Irresistible force v immovable object
Titanic collision in store as Kerry firepower meets Mayo’s miserly defence
Published 18/08/2011 | 05:00
SOMETHING has to give in Croke Park on Sunday when Mayo put one of the most remarkable defensive records in championship history on the line against possibly the best attack of modern times.
Traditionally, Mayo's style would not have been noted for its security rating but rather for an adventurous "high-earn, high-spend" approach.
That has altered dramatically under James Horan this summer, leaving Mayo with a better defensive record than fellow semi-finalists Kerry and Dublin, although still behind Donegal, who have been the ultimate misers.
Mayo conceded an average of 12 points per game against London, Galway, Roscommon and Cork (11 points when extra-time against the Exiles is excluded).
It's an impressive return, but within that figure lurks the astonishing reality of just how mean Mayo have been in the second half of each of their games.
Mayo have conceded a total of only four points in the second halves against Galway (0-1), Roscommon (0-2) and Cork (0-1), an incredibly low giveaway against combined forces which included such proven hotshots as Donncha O'Connor, Pearse O'Neill, Paddy Kelly, Paul Kerrigan, Padraic Joyce, Michael Meehan, Donie Shine and Senan Kilbride.
Even then, one of the four points came from a free (Shine), and another from a defender, when John Miskella surged forward to score Cork's only second-half point in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Unbelievably, Mayo restricted Cork to 1-2 in the final 55 minutes.
Mayo's second-half shut-outs mean that in 1hr 45mins of championship football, the best forwards from Galway, Roscommon and Cork managed just two points from open play.
Step forward Kerry, complete with an attack which has averaged 1-20 per game against Tipperary, Limerick (twice) and Cork.
Kerry have averaged almost 0-12 per second half, although that did drop to 0-5 against Cork in the Munster final.
The collision between Mayo's defensive meanness and Kerry's long-established scoring capacity provides a fascinating backdrop for Sunday's game, as it's likely to be one of its defining factors.
Mayo can certainly be pleased with their low second-half giveaways but it's only of real benefit if they succeed in keeping the first-half score reasonably low.
They achieved this against Galway, Roscommon (they conceded 0-11 but were playing against high winds and rain) and Cork, but can they maintain such vigilance against the Kerry attack?
This marked difference between Mayo's concession rate in the first and second halves has been evident throughout the entire season.
Dublin hit them for 4-8 in the first half of their Allianz League clash in Croke Park in March but it was down to 0-7 for the second half; in Armagh's case, the first v second half split against Mayo was 2-6 to 0-4; for Down it was 2-5 to 1-2, and 0-7 to 0-5 for Galway.
Cork, Kerry and Monaghan all scored more against Mayo in the second than first half, but wind was a factor in at least two of those games.
For such a tight defensive unit (second half at least), the Mayo backs are not all that well known throughout the country.
Keith Higgins has been a highly regarded corner-back for several seasons while Trevor Mortimer, a No 7 nowadays, made his name as an attacker, but has done very well since being assigned to his new role.
The rest have much lower profiles. Left full-back Tom Cunniffe (Castlebar) has been on the squad for four years, full-back Ger Cafferkey (Ballina) and centre-back Donal Vaughan (Ballinrobe) joined two years ago while right half-back Richie Feeney (Castlebar) is in his debut season at the age of 28.
His younger brother Alan (26) also made his championship debut this year, playing at full-back against London and Galway and for three-quarters of the Connacht final against Roscommon before being replaced by Cafferkey, who has held the position ever since.
Now, the Mayo defence are preparing to take on the lethal combination that is the Kerry attack when it opens out in full flowing mode.
Darran and Declan O'Sullivan have been the main generators so far this year, combining a high-energy game with a consistent finishing return.
Darran has scored 3-9 from open play (it would probably have been higher if he hadn't gone off injured against Limerick in the All-Ireland quarter-final) in the championship while Declan has landed 0-14.
Colm Cooper hasn't been at his most productive so far, scoring just 0-2 from open play in Kerry's last two games against Cork and Limerick, but he tends to flourish from this point of the season on.
Kieran Donaghy's strike rate hasn't been all that high either but his pedigree is proven; besides, he does his best work as a fetcher and provider.
Paul Galvin's injury plague has reduced his effectiveness but he remains a major asset (provided he is fit to play), while Donnacha Walsh's ball-carrying skills have played a significant role too in recent years.
At its best, this is an outstanding Kerry attack which will encounter a group of Mayo men intent on maintaining their status as one of the most improved defences in the country.
Despite the defiant stand against Galway, Roscommon and Cork, Mayo know that Kerry will offer a different threat level.
They also realise that Kerry will be attempting to blitz them in the first half, similar to the 2004 and '06 All-Ireland finals where Mayo were swept aside, making the second periods largely irrelevant.