Sunday 15 December 2019

Colm O'Rourke: Mayo's time hasn't passed and Galway's has yet to come

Defeat is unthinkable for James Horan's men as they build again for September, writes Colm O'Rourke

Mayo manager James Horan
Mayo manager James Horan
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

There is a time for everything in life, according to Ecclesiastes, "a time to be born and a time to die" and it goes on, "a time to tear down and a time to build". Who does the tearing down and who does the building will be revealed in Castlebar today.

If Galway are able to tear down Mayo, it will, in my view, finish them as All-Ireland contenders and, to continue the Biblical theme, they will be like the Israelites who were condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years. Mayo people might say, so what? They have been there anyway for over 60 years at this stage and the promised land continues to be a mirage.

So there is a lot at stake for both teams today, even if Galway could recover from defeat so long as it is not another hammering like last year. A big performance is important but Galway are likely to get better with time - even if that means the next couple of years.

That may not apply to Mayo. There is a shelf-life with every team and Mayo are running out of road with this bunch. It is not age or the number of games but defeat which saps the spirit right through to the bone.

How much more is left in Alan Dillon or Andy Moran? Starting the two of them is hardly a ringing endorsement of the young Mayo forwards. Moran brought a bit of order to the Mayo attack in the match against Roscommon and it would appear bringing them on when the game has cooled from being an athletic contest to a football match would be better. Alan Freeman is one of the fall guys and he appears to be treated harshly but maybe he might make a bigger impact off the bench.

The problem with this Mayo team has always been inability to convert a high percentage of chances against the very top teams, in other words in the All-Ireland final. Now it seems that trouble is breaking out at the back as well. They were ripped apart by Derry, and Roscommon exposed them regularly. Perhaps it is time for Lee Keegan and Donal Vaughan to treat defence as their primary job and not an optional extra. Keegan always scores, and Mayo need these half-backs pushing forward, but not at any expense. The best player to attack and defend is Keith Higgins and the conundrum is where to play him. I think he is wasted at corner-back; maybe he would survive quite well at midfield where mobility is now much more important than the odd spectacular catch.

Presumably, Mayo's goalkeeper Robbie Hennelly won't be kicking the ball out as a straight fight between the midfielders. If it is then it will be a battle in the land of the giants; the measuring tape ran out at about six foot six on Galway's Tom Flynn and Fiontán ó Curraoin. Seamus O'Shea and Barry Moran from Mayo are not much smaller. ó Curraoin dominated midfield against Sligo and did so in a quiet, efficient manner. He won the ball and gave it to others to play. The main beneficiary was Galway centre-forward Shane Walsh who ran through at speed and kicked great points. It is very doubtful that will happen today as Colm Boyle still appreciates the old rule of back play: mark your man.

Galway have other players who will take a bit of watching, Danny Cummins, Paul Conroy and Gareth Bradshaw will attack from wing-back. If James Kavanagh and Seán Armstrong are fit they could make an impact later in the game, but it will take a career-best performance from all to win this one, even allowing for a bit of slippage from Mayo.

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There is also the possibility that Mayo have decided that the championship is only starting today and have geared training accordingly. Last year their best performances were earlier in the year and they could have been slightly over the top by September. That certainly is not going to be the case this time if the Roscommon performance is anything to go by. Yes, Roscommon made life difficult by flooding their backline, but a team of such experience as Mayo should have coped better. In their defence, they won crucial ball in the last 10 minutes which is a sign of a team that can lift things when there is clear danger. They can also thank Seamus O'Shea, Kevin McLoughlin and Andy Moran for holding their heads when plenty had lost theirs.

Mayo are very much at a crossroads and every day they go out now is a test of their footballing manhood. They may feel they never bought into this but if you fail a couple of times close to the top of the mountain then the judgements are harsh. There is no glory in individual performances anymore, there are winners and losers and players won't be judged on Connacht medals. In general, players baulk at this and argue that the public scrutiny amounts to comparisons to well-paid professionals. That is true but the argument is also valid that amateur footballers are representing the pride, culture and vision of their counties and as such are entitled to be looked on in that light. They don't have to play. The professionals can argue that it is just a job to them.

Anyway, the philosophical arguments won't count today. After the soul-searching of last year Galway have come back with renewed spirit. When I saw them early in the Allianz League against Meath they looked like a team destined for relegation, but they got better and survived. That upward trend seems to be continuing. They play a nice style of open, attacking football. The problem for Alan Mulholland is that supporters love that type of football, but when they lose the team is accused of being naive. And this coming from people who would not know the first or last thing about a covering defender. 'Sweeper' must be the most abused word in the GAA.

This match represents a watershed for Mayo. If they lose today then I think it is very unlikely they will make the quarter-finals. Momentum is key for them. The players must realise that and the performance today should reflect this reality. Galway have improved a lot but are not ready yet for Dublin, Donegal, Monaghan or Kerry. Mayo were in that group for the last few years and I think they still will be after this game. To continue with Ecclesiastes 3, there is "a time to search and a time to give up". The search for Mayo must go on with renewed energy, an absence of shapers and plenty of sheer manliness.

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