Mayo’s qualifier run is better preparation for a big championship clash than Kerry’s four-week break since the Munster final
ALL IRELAND SFC QUARTER-FINAL
Kerry v Mayo
Sunday, June 26
Croke Park, 4pm
You know what they say? Be careful what you wish for.
Most Kerry football folk you spoke to before, during and after the Munster championship would have been of the opinion that the Kingdom needed a good strong test in the All Ireland quarter-final. It wasn’t blithe presumption either that Kerry would reach that stage, simply realism.
Pretty much the last thing Kerry needed at this juncture was another cushy number after pro-forma victories over Cork and, especially, Limerick in the provincial series.
Last year’s experience against Tyrone, defeat in the All Ireland semi-final following a season where barely a glove had been laid on the green and gold up to then, is still fresh in the collective memory.
In Mayo, Kerry have got precisely what they wanted and, arguably, needed. Is there, though, a case that people might be left with a little buyer’s remorse?
Certainly the closer we get to Sunday afternoon and throw-in on Jones’ Road the more uneasy one is left at the prospect of facing the green and red of Mayo. For all that they’ve staggered and stuttered over the last couple of months, they’re still standing. What hasn’t killed them could make them stronger.
It wouldn’t be at all unprecedented for Mayo to find themselves anew during a qualifier run. There’s something undeniably restorative about winning games and, more so, about showing that true grit when the chips are down.
Mayo are one of those sides that are seemingly never beaten. For much of their second round game against Kildare earlier this month they looked a beaten docket.
Certainly after sixty minutes they looked out on their feet. That they were just three points down on the hour mark probably says as much for Kildare’s inability to go for the jugular as anything else.
All the same it’s not like Mayo had victory handed to them on a plate. They still had to make it happen. They still had to grab hold of the thing as Oisín Mullen did with that brilliant goal into the Hill 16 end. That’s what the good teams do, they find a way. They know how to win.
It was a similar story against Monaghan. Far from vintage by Mayo – or from Monaghan either for what it's worth – yet that hardly mattered. The win, the win was the thing. The only thing that mattered. Performance could and can come later, keeping the show on the road was much more important at that stage.
There’s no question either but that Mayo’s preparation for this weekend ought really to be vastly superior to whatever Kerry have been doing in the long lacunae between this weekend and the Munster final.
No doubt, Kerry will have been doing everything they can to retain their edge behind closed doors in Fitzgerald Stadium and or Currans. The intra-squad games are sure to have been full-blooded and, yet, nothing compares to the real thing.
Games against Monaghan and Kildare – both Division 1 opposition – over two weekends back-to-back with a rest weekend ahead of an All Ireland quarter-final is just about the perfect prep for a clash with the Kingdom.
Even the fact Mayo have had a recent run out and win in Croke Park to exorcise the ghosts of their previous visit to HQ for the League Final is another boon to James Horan’s men.
Not to be too superstitious, but even the fact that Kerry had such a comfortable time of it against Mayo in the league final at the start of April might give us pause going back to what happened last year. Tyrone struck back with a vengeance, could Mayo?
They could, they really could. More so because of the fact they’ve had meaningful games over the past couple of months in a way Kerry have not. Even by being beaten by Galway in Connacht, Mayo will have learned a lot more about themselves than anything Kerry might have garnered in Páirc Uí Rinn and Fitzgerald Stadium.
It’s actually a fairly bonkers situation when you think about it and puts Kerry at a severe disadvantage. Give us a battled-hardened side over one that’s well-rested any day of the week.
Nevertheless, despite all that, despite the fairly significant health-warning we’ve attached, we still have to think Kerry should be able to get the job done here. Why? Well Kerry have a greater depth of talent available to them than Mayo.
Kerry have more firepower, and that’s even before you consider that David Clifford is highly likely to come back into the fold this weekend for a starting berth.
Kerry’s bench is considerably stronger too with guys like Tony Brosnan, potentially Paul Geaney and or Killian Spillane, David Moran and Adrian Spillane being held in reserve. There are even players returning from injury like Dan O’Donoghue and Dara Moynihan to consider.
There is, or should be, a gap between the sides on that metric. No doubt. Not yawning though or anything like that, though. Mayo didn’t reach last year’s All Ireland final by chance, they didn’t down the Dubs though sheer luck.
Where might they have an advantage over Kerry, other than in terms of preparation? Midfield, perhaps. Aidan O’Shea started last time out against Kildare alongside Matthew Ruane, but something tells us Jordan Flynn will the preferred option for this weekend.
In Austin Stack Park in March, Flynn and Ruane held the whip hand on Diarmuid O’Connor and Jack Barry. Honestly, though, one gets the impression that the Na Gaeil men – Barry especially – have kicked it up a gear since then.
Defensively Mayo should be stronger now than when last they met with Eoghan McLaughlin and Paddy Durcan back in the side. Still it’s hard to imagine how James Horan can devise a plan to clamp down on all of Kerry’s attacking options, including from Brian Ó Beaglaoich and Gavin White who launch attacks from half-back with the vigour of Mayo at their very best.
Mayo’s front six have been typically under-appreciated of late, but would it be a massive surprise to see them click against the Kingdom? Would it be a huge surprise if Cillian O’Connor had a big game? Or his brother Diarmuid? Aidan Orme off the bench is a nice option to have too.
Overall, though, Kerry do just look the superior force. Or at the very least they’ve looked that way over the course of the championship to date. The question we have to ask is if all the glitters is actually gold?
Were Kerry as good as they looked in Munster? Or were the Kingdom simply flattered by the poverty of the opposition to them? As ever it’s probably a little of both or somewhere in between.
There will undoubtedly be quite a lot of dirty petrol to be cleared before the Kingdom starts to hum nicely and get in the groove. For Mayo that means if they’re to trouble the green and gold, they really need to hit the ground running, something they resolutely didn’t do against Kildare.
Once Kerry don't let Mayo get too far out of sight early on, if they're within striking distance at half-time, then their class should see them through. And if it’s after a battle, all the better.