Sunday 18 March 2018

Alan Brogan: This may be the last chance for some of these Mayo players

Andy Moran of Mayo in action against Sean Mullooly, left, and David Murray, 4, of Roscommon
Andy Moran of Mayo in action against Sean Mullooly, left, and David Murray, 4, of Roscommon

Alan Brogan

The football may not have been top quality last Sunday, but there was a lot at stake for both Mayo and Roscommon and what we got was one of the most pulsating, entertaining games of the summer. The local rivalry alone is enough to make even the coolest of operators a little jittery.

The reward for Roscommon tomorrow is a first All-Ireland semi-final appearance since 1991, while for Mayo this may be the last throw of the dice for some of those who have served their county so well and for so long in search of a Celtic Cross.

There was much to admire last week, such as the performance of Lee Keegan, or the equalising free by Donie Smith. But two things stood out that sum up Championship football, two things that I miss more than the scores and the medals.

The first was Mayo's comeback from seven points down. Time and again this Mayo team have shown remarkable spirit to recover in games. Who could blame their elder statesmen if this was one hill too many for them to climb? But they weren't found wanting and there is no doubt they have a great sense of belief. There is no better feeling than clawing back a lead and as a player you get a great buzz in challenging situations like that.

The other thing was the unity in the Roscommon side. Towards the end of the game, as substitutions were made, each player being withdrawn was greeted by both Liam McHale and Kevin McStay. A simple thing you might think, but I could tell the players appreciated having their efforts acknowledged by the management team and by fellow players.

I think the actions of McStay and McHale echoed the people of Roscommon in saluting their players and thanking them for their Trojan effort. The sense of unity and the feelgood factor that a job well done can bring to a team is difficult to replicate.

Mayo manager Stephen Rochford. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo manager Stephen Rochford. Photo: Sportsfile

It's back to business tomorrow and both teams will have spent more time in the classroom last week than on the pitch. It will have been an enjoyable week for the players, with plenty of time relaxing in pools and recovery baths, because the mental side of their preparation is most important.

History suggests that the perceived weaker county only gets one bite of the cherry. This may well be the case and Roscommon may have missed a golden opportunity last Sunday. It may be difficult for them to really believe deep down that they can go toe-to-toe again with a Mayo squad who have been in this situation so often.

Stephen Rochford should set his team up to test this resolve early and see if they can crack Roscommon. If Mayo can do this and get into an early lead it may be a difficult day for Roscommon. On the flip side, McStay and McHale have proven to be shrewd operators. There is no questioning McStay's football acumen and McHale strikes me as the type of guy you would run through a wall for.

They have already taken this Roscommon team to a level far beyond where they have been in years. They are probably in bonus territory now but there is an opportunity within their grasp if they can find one huge performance in Croke Park tomorrow.

Mayo will probably be the slightly edgier team, there's probably not much more heartbreak some of these guys can take. It's the same for their supporters. I watched the game last Sunday at a friend's wedding in Enniscrone. Thelma, the bride, is from Bangor Erris, a small town on the way to Belmullet. The Mass was at two o'clock and the priest had wrapped the ceremony up nicely so everyone was in the Diamond Coast for throw in at four.

The same priest left the room with 68 minutes gone, I presume unable to watch another tight finish involving his beloved Mayo. I'd say a few Our Fathers were said, and not for the first time.

The most remarkable thing was the reaction to Andy Moran's substitution after 58 minutes. There was a sigh of disappointment and disbelief and I have to admit I felt the same myself. For me, Andy Moran is the spiritual leader on this Mayo team, more so than Lee Keegan, Cillian O'Connor or Aidan O'Shea . . . trust me, I played against this Mayo team many times.

He's a guy who never knows when he's beaten, and if he does he never shows it. The three guys mentioned above will, barring injury or black cards, be on the field in the final ten minutes tomorrow. Andy Moran should be with them. Except for Cillian O'Connor, Mayo have no other proven match-winning forward and yet Rochford and his management team insist on Andy Moran finishing games on the bench.

I saw the psychology of this substitution first hand last Sunday, it was a blow to supporters and I'm sure it was a blow to the Mayo players. Either leave him on or bring him in after 40 minutes. Imagine the lift Mayo would get if Moran from his introduction for the final half-hour tomorrow.

A huge part of Jim Gavin's philosophy is that his substitutions don't weaken the team as most games at this stage of the year are won in the last 10n minutes. Maybe it's the players at his disposal, but Rochford hasn't got this right yet. Eamonn Fitzmaurice has left Stephen O'Brien on his bench, a pacey half-forward who has made significant impact in every game when he's been introduced. His form suggests he should be starting but Fitzmaurice has decided he needs his pace off the bench, similar to how Jim uses Bernard.

These are big calls by managers who know what's required. Mayo may well beat Roscommon tomorrow, indeed I think they will, but they won't have the impact off the bench to beat Kerry in their current guise.

I had many football conversations with my Mayo friends last Sunday. My read is that they are not sure what to expect from their team at this stage, but one thing came across loud and clear - they know this Mayo team won't lie down without a fight. If Rochford can find a way to have his best team on the field at the end of games, Mayo will still have a say in the destination of Sam Maguire this year.

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