Sunday 22 January 2017

Martin Breheny: Red hand of fate set to end Mayo's bid for sixth successive semi-final place

Published 06/08/2016 | 02:30

Seamus O'Shea of Mayo during the Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Mayo and Galway in June. Photo: Sportsfile
Seamus O'Shea of Mayo during the Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Mayo and Galway in June. Photo: Sportsfile

Galway's meltdown against Tipperary last Sunday would have sent icy shivers down Mayo spines.

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What if the Connacht Championship was the worst for ages, a year when Mayo's standards dropped alarmingly from the highs of previous years, resulting in a seriously sub-standard campaign?

Galway's shocking performance certainly devalued Connacht's stock, which had already been hit by Roscommon's meek qualifier exit against Clare.

Mayo's qualifier wins over Fermanagh, Kildare and Westmeath were functional rather than inspiring, especially the latter two which have to be seen in the context of a Leinster Championship where, Dublin apart, the standard was poor.

Mayo's consistency in 2011-'15 didn't quite take them to the All-Ireland summit, losing over the last four seasons to the eventual winners. That was deeply frustrating but it also underlined the high level at which they were operating.

Now, the question is whether they are capable of revisiting those peaks? Or have they slipped down and been overtaken by others?

Their performances in league and championship this season provide no evidence that they are anywhere near the levels of recent years. That's not to say they can't get back there, which makes today's game so interesting since a win would clean the slate for a brand new All-Ireland script.

And with Tipperary awaiting today's winners, both Mayo and Tyrone will feel that they have a great chance of reaching the final.

With due respects to Tipperary, who are new to this level of activity, they represent an easier draw than Kerry and the winners of Dublin v Donegal, who will meet in the other semi-final.

There's a growing feeling that Mickey Harte is empire-building in Tyrone again. Unbeaten in 17 McKenna Cup, league and championship games this year, Tyrone appear to have recaptured that stubborn streak which made them so difficult to beat during their All-Ireland-winning period in 2003-2008.

It was certainly evident in the Ulster final where they scored three late points to beat Donegal who, up then, were marginally the better side. There were periods in that game when Tyrone looked pretty ordinary but managed to stay in touch because of Donegal's innate conservatism.

Donegal were the only Division 1 team that Tyrone beat so far this year so it's premature to trumpet their return to the glory of former days just yet.

The attack still relies heavily on Seán Cavanagh for leadership, not to mention poaching crucial points in times of need, which is in marked contrast to the years when Tyrone had a really formidable strike force where threats abounded in every area.

Still, it's encouraging for them that they have rediscovered that relentless sense of determination, underpinned by solid organisation, which makes them so hard to beat.

Self-belief

Winning the Ulster title for the first time in six years will boost their self-belief against opposition who don't quite know where they stand right now.

Mayo's last seven quarter-finals appearance were as Connacht champions so they have little experience of how the qualifier route prepares them for Croke Park in August. In fact, only once before (2002) have Mayo reached the quarter-finals from Round 2 of the qualifiers.

This really is a big test for Stephen Rochford. The shock of the Galway defeat has cleared and he now has Mayo back to familiar territory, challenging for All-Ireland honours.

Appointed after the players rejected the Pat Holmes/Noel Connelly combination, he was brought in with one brief: end Mayo's All-Ireland famine.

He remained loyal to the panel that pressed the revolt button but if Mayo lose today, changes will be many and varied next year.

The players know that, which is why they will deliver a mighty effort today. It might still not be enough.

Irish Independent

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