At the outset of the championship, I thought Mayo the team most likely to stop the Dublin machine retaining their All-Ireland crown. I never envisaged Tipperary standing in their way this late in that mission.
I didn’t see Mayo going down the qualifier route either, but that diversion hasn’t done them any harm. Much like Tipperary, they have gained serious momentum en route and the manner of their victory over Tyrone in the quarter-final sent a signal of intent to the remaining contenders.
It was by no means pretty but the way they adapted to and coped with Tyrone’s style of play must have left Stephen Rochford and his team hugely satisfied. And is a credit to their tactical planning.
Despite my admiration for them, I am still delighted it is Mayo, rather than Tyrone, Tipperary now face. Both teams play a similar brand of football, winning possession and feeding the forwards as quickly as possible. Both will feel they have a real chance of reaching the final.
Tipperary must take the emotion and romance out of this game and concentrate on getting their performance right. A lot of talk in the county is of “bonus territory” and of the players having “nothing to lose”. But they should be beyond all that now.
Through the years, Tipperary have been guilty of underachievement and of unfulfilled potential, but this group is different. They realise the opportunity to join our hurlers in an All-Ireland final is too big a chance to throw away. What it would do for football in the county is immeasurable. They are here on merit, having played attractive, eye-catching football, so confidence should be high.
Clever match-ups were the basis of Tipp’s win over Galway in the quarter-final. These must be on the money again tomorrow to have any chance of winning.
The midfield battle is key and getting an early foothold here will have a huge bearing on the outcome. Peter Acheson and George Hannigan had it all their own way for long periods of the Galway game, in turn creating a platform for their forwards to perform. I cannot see Seamie O’Shea or Donal Vaughan affording them the same leeway. Mayo’s physicality against Tyrone around the middle sector was remarkable. They scrapped for every ball and Tipp will need to match them in that department.
As inconsistent as Mayo have been this year, they have the quality and ability to cause huge problems for Tipperary. They will want to get Aidan O’Shea on the ball as often as possible. His form has been patchy, but against Tyrone he was back to his best which should worry Tipp.
Robbie Kiely has been immense for Tipp at centre-back and he will need to be on top form to curb O’Shea’s influence. Switching O’Shea to the edge of the square also caused the Tyrone defence endless problems, so Tipp must be prepared for this too. Cillian O’Connor scored three points from play against a Tyrone defence that doesn’t concede much so Conor McDonald or Colm O’Shaughnessy could have a tough afternoon in store.
Kick-outs will also be pivotal. Evan Comerford has been sublime this year but Mayo will not make the same mistake Galway did and leave Tipp win their own short kickouts. I am certain Mayo will push right up and force Comerford to kick long and bank on their big men claiming possession.
Watching the Tyrone game back again, it was so evident how important a factor David Clarke’s precise kick-outs were in the winning of that game. Tipp will have plotted those flight paths but they must be vigilant.
When the euphoria wore off after the quarter-final and the videos was analysed, Liam Kearns will have seen much to work on, which is what every manager wants.
Tipperary had a phenomenal 42 attempts on goal, so a score of 3-13 will have disappointed them. Michael Quinlivan has been in super form but even though he kicked 1-4 he will be first to admit his radar was slightly off.
Lee Keegan seems to be the man Mayo deploy to mark every opposition’s marquee player — he took up Tyrone’s Sean Cavanagh and policed Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly last year, so it will be interesting to see if Mayo switch him to full-back on Quinlivan. Keegan is probably the best half-back in the country over the last few years, attacking at every opportunity, so seeing him restricted to the edge of the square would be a plus for Tipp. Conor Sweeney will take serious watching too, if quality ball can be delivered, so the Mayo full-back-line will be on red alert.
Westmeath caused Mayo endless problems in the second half of their qualifier game when they loosened the shackles and ran at the Mayo defence. In Josh Keane and Philip Austin, Tipp have the armoury to replicate that approach.
It’s hard, however, to ignore the experience Mayo will bring to the game. That they are back in a sixth successive semi-final not only underlines the quality they have but also the drive and determination they bring year on year, to succeed in their quest for All-Ireland glory.
That said, the expectation in the county is huge. Their supporters anticipate Tipp’s challenge being dispatched with relative ease so this in itself loads extra pressure on them.
Tipp are young and unseasoned so a fast and positive start is vital. They were slow out of the blocks against Galway, who could easily have been six points up early on. A repeat would be disastrous.
My main concern, for Tipp, is how much has been learned from the Munster final defeat to Kerry? Physically, Tipp were no match for the Kingdom, often bringing the ball into contact and being turned back on their heels, to play the ball laterally or backwards. I expect Mayo to apply the same physical pressure tomorrow, create turnovers and counter attack with pace. If Tipp don’t move the ball quickly they could be in bother again.
Having come up against the Donegals, Tyrones, Kerrys and Dublins consistently in recent times, Mayo have shown an ability to adapt to different systems and styles. But Liam Kearns must ensure his team are not predictable. He got his tactics spot on against Galway, playing the flanks and avoiding Conroy and Flynn in the middle.
Back in 2002, six days after a hammering in a Munster final replay, Tipperary played Mayo in Ennis in the last 12 as serious underdogs. It took four inspirational points from Ciarán McDonald in the last 10 minutes to get Mayo out of jail in a real humdinger. We asked serious questions of them that day and I hope this Tipp team can do the same tomorrow.
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