Mayo play risky game to maximise impact of 'big idea'
With Aidan O'Shea's new role crucial to their plans, he can expect close attention
Noel Connelly has taken a major gamble by pleading for "fair play both on and off the ball" for his super-powered attacker Aidan O'Shea.
The Mayo joint manager would have carefully considered the impact of his remarks on David Gough (Meath), who will referee the All-Ireland quarter-final clash with Donegal in Croke Park on Saturday (6.00pm).
Clearly, Connelly believes it's a risk worth taking, although there is also the possibility that it could backfire.
Referees dislike this type of intervention in the run-up to games as it leaves them open to criticism from both sides subsequently
The side involved in the special pleading often comes out with the 'I told you so' line if things don't go their way, while the opposition can argue that the referee was influenced if they are unhappy with events.
Connelly predicted that O'Shea, who is enjoying a great season in new surrounds close to the opposition goal, would be "a targeted man".
He also suggested that because of the Breaffy man's enormous physical strength, he is left to look after himself and finds it harder to win frees than smaller forwards.
There is a counter-view that O'Shea uses his power very close to the edge of charging which is, of course, an offence.
Gough will be making the crucial calls on Saturday as O'Shea tangles with Neil McGee - assisted by various auxiliaries - in what is likely to be one of the game's defining battlegrounds.
This will be Gough's fifth Championship game of the season. His most recent was the Tipperary v Tyrone Round 3 qualifier where he showed 12 cards (10 yellow, one black, one red).
Siting O'Shea deep in enemy territory worked well for Mayo in the Connacht Championship, where he turned in man-of-the-match performances against Galway and Sligo.
He scored 3-4 against Sligo, while the positive impact of his powerful running against Galway was the main difference between the sides.
Using O'Shea as a strike-runner appears to be the new 'big idea' by Connelly and Pat Holmes in their attempt to squeeze the required extra from the team that might end the All-Ireland drought.
David Clarke for Robert Hennelly in goal, Tom Parsons for Barry Moran or Jason Gibbons at midfield and Diarmuid O'Connor for Alan Dillon in attack are the personnel changes from the latter stages of last year's Championship, where Mayo's ambitions were destroyed by Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final replay.
They will arrive in Croke Park on Saturday, having played only two Championship games, which creates uncertainty as to where Mayo stand after winning a sub-standard Connacht campaign for a fifth successive year.
Paradoxically, Donegal have had a very busy summer and are now facing their sixth Championship game - their second in the space of seven days.
Former Mayo manager, John Maughan believes that might be an important factor, leaving Donegal susceptible to fatigue against much fresher opposition.
They showed no sign of that in the closing quarter against Galway last Saturday, but Mayo, who have lost only four of their last 24 Championship games, are much more formidable than their western neighbours.
"I still think freshness could be important to Mayo here. They built everything on the Championship this year and since they could win Connacht in two games, they would have been planning to peak around now," said Maughan.
He has been impressed by O'Shea's momentum-packed impact in Connacht, even if was against lesser defences than what he will encounter on Saturday.
"There's no doubt that Rory Gallagher will have worked hard on ways of curbing O'Shea. The Donegal defence are very good at closing down opposition forwards and will see it as vital that O'Shea is not allowed to exert too much of an influence.
"It's very important for Mayo that the rest of the attack make it as hard as possible on Donegal to concentrate too much on O'Shea. Diarmuid O'Connor is a lively new addition - I think he will do well," said Maughan.
However, with Mayo essentially trusting the same defence as last year, there is some concern as to how it will fare against the best attack they have encountered so far.
Mayo suffered some defensive wobbles against both Galway and Sligo, both of whom scored two goals each. That's a rare occurrence for Mayo in the Connacht Championship in any era, let alone the best period the county has ever enjoyed.
Granted, Mayo had Sligo beaten so early that it would have been easy for defensive concentration to waver, but conceding two goals in successive games still leaves supporters a little queasy.
"There would be some concerns about the full-back line, especially against the likes of McBrearty, Murphy and McFadden and with MacNiallais working well from further out, there's added pressure.
"Galway certainly bored some holes in the Mayo defence and Sligo had some joy too, but they have had time to work on things since then. The Mayo defence is very experienced, which you need in games like this," said Maughan.
Mayo have beaten Cork (2011 and 2014), Down (2012) and Donegal (2013) in their last four quarter-finals, so they certainly have positive memories of this stage of the All-Ireland race.
Now the big question is: are they expecting too much from Aidan O'Shea in his new role?
"He's certainly playing well and seems to be enjoying what he's at. He was always a great ball winner but I think his skill set has improved too this year.
"Playing a big man close to the opposition goal isn't rocket science but it has worked so far for Mayo.
"If the entire team raise their game to the level they are capable of, I'd expect them to win. I think they will have too much energy for Donegal," said Maughan.