JOHN DIVILLY: Stories of Galway-Mayo duels during the bog duties

Shane Walsh. Picture: Ramsey Cardy

What’s it like to play in a Galway-Mayo championship match? I can only speak from a Galway point of view and more specifically my experiences of playing against the auld enemy. It’s the only game of the year you just can’t afford to lose, writes John Divilly.

I grew up on stories of Galway-Mayo duels during farming chores, but mostly during bog duties. You would be psyching yourself up. Right John, get this done as quick as you can and you’ll be home by 3pm for football in the field. Hatch a plan. Take a small break at the end of each row. A swig of water and a few Custard Creams. No soft talk. Good plan.

I would be crouched over the first row, hand on the wettest thickest sod in the bog. You’d hear ‘Tommy Joe Gilmore is a tough bastard. He almost killed TJ Kilgallon last Sunday’. I’d look up. All you could see were heads bobbing in agreement, turf flying out between the old men’s legs.

‘Gay Mac didn’t miss a free’. More turf flying. ‘But Willie Joe cleaned us in the air’. Silence, then the growling. ‘What are you on about Jimmy, didn’t Talty win a few and Billy Joyce catch that one before half time?’ Five minutes of hot air. ‘Were you even at the game Jimmy?’.

‘How could I go with ye, sure ye don’t know how to come home from a game’.

Eruptions. The old men gone 20 yards ahead of me already. I was awestruck. Took every word in. Who are these football giants? Who are Mayo? Head down, hands on the first sod, you won’t get the better of me. I was five years old.

Galway and Mayo is everyday talk. Thousands of daily commuters migrate along the N17 to hospitals, universities, manufacturing and pharmaceutical plants, airports, courts and livestock marts. The big annual pilgrimages to Croagh Patrick, Knock or the Galway Races. We talk about beating each other on the field 365 days of the year, not just when the Championship rolls around. We both know form goes out the window to a large extent and both sides are always confident of a victory.

My first taste of this great rivalry came in the Under 16 Ted Webb competition.

Our columnist says he ‘grew up on stories of Galway-Mayo duels during farming chores, but mostly during bog duties. You would be psyching yourself up. Right John, get this done as quick as you can and you’ll be home by3pm for football in the field’. Picture: Ciaran McHugh Photography
Our columnist says he ‘grew up on stories of Galway-Mayo duels during farming chores, but mostly during bog duties. You would be psyching yourself up. Right John, get this done as quick as you can and you’ll be home by 3pm for football in the field’. Picture: Ciaran McHugh Photography

The morning usually consisted of Sunday mass. The old men would tip their hat and wish you luck. The following Sunday, a warm handshake after victory or a quietly spoken hard luck after defeat. We celebrated our victories over Mayo just as much as any big victories in Croke Park.

There was so much pride in the local villages when talking about great victories and twice as much froth at the mouth when rehashing defeats.

Like the weather or politics, Mayo football was a daily topic of discussion. You dreamed that if one day you got a chance to add to the folklore, you would do everything in your powers to beat the old enemy. Galway football people respected Mayo football people. This was further harnessed in St Jarlath’s where teachers from both counties spoke fondly of great football battles. The Marquess of Queensbury Rules always seemed appropriate to our matches where a code of fair play was presumed to apply.

How can Mayo win tomorrow? Looking as coldly as I can, Mayo will bring their usual physicality and will constantly probe the Galway defence. I expect constant raids from Lee Keegan, Paddy Durcan and Tom Parsons in particular. With inclement weather conditions and the normal Atlantic gusts to hit Pearse Stadium, the middle third of the pitch will be like the Salthill traffic — bumper to bumper.

A possible half-forward line for Galway of Shane Walsh, Tom Flynn and Eamon Brannigan v Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, and Paddy Durcan will be mouth-watering. Lots of pace and all six players can score. The potential one on one of the day? Lee Keegan v Shane Walsh. Personally, I wouldn’t put Lee on Shane. I believe Lee would cause Galway more problems if he isn’t assigned the man-marking task. He would create and score more for Mayo. I think Mayo will go hammer and tongs at Galway, try and build up an early lead and go for the jugular at all times. They have a good record in Pearse Stadium.

