Tuesday 11 December 2018

All-Ireland summit will look shrouded in fog for losers in a year of massive change

After a feisty league affair, Mayo and Galway will lock horns again in the
Connacht SFC again
After a feisty league affair, Mayo and Galway will lock horns again in the Connacht SFC again
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

By 5.30 tomorrow evening, the losers of the Mayo-Galway clash will be facing an eight-match marathon if they are to reach the All-Ireland final.

They may not finish it, but that's the challenge awaiting them if they hope to be in Croke Park on September 2.

It will look very daunting, especially in the early days while the disappointment of being dumped out of the Connacht Championship before mid-May still hurts, but that empty feeling will pass quickly enough. They will have almost four weeks to adjust before the start of the All-Ireland qualifiers, enough time to re-stock the confidence shelves, provided they aren't decimated tomorrow.

That's unlikely to happen as it's difficult to see either side winning easily, as happened in 2013 when Mayo beat Galway by 17 points in Pearse Stadium.

The Tribesmen are a much different proposition these days (only three of the 2013 team are named in tomorrow's starting line-up), with their recent Allianz League campaign suggesting that they have advanced into genuine All-Ireland title contender territory.

Mayo have been permanent residents there for the past seven years, during which time they have lost only two games in the Connacht Championship - both to Galway (2016-2017). On both occasions, they regrouped and safely negotiated the long journey to the All-Ireland final.

It took them seven games, including two replays and two periods of extra-time, to get there last year, one more than a similar exercise would involve this season.

And, unlike previous years when there was no safety net once teams climbed onto the qualifier high wire, a second slip wouldn't necessarily prove fatal in the round robin quarter-final series, where two of four counties reach the semi-finals.

In fact, it's highly probable that the second-placed finishers in each of the round-robin groups will have lost a game.

While Mayo twice failed to close out the All-Ireland deal after protracted campaigns in the qualifiers and beyond, long-haul success is achievable as Tyrone proved in 2005 when their run to the summit involved no fewer than ten games.

So while the difference between tomorrow's winners and losers will look substantial in the immediate aftermath, it's actually only two more games in terms of reaching the All-Ireland final.

Nonetheless, the 88th episode of Galway v Mayo is a massive event, having immediately stood out as the highlight of the early rounds when the provincial draws were made last October. It gained further stature during the league when, instead of living down to their rating as likely relegation candidates, Galway improved as they went, eventually taking 13 of a possible 14 points on their return to Division 1, before testing Dublin all the way in the final.

A few weeks later, the Connacht Council were scurrying to the shed in search of the 'Sold Out' signs as tomorrow's clash engaged the public interest in a manner not seen out west for a very long time.

Indeed, it's possibly the biggest early round provincial attraction since the All-Ireland qualifiers were introduced in 2001.

Tyrone (2008 All-Ireland winners) v Armagh (2008 Ulster champions) in the 2009 Ulster quarter-final and Donegal (2012 All-Ireland champions) v Tyrone in 2013 were also big draws, but this Mayo v Galway clash has a different context.

There's a countrywide fascination with Mayo and their ongoing struggle to end the All-Ireland misery while Galway's re-emergence as a genuine power is long overdue.

Many felt that the Mayo squad had run their race when they lost to Galway two years ago, yet a few months later they were in the All-Ireland final while their Connacht semi-final conquerors were flattened by Tipperary after a defensive implosion.

Predictions of Mayo's demise intensified last year when they again lost to Galway but, by September, they were back in the All-Ireland final and stretching Dublin to the limit of their endurance.

Mayo's capacity to rattle Dublin more than any other opponent has greatly added to the enigma that is the current green-and-red brigade. It's no secret that Dublin dislike Mayo, which is understandable since (Donegal in 2014 aside) Mayo are the only opponents to get under their skin every time they meet.

Others tend to show too much respect to Dublin, whereas Mayo engage very much as equals, even if they have failed to beat them since the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final.

The counties have met 13 times since then, with Dublin winning ten while there were three draws. It's all very disappointing for Mayo, since it's almost certain they would have won an All-Ireland in an era where the main power wasn't as strong.

Being second to a team that's ranked among the all-time greats brings no satisfaction whatsoever for Mayo. Indeed, if anything, it deepens the sense of frustration that while they push Dublin into the tightest of corners, they can never quite trap them.

A curious dimension to tomorrow's game is the widely-held view that Mayo need to win more than Galway on the grounds that facing into a gruelling qualifier slog for a third successive year might just tip them over the edge.

That's based on the premise that the starting 15 (or at least the announced 15) include seven players aged 30 or over. That would have been unusually high in any era, let alone at time when the average age is dropping.

Galway are at a much less-advanced stage in their cycle - hence the perception that they would be better equipped for 'back door' demands.

Of course that ignores the fact that Mayo are proven over the qualifier fences, having jumped no fewer than six over the last two years. The big risk for tomorrow's losers is they are drawn in the qualifiers against the losers of Tyrone and Monaghan in what is the only other all-Division 1 pairing in the early rounds across the provinces.

That would certainly be a demanding challenge on June 9, whereas tomorrow winners meet Sligo, who have been long-time Division 3 residents, in the Connacht semi-final six days earlier.

Indeed, Galway, Mayo, Monaghan and Tyrone all have good reason to curse a championship system which is so blatantly unfair.

Unlike Leinster and Munster, who structure their draw so that the top teams can't meet until the semi-finals, Connacht (subject to a rota system involving London and New York) and Ulster operate an open draw.

It has despatched Galway and Mayo on the same side in seven of the most recent nine seasons. Indeed, in 2013 and this year, it matched them in the quarter-finals.

It's not what either wanted but it has provided the championship with an early blockbuster, which could have a significant bearing on the wider All-Ireland landscape.

Of course in an age of hype, exaggerations thrive easily. There have even been suggestions that this is one of biggest Galway-Mayo showdowns in championship history.

It's a good promotional line, but it ignores the reality that irrespective of what happens tomorrow, both sides will still be in the All-Ireland race, unlike the stark pre-2001 days when provincial defeats ended the season.

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