Midfield duels will be key to outcome

All-Ireland SFC Quarter-final Group 1 Phase 1: Kerry v Mayo, Sunday July 14, Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney. Throw-in at 4pm. Referee: Sean Hurson (Tyrone). Live on RTE 1/winner on the day

Paul Brennan

In the moments after Mayo's National League Final win at the end of March their manager James Horan, when addressing the media and appraising the match said of Mayo: "[If we] were as effective as we should be, [we] could've won by 10 to 12 points to be honest."

Needless to say Horan's comments raised a few eyebrows when they made they newspapers the following morning. It wasn't necessarily what Horan said that surprised anyone, but that he said it at all. GAA managers are notoriously guarded pre- and post-match and every other minute of the week in any and all public utterances, so for Horan to suggest that Mayo's four-point League final win over Kerry could have been treble that was a surprise.

But was he right in his assessment? Thinking a 10 or 12-point winning margin was on might have been a little generous to his own team - especially when David Clifford was one fantastic save away from possibly turning the game irreversibly in Kerry's favour - but Horan was merely verbalising what he saw as a dominant performance by his own team.

Reminded last Saturday evening after Mayo beat Galway to set up next Sunday's Super 8 meeting with Kerry in Killarney, the Mayo boss was reminded of his post-League final comments and asked if they might stir a hornet's nest in the Kingdom.

"I'm sure Kerry really don't care what I say, to be honest," Horan said. "I just thought that on the day we created a lot of goal chances that we didn't take. We took our first two but missed our next three. That was my initial reaction. I try and be as straight as I can. I don't think Kerry will give two hoots about what I say."

And he's right. To a degree. His counterpart Peter Keane will have plenty to occupy his mind this week besides reflecting back on what Horan had to say on March 31 after a game that Keane - publicly at least - didn't appear too disappointed to have lost. But it's the detail in what Horan said back then that should still resonate in the Kerry camp.

Having won their first national title in 18 years it is instructive that Horan was honing in on the missed goal chances as much as the three Mayo did score and the general delight at Mayo finally lifting silverware in Croke Park. And given the Kerry supporters' concerns - whether or not those concerns are held inside the Kerry camp is another matter - about their team's defence and it's propensity to leak goals, it's interesting to see that Mayo have raised six green flags in their five Championship games since that League Final. Those historical issues with regard to Mayo teams not being able to score enough would appear to be fairly well allayed given that this team has scored 19 points in their three games in the Qualifiers.

Given that Kerry have averaged 20 points in their two Championship games - and knowing what we know about when Kerry and Mayo meet - we can expect a high-scoring, run-it-and-gun-it sort of contest with plenty of niggle and acrimony thrown in in front of what is expected to be a full capacity 32,000 crowd on Sunday afternoon.

The return to action of Cillian O'Connor is a huge boost for Mayo, and his free-taking alone will be as important to the visitors as Sean O'Shea's will be to Kerry. Kevin McLoughlin's pedigree as a hard-working and creative wing-forward is well established by now, but it's the addition of Darren Coen, Fionn McDonagh and James Carr that has really bolstered the Mayo attack, even if Diarmuid O'Connor's injury-forced absence robs them of a fine forward. There's also Jason Doherty, Fergal Boland, Evan Regan and, of course, Andy Moran to play some part too.

Kerry are, of course, pretty well set in the double-digit jerseys with Clifford, O'Shea and Stephen O'Brien as good a forwards anywhere in the land right now. The form of Paul Geaney has been disquieting and the Dingle man really needs to find his mojo on Sunday lest the management start to get a little frustrated with the 2016 and 2017 All Star.

There's also James O'Donoghue, who's cleared fit and ready after a hamstring injury, but who will come into this game with questions as to his ability to get through a highly attritional game like this will without breaking down.

Needless to say, it's at the other end of the park where Kerry are most vulnerable. Even allowing for Mayo's hardened defenders and defensive structure, there's good reason to believe those Kerry forward can tally 17 or 18 points between them, but the six-marker is whether or not the home defence can hold Mayo to less than that. When one considers Mayo scored 3-11 in that League Final and Cork notched 3-10 in the Munster Final, it starts to become a little worrying from a Kerry perspective. Factor in the two or three other goal chances Horan felt his team should have taken back in late March, and remember how Cork peppered Shane Ryan's goal on several other occasions without success, and, well...

If this game is to be hinge on a sector or player(s) rather than a lucky/unlucky bounce or a decisive/indecisive call by the referee - and Sean Hurson and his officials are going to have a busy time watching all the off-the-ball stuff and the gamesmanship - then midfield is going to have a huge bearing on the outcome.

Whatever the cold statistics might say about the midfield duels in the two League meetings, the perception - and reality, we'd suggest - is that Mayo dominated midfield in the main in both games, especially the League Final. Of course, Matthew Ruane is now unavailable for Mayo, while David Moran is now available for Kerry, so that shifts the dynamic considerably towards the Kingdom. Nevertheless, Moran and whoever partners him (presumably Jack Barry, though Adrian Spillane is a live option) need to at least break even at midfield and curb the influence of Aidan O'Shea and, probably, Donal Vaughan.

There's general agreement that Clifford, Geaney et al inside can cause havoc if they get regular fast ball played to them.

Mayo played some super heads up football against Galway, getting quick ball to Coen, Carr and Cillian O'Connor, who made Galway pay dear.

In line with recent meetings this one really is too close to call, with Kerry hoping 'The Stadium' can push them over the winning line.