Sunday 25 August 2019

Donnchadh Boyle: 'Mayo will need their greatest act of defiance yet to stay in the hunt for Sam'

Lee Keegan of Mayo leaves the pitch with an injury against Armagh
Lee Keegan of Mayo leaves the pitch with an injury against Armagh
Mayo Manager James Horan. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

When the story of this Mayo team comes to be written, the author will need at least two volumes - and they won't know where to start.

There have been tragic defeats and heroic wins; there were two own goals in an All-Ireland final, the sort of bad luck that would have you believing in curses.

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They have held the nation in thrall through unquestionable defiance and questionable decisions. There has been internal strife and external praise, while drama follows them around like a loyal hound.

Already this year they have played Championship games in three different territories requiring three different currencies.

Last week they did what they almost always do and went to the brink with Armagh before doing just enough.

They are unlucky to be around at the same time as Dublin started to build their dynasty, but have also gotten in their own way at times. They are probably sick of hearing how unlucky they are.

And, just when they could probably do with a break falling their way, they are handed a do-or-die game against their biggest rival.

Of all the teams Mayo could have drawn, Galway were undoubtedly the toughest. Of the four different sides they could have been paired with, Galway have the best recent record, reaching last year's All-Ireland semi-final.

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It really should have been no surprise that they were paired with their neighbours. Mayo's pursuit of glory rarely dips below the epic. When the sides met in the league in March, Kevin Walsh's men dished out a seventh beating in four years.

Not for the first time, this Mayo team have been handed lemons; now they'll try and make lemonade.

In his first stint in charge, James Horan never lost in the Championship to Galway. However, this is Mayo. It's never as straightforward as simply reversing the trend that has taken hold since Horan (inset) left in 2014.

Injury has wreaked havoc this week and this year, depriving Horan of many of the players on whom this great Mayo adventure has been built.

A surprise home defeat to Roscommon sent them through the back door once more and now that loss looks to have cost them more than just a shot at the Connacht title.

Team captain Diarmuid O'Connor, who was twice named Young Footballer of the Year, is sidelined after fracturing his wrist. A winner of the actual Footballer of the Year gong, Lee Keegan, is not expected to play.

Seamus O'Shea is working his way back from a lengthy period out. Another midfielder, Tom Parsons, is doing likewise having suffered a stomach-churning knee injury sustained in defeat to Galway last year.

One of their finds of the year Matthew Ruane - who was starting to form a strong midfield partnership with Aidan O'Shea - is also out.

And this week it emerged that O'Shea, who is enjoying one of his best seasons in the county jersey, is also a doubt.

In that context, even the return of Cillian O'Connor doesn't feel like the boost it should.

Mayo are going to have to do it the hard way, but regardless of injuries they would probably have seen to that themselves.

They face a Galway side who are at a crossroads of their own. Under Kevin Walsh, discernible progress has been made year on year.

Galway are now an established Division 1 team who can win in Croke Park and also beat their great rivals Mayo.

They were none of those things before Walsh arrived, but, like Mayo, defeat to Roscommon has thrown them off their expected flight path. Galway bombed so badly in the second-half of their provincial final that progress under Walsh feels like a distant memory.

They are still just a win away from a place in the 'Super 8s' and should they make it that far, they'll fancy their chances of getting out of a group that also features Kerry (who they beat last year), Donegal and either Meath or Clare, both of whom operated in Division 2 next year.

For Galway it's about playing to their strengths and utilising the talent of the likes of Shane Walsh and Ian Burke.

Damien Comer's ongoing absence robs them of a different option. Fiontán Ó Curraoin was forced off against Roscommon, while Paul Conroy is also battling his way back.

However, Galway are likely to keep faith with the system that has confounded Mayo over the last few years.

And, considering all the bodies Mayo are down, Horan's men might need their most dramatic escape act yet to stay in the hunt.

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