How apt that today, June 26th, is the date of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, better known as Custer’s Last Stand, which took place 146 years ago, in 1876.
General George Armstrong Custer led his troops into battle in the near-certain knowledge they would be defeated by the native Americans led by Crazy Horse. And they were annihilated.
Today in Croke Park a Mayo team, including many battled hardened players and a very experienced manager in James Horan, attempt to face down adversity and insurmountable odds against many people’s favourites for the All-Ireland.
For Mayo, this is their version of Custer’s Last Stand. So, can they avoid the fate which befell Custer and his troops from the 7th Cavalry Regiment?
To set the record straight, I am not insinuating that Jack O’Connor is either crazy or a horse.
But no current GAA football manager has more experience, knowledge and trophies won – and he is working from a position of strength.
This is the third meeting of the sides this year. It seems the 15-point defeat Mayo endured in the Allianz League final derailed the team because ever since they have struggled in terms of form, cohesion, confidence, and injuries.
Qualifier wins over Monaghan and Kildare have offered up hope and badly needed game time for the returning warriors Cillian O’Connor and Jordan Flynn.
The team Mayo will field today is much the same, in terms of personnel, as the one which endured that embarrassing mauling in April.
What is needed is an overhaul in their strategy.
Disrupting their opponent’s flow and game plan is something the Mayo players have thrived on in the past – and they certainly can benefit from doing it today.
Forget about the David Clifford-Padraig O’Hora mismatch in the league final.
This was a case of a defender being left isolated with no protection. He was sent over the top of the trenches on his own.
The real problem was that O’Hora’s team-mates were putting no pressure on the Kerry players, and they had time and space to ping perfect passes into a lethal two-man, full-forward line.
Lee Keegan is playing the football of his life and what a life that has been. Year in, year out he has led Mayo, not just as a defender but also as an attacker.
Kerry would rather assign someone other than Clifford to curtail a man whose engine never blows black smoke. Keegan never raises the white flag.
If there was a purple heart medal for bravery and ‘soldiers’ wounded in GAA combat, Keegan would be the most utterly decorated player in history.
Mayo and their manager need to think differently. Our defence needs to be protected at all costs. There can be no repetition of what happened in April, when Kerry were allowed to roam free.
Stephen Coen is the ideal player to act as sweeper – and the possibility of double-teaming Clifford should be looked at.
But this is by no means a one-man Kerry side and the threat posed by Stephen O’Brien, Sean O’Shea and Paul Geaney – not to mention the firepower on their bench – must be addressed.
The bottom line is – give Kerry space and they will destroy you with pace.
Mayo seldom finish out games strongly when they are ahead; instead they withdraw into a shell.
They’re at their best when coming from behind in the final quarter; then they throw off the shackles and play their best football, as they did in last year’s epic semi-final win over Dublin.
In this context, the deployment of their substitutes is crucial, because they are needed to control the flow of the game and stamp their authority on proceedings.
This Mayo team is by no means a spent force and far from finished.
But the reality is that, for some of the players, today is a last stand. There are too many football miles in their legs for it to be otherwise.
Fortune favours the brave, but Mayo must be smart in how they go about the job.