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Mayo's men on a mission to step up

IT'S usual for Mayo teams heading to Croke Park to be the ones subjected to all manner of microscopic analysis, with unflattering questions being asked about their propensity for coming up short and doubts raised about their All-Ireland credentials.

All of the above, by the way, is still happening in many parts of the country, both within and beyond the boundaries of Mayo. But if any team stands in the dock of public opinion right now, pleading forgiveness and seeking the Probation Act with a view to proving they can be model citizens once more ... well, we're talking about Cork.

Rewind, for a few moments, to April 13. A National League semi-final in Croke Park, 39 minutes on the clock and the rampant Rebels lead a dishevelled Dublin by 2-11 to 0-7. Ten points! Against the Dubs! Little wonder that, towards the end of spring, many pundits were praising the refreshing style and altered game plan of Cork under Brian 
Cuthbert - their rapid transfer of the liathróid from defence to attack, capitalising on the predatory skills of men such as Brian Hurley, Daniel Goulding and the fit-again Colm O'Neill. All-Ireland dark horses? Why not?

As a relevant aside, while Cork were 10 up against the All-Ireland champions, Mayo were probably already on the bus home from Croker, digesting a tired, at times turgid, performance against 14 Derry men in the day's first semi-final.

From that high water mark, however, Cork's season has hit the skids. They lost the remainder of the second half (some 32 minutes) by 17 points, as a rejuvenated Dublin cut through their porous defence like a knife through butter to run out seven-point winners.

Giddy post-match talk about Dublin's electrifying power-play may have partially masked what this meant for - and about - the losers. Their lack of leadership in the face of crisis was alarming.

Their confidence, you suspect, may also have taken a battering. Come summer, they would have suffered a mortifying home defeat to Tipperary but for Aidan Walsh's late point-scoring heroics.

Against Kerry, though, perhaps because of his onerous dual schedule, Walsh was a virtual passenger around the middle. He wasn't alone - we can not recall a more subservient, anaemic, defensively-chaotic display in recent Leeside history.

One of those horrible, hard-to-explain, one-off performances? The form against Dublin and Tipp suggests otherwise.

Last weekend against Sligo was all about moving on from July 6, rebuilding confidence and seeking to shore up that sieve-like defence via the now-familiar catch-all solution - half-forwards doubling as sweepers. It worked, in a fashion.

But Sligo are an average-to-poor Division Three team and Mayo are both proven campaigners and men on a mission. They have moved well beyond the point occupied in August 2011, when James Horan was in year one of his reign and brought a hungry, spiky outfit to Croke Park as rank outsiders and duly dismantled the reigning champions from Cork.

Horan's history-chasers are a better team now than in 2011, but the big question remains - are they better than 2012 or 2013, when All-Ireland appearances finished in that familiar 'what if' refrain?

The latter league evidence - their late fade-out to draw with 14 Dubs coupled with the Derry semi-final - raised worrying questions which were only exacerbated by their almighty struggle past Roscommon.

Galway in the Connacht final was a welcome return to form in several respects. The half-forward division, a source of recent consternation, fared much better as Aidan O'Shea profited from his new role on the 40, albeit he still operated as an auxiliary midfielder mopping up plenty of kickouts.

INCARNATION

Jason Doherty was sharp on to breaks and took his three-pointer with the aplomb associated with his previous incarnation as a goal sniffer. Kevin McLoughlin looks to have rediscovered the pep in his step that went missing towards the end of last season.

By a distance, though, Mayo's best forward against Galway was Cillian O'Connor. Now free of the recurring shoulder woes of last summer, he is the nearest thing to a Mayo marquee forward and fundamental to their long-term All-Ireland prospects.

Still, it must be viewed as something of a surprise that James Horan has retained both Alan Dillon and Andy Moran in his inside line after their ineffectual displays in the Connacht final. The elder statesmen of this squad are in need of big performances tomorrow, not just to ensure Mayo frank their favouritism but also to deliver a statement of intent - the team hasn't stagnated, but is ready to peak at the right time.

Horan doesn't usually dabble in 'dummy' teams and we'll presume yesterday's announcement isn't one. Either way, Mayo should be wary of the threat posed by O'Neill and Hurley, but they still look too settled and too streetwise (to quote Mr Cuthbert) for their topsy-turvy rivals in red.

BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Mayo 1/2, Draw 9/1, 
Cork 21/20

VERDICT: Mayo

MAYO: R Hennelly; C Barrett, G Cafferkey, K Higgins; 
L Keegan, C Boyle, D Vaughan; B Moran, S O'Shea; 
K McLoughlin, A O'Shea, J Doherty; C O'Connor, A Moran, A Dillon.

CORK: K O'Halloran; J Loughrey, E Cadogan, N Galvin; M Shields, T Clancy, Brian O'Driscoll; I Maguire, A Walsh; P Kerrigan, M Collins, C O'Driscoll; C O'Neill, B Hurley, 
D Óg Hodnett.


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