They will try and bully Galway, engineer scoreable frees for Cillian O’Connor and hope Andy Moran and Kevin McLaughlin kick their customary two points. If Diarmuid O’Connor, Paddy Durcan, Colm Boyle and Tom Parsons are allowed time and space to run at the Galway defence, they will punch holes, create scoring opportunities and energise the huge Mayo following.

The O’Sheas add their own swagger to the cause. Seamus is an exceptionally hard-working footballer, never afraid to make the unselfish, unseen runs to help his team. He’s unafraid of any challenge and relishes the championship battles like his brother. Aidan O’Shea, in my opinion, is up there with Colm McManamon and Kieran McDonald as one of the most powerful players ever to represent Mayo. When’s he’s fully fit and focused, he is their match-winner. He is a ball winner, a grafter, a score getter and provider.

How do Galway stop him? They need a leech on him all day. You must niggle and play on the edge with him. Aidan will obviously relish this close attention and will be expecting it, so whatever Galway player is tasked with this challenge, don’t disappoint him. Embrace the challenge for if you succeed you are setting a platform for victory.

How else can Galway hurt Mayo? Patience is key to Galway’s chances. They must be ready for a Mayo backlash after last year and must be cute when Mayo do hit a purple patch. Galway have enough players who can score heavily when we decide to play with incision and purpose. Running directly at Mayo will yield greater dividends for us, especially with the advantage rule.

However, it’s only an advantage if Galway go straight at them. If we go lateral up front, Mayo will swallow us up. I would be concerned about the quality of Galway’s free-taking but optimistic about our ability to score goals.

Under Kevin Walsh, Galway are playing a much more defensive style of football than Tribesmen are used of seeing or that Kevin played himself. He played the game physically but he had class and vision to go with it. Do we all agree with Kevin’s current style or like it? No is the honest answer. Is this the right style of football for the current Galway team? Yes. I expect us to soak up a lot of Mayo pressure, get 12 players behind the ball and hit Mayo on the break. For this to work effectively, each Galway player must tackle crisply and support in numbers. The biggest risk is the concession of scorable frees. Kevin knows the strengths and weaknesses of his team more than me or you. Galwegians must respect his ideas and support the team no matter what.

Both teams will see each other’s full-back lines as their weakest links. For this reason, I think we will see much more longer kick-outs than normal.

Galway have a slight advantage in the aerial battle but Mayo are a little better on breaking ball. Mayo’s half-back line are quality ball carriers while Galway’s half back line will rely on extra players to help them out. The Galway forwards are slightly better finishers than the Mayo lads from open play but Mayo have a more reliable free-taker.

Who has the overall advantage? Galway have the better bench at the moment and this could be a huge advantage if used strategically. I would hold Michael Daly and Danny Cummins in reserve and introduce them when the game opens up. I would love to see a two-man full-forward line of Shane Walsh and Damian Comer. Shane is far more dangerous inside for us. I hope Cillian McDaid gets lots of game time so he can break up Mayo attacks and drive us forward with menace.

No doubt referee Joe McQuillan will play a pivotal role also. Maybe supporters will be given a fidget spinner and a stress ball going into the stadium. A fidget spinner will pass the time while he makes his decisions and the stress ball will help to deal with them when he does.

Killary Harbour, in the heart of Connemara, is one of Ireland’s three fjords and forms a spectacular natural divide between Galway and neighbouring Mayo. Here, you will find some of the most dramatic scenery in Ireland. From the northern shore rises Mweelrea, the highest mountain in Connacht and to the south, you can see the Maumturk mountains and the Twelve Bens. Which side of the mountain will be smiling Sunday night?

And who will have the best stories for the bog?


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