever to get to another All-Ireland final, but the hope is that Tipperary will fully bring out that desperation in them by asking all the right questions tomorrow.
Tyrone, for all their intensity and desire, were undone by an opening 20 minutes where they never really asked questions of Mayo.
They weren’t helped by 14 dispiriting wides and by those 11 scoreless minutes at the end of the game that followed Seán Cavanagh’s sending-off, a period where they simply couldn’t get to grips with Mayo’s numerical advantage.
While there was plenty of desperation in Mayo’s game at that stage, it wasn’t always the right kind of desperation. Witness the entire two minutes and 12 seconds during which Mayo players strung 41 handpasses and five foot-passes together before being undone by a sloppy Séamus O’Shea pass to his brother Aidan. That passage of play culminated in Niall Morgan’s missed long-range free. It could have been the equaliser, and it should have been a warning sign.
Even after that wide, the next phase of play saw Darren McCurry intercept a David Clarke crossfield foot-pass and go within inches of an equaliser. Right up to the very last action of the game, when Aidan O’Shea almost misdirected a free-kick back to Clarke, Mayo, playing with an extra man, were living on the edge.They would be both foolish and arrogant to assume they will get away with the same antics against Tipperary.
Tipperary are nowhere near as bad as their only championship defeat this season suggests they were but neither are they as good as Galway made them look on August weekend.
Liam Kearns suggested on these pages during the week that they’ll be quite happy if people want to believe they are the sort of team who “just come together and then go out and play the game as they find it”. As Galway and Derry know, there is a bit more to them. When Tipperary went after the Galway kickout in the quarter-final, they demolished them because the homework they had done on Bernard Power, Paul Conroy and Tomás Flynn meant that Galway ran out of options from their own restarts.
Michael Quinlivan and Conor Sweeney were rightly garlanded for their showing on the inside line on the August weekend but the winning and losing of the game hung on the energy shown between the two 65-metre lines by Peter Acheson, Robbie Kiely, Bill Maher and Jimmy Feehan.
Mayo will have looked hard this past fortnight at how easily Niall Sludden got through for a point in the 10th minute of their quarter-final. This was at a stage when Mayo were set up properly — nice and compact. Still Sludden ran hard at Aidan O’ Shea, who couldn’t adjust his feet quickly enough, and a score ensued. Are you telling me that Maher, Kiely, Feehan and Philip Austin running from deep aren’t a tougher proposition to stop than Sludden? Do you really believe that a conservative Tyrone team offer more than a relentless Tipperary running game played with abandon?
Tipperary won’t be as cautious as other teams Mayo have faced, but it would be naive in the extreme to think that they won’t arrive tomorrow with a plan. The challenge for Mayo might be to apply old values to a new and unfamiliar opponent. This could be a game where Donie Buckley’s famous tackling drills will be put to the test. If you see Tipp being turned over or over-carrying in the tackle, then you know Mayo are on their game. If not, Tipp can and will do real damage.
The other area where Tipperary are better than Tyrone is in the aforementioned full-forward line.
In their Munster final against Kerry, I felt that both Sweeney and Quinlivan were looking for the high ball over the top too often. I know from experience that standing behind your marker and pointing to the sky can often be the last refuge of a full-forward who realises he is matched for pace by a sticky full-back and fancies himself in a one-on-one aerial contest.
With Mayo funnelling players back, such a situation is unlikely to arise too often for Tipperary’s dangermen. That said, if they can afford to hold their shape by playing really deep along the end-line, the gap between the inside line and the Mayo defensive line further out should be big enough for Tipperary’s ball carriers to find pockets of space to pop the ball into before the likes of Kevin McLoughlin, Diarmuid O’Connor and Donal Vaughan have time to filter back and close them down.
That probably leaves Brendan Harrison, one of the most efficient backs in the game, aiming to do to Sweeney what only Shane Enright has managed all summer.
Keith Higgins might be well matched with Austin when he goes outfield, but Kevin Keane on Quinlivan is one match-up that Tipp will look to exploit. As with Aidan O’Shea at the other end, Quinlivan requires a player who can match him on the inside line and outfield. I’m not sure Keane is that player. At the other end, Ciarán McDonald will most likely be asked to nullify Cillian O’Connor, leaving either Colm O’ Shaughnessy or Alan Campbell to track O’ Shea with Brian Fox providing intelligent nuisance value as a sweeper.
One of the obvious differences in Mayo from game to game through the qualifiers has been the speed at which David Clarke is taking his kickouts. Most goalkeepers can restart with a short kickout within five or six seconds, but if Tipperary decide to contest Mayo’s kickouts and stop Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle and Keith Higgins from picking up short uncontested ball, we have yet to see evidence that Clarke has the wherewithal to plant a kick long and accurate enough to secure possession on a consistent basis. In the Tyrone game, Séamus O’Shea was his default option on long kickouts but the trajectory from Clarke allows opposition midfielders to get their hands on the ball if they are tuned in.
And that really is the thing for Tipperary. We can expect that they will show up tuned in. We can expect that they won’t be fazed by the occasion and we can expect them to have their homework done on Mayo. But the starburst that has marked Liam Kearns’ first year in charge can’t last forever. You’d have to worry about the ease with which Kerry turned them over early in the second half in July and the untold damage Derry’s Danny Heavron caused them in the fourth-round qualifier. That Damien Comer goal just before half-time in the quarter is another cause for concern, as are Danny Cummins’ and Gary O’Donnell’s goal chances before that.
Mayo belong on this stage, as they have done every year since 2011, but right now Tipp still have the gait of an interloper. Theirs is one of the most uplifting and audacious football stories for some time but perhaps Napoleon was right — with audacity one can undertake anything but not do everything. That is one of the facts we cannot afford to ignore.
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