Mayo to test Kingdom limits
IT HAS become common currency over the past three weeks that Mayo are going to put it up to Kerry on Sunday, give them a bellyful. Mayo have earned a level of respect this season by dethroning the champions Cork with a determined display in the quarter-final. At the very least they seem to have buried some of the ghosts of their recent past.
Against Cork they were organised, physically imposing at midfield, gutsy up front, determined at the back and hungry... this was a break from Mayo's recent visits to HQ. With a young manager at the helm, the similarities to Dublin, Donegal and Kildare this season were becoming evident, something that didn't look remotely possible at Ruislip when they struggled against London.
But why would Mayo, of all teams, give Kerry a bellyful? Darran O'Sullivan, Colm 'Gooch' Cooper, Declan O'Sullivan -- surely this prediction is misplaced?
Maybe it's to do with miles on the clock, but I think the feeling is based on the nagging doubts surrounding Kerry this season. And despite most of us expecting Kerry to get it together, as they always seem to do, there is the possibility their problems could be exposed against a hungry young side with nothing to lose.
After Mayo shocked Cork, plenty of people were thinking "Jaysus, how come it always opens up for Kerry?" But that perception changed somewhat after Tyrone -- so much ingrained in Kerry's recent history -- failed to live with Dublin's hunger.
So what are the hard questions doing the rounds about Kerry? Leaving aside the outstanding form of Darran O'Sullivan (who did go off injured the last day) and a half hour of vintage Kerry in the Munster final, some of their top players like Kieran Donaghy and Gooch don't seem to be firing on all cylinders, Paul Galvin is struggling for full fitness, their midfield partnership is still doubted in the county itself, while there are questions about centre-back.
Many penned Kerry's obituary in 2009 after a stuttering qualifier run, only to have that analysis torn up in the quarter-final when they exploded to life against Dublin. No one doubts Kerry's ability to do likewise again.
However, we can still only go on what we've seen in Munster because, given the ludicrous championship format, they haven't played any side from outside the province yet. They've had one test in a contest against Cork for which they always raise their game. If any team is under the radar, it's Kerry.
It was accepted that last year's loss to Down was due to the absence of Galvin and Tomas O Se. Fair enough, but everyone still believed Kerry would win and it was interesting that even an incredible effort by Gooch that day couldn't fashion victory. Galvin and O Se were too important to the Kerry machine.
This time, Galvin starts on the bench with injury worries and is desperately short on match practice. O Se, meanwhile, was the subject of an injury scare this week -- not exactly the most comforting preparation for a team that, let's face it, is losing a hint of its invincibility since their general Darragh O Se called time on his career.
Much as I've admired what Tyrone and Cork have done, I've always found it almost impossible to oppose Kerry, particularly when Darragh was calling the shots. For me, the man had an unreal instinct about how to control the tempo of a game and even as his legs were on the wane his brain was as sharp as ever.
But he's gone and something profound for this team went with him, something that even Jack O'Connor might not be able to replace. And while Darragh left on a high, I genuinely believe that, more often than not, many of the great players are blindsided by age. They don't see the shock coming -- it arrives when they least expect it and often with success within their grasp.
Few expect this to happen on Sunday. At 2/7 with the bookies, the assumption is Kerry's firepower up front will blow Mayo away. This ignores the problem that came to light last year -- Kerry are just as dependent on their big guns out the field. And out the field, they are simply not as convincing as they have been.
Mayo will put it up to Kerry physically, particularly in midfield where even the best plans can come unstuck. Bryan Sheehan and Anthony Maher were excellent against Limerick but it will be interesting to see how they fare against Aidan and Seamus O'Shea.
Hunger can be a huge factor in the middle third and Mayo proved their worth against Cork. Alan Dillon, Andy Moran and Kevin McLoughlin will all run at Kerry's defence as they did the last day, testing the miles on the Kerry clock.
The other elephant in the room is complacency. To be fair, it's something Kerry have always dealt with better than most because they have a refreshing ability to go at it again every year and chase the only prize that really matters in their county. I don't believe for one minute that they have as much respect for their opponents as they let on but Kerry are too well managed, too naturally cute, too professional in their make-up to take their eye off the ball. They always target their opponents' spine and Sunday will be no different.
But when a team is past its peak, sometimes it's harder to guard against the old unshakeable confidence, one that is only really broken when young legs put you on your arse.
There is no convincing proof Kerry have reached that point yet and their panel still looks the best around. But few could see Tyrone playing on the back foot against Dublin for 70 minutes and, in an instant, the three-time All-Ireland champions went from a team going at it again to a team needing rebuilding.
Mayo are an emerging side but I have faith in the new wave of managers like James Horan, Jim McGuinness and Kieran McGeeney. They are preparing their sides intelligently to win, to challenge their players to really think about their ambitions as footballers.
And we can see those traits in Donegal, Kildare and now Mayo, where players are prepared to fight, and are chosen for the ability to keep working.
And Mayo will fight. They may fall but they'll get back up again and I expect this contest to go the distance. Untested outside of the Cork game, Kerry, even after all these years, remain something of an unknown quantity this summer. For sure we know that Gooch could drive a dagger into Mayo hearts in the first five minutes and blow all the doubts away in an instant. But only Sunday will provide the answers.
Kerry to survive a genuine rattle.