Defence the best form of attack for Mayo
Ignoring talk of marquee forwards, history and Kingdom class for a moment, Mayo enter the Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final with a defence that could prove the difference between the two sides.
Kerry’s former All-Ireland winning manager Jack O'Connor stated earlier this week that he expects the Munster champions will emerge victorious given their superior firepower up front.
"If Kerry can gain the upper hand at midfield, then they have the forwards to win the game," insisted O'Connor.
O'Connor is expecting a fierce contest, but believes that the men in green and gold may possess the extra touch of class up front to book their place in the final next month.
"There is very little between the teams but I think that Kerry have a great chance because the Kerry forwards are really functioning at the moment," he added.
Such a theory appears to be held by many, that even if Mayo do advance to their third successive final, their so-called deficiencies in the final third will scupper the trophy they dearly crave.
However, the question still remains. Can they win an All-Ireland with what they have?
First and foremost they possess one of the most deadly finishers in the game in Cillian O'Connor. With 2-24 and counting, the two-time Young Footballer of the Year is also a provider and a steady free-taker as well as a deadly marksman.
Mayo supporters can rightly point to the fact that Cork claimed an All-Ireland title in 2009 with a functional forward unit. The Rebels won two All Stars up front, with one of those Pearse O'Neill often operating around the middle that season. Neighbours Kerry had three and they bowed out at the quarter-final stage.
Cork’s route to success was far easier than Mayo's if they are to succeed the Dubs as champions, but there is a precedent.
One important factor is the spread of scorers in the team. Twelve different players have raised either green or white flags in the championship.
O'Connor has been the scorer-in-chief, with free duties helping Kevin McLoughlin to 10 points. Aidan O'Shea, aside from the wonderfully composed finish to seal the quarter-final victory, has not troubled the umpires since his redeployment to centre-forward, but has been a huge presence in the middle third, an extra target for kick-outs and a disruptive influence to opponent’s defensive system.
Jason Doherty (1-04) and Andy Moran (0-07) has consistently chipped in with scores, while Alan Dillon, more concerned with setting others up, has been averaging a point a game.
However it may well be Mayo’s defence, and more to the point their penchant to attack, that could prove decisive.
Not only does the Mayo rearguard compare favourably to Kerry, Donegal and Dublin, they are by far and away the most effective on the scoreboard. Keith Higgins has spent enough time in the forward division of late to ensure any forays from the corner back position tend to be impactful, but it is the trio of Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan and Colm Boyle that really catch the eye.
Keegan is revelling with the skipper’s armband and bombs forward at every opportunity. Only Roscommon managed to keep the Westport club man off the score sheet and has 1-03 to his name thus far. His man-marking role on paul Kerrigan curtailed his natural attacking instincts somewhat, but he still picked and chose his moments. Vaughan, who has featured at midfield on occasions, is another who carries a serious threat on the front foot. Critics have suggested that he may need to play more defensively against a higher calibre of opponent, but has an accumulated four points from play, including a crucial late point against Cork.
Boyle has yet to register a score, but is entirely comfortable putting on the after-burners with blistering runs into the opponent’s half immediately setting opponents on the back foot.
Rather than suggest Mayo lack the forwards to land Sam, they will focus on the fact that perhaps it is from numbers 2-7 where Horan’s men will prevail and make it third time lucky, though Kerry will have plenty to say about that. They have been at times scintillating and have history on their side in this fixture, but the Kingdom defence is far less experienced than that of Mayo.
A quick glance at their campaign so highlights one key difference between the sides. Corner-back Paul Murphy's goal against Clare when the Kingdom struggled to see off the challenge in their opening Munster fixture was the only occasion a defender has got on the score sheet for Eamon Fitzmaurice’s side.
Defence will be Mayo’s best form of attack and the key to bridging their long wait to bring Sam Maguire west of the Shannon.