Thursday 14 December 2017

Horan must keep Mayo focused on present to avoid Roscommon banana skin

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

GALWAY scattered and humiliated; Division 3 Roscommon having to come to Castlebar for the Connacht semi-final; Division 4 Leitrim and London in the other semi-final.

All this against a background where Mayo were rated No 2 in the country last year – any wonder the county is enjoying a mid-June giddiness not experienced for a long time.

Many Mayo supporters are already making arrangements for Croke Park and the All-Ireland quarter-final on the August Bank Holiday weekend, convinced that, bar a fall which would make Devon Loch's stumble in the 1956 Aintree Grand National look like a common event, the first Connacht three-in-a-row in 63 years for the Green and Red is a certainty.

Nor do they need reminding that Mayo went on to win the All-Ireland in 1950. James Horan has been doing what all managers do in these situations, warning of the dangers of presumption, while, at the same time, knowing full well that there isn't a single person in Mayo who doesn't expect a largely trouble-free run to Croke Park.

Rossies manager John Evans is playing the usual outsiders' hand, lauding Mayo for their impressive rate of improvement over the last two seasons and talking of how they believe they can finish the All-Ireland job this year. "There's a real presence about this Mayo team. They are very clinical in how they go about their business," he said.

Evans also talks about how Roscommon's 5/1 rating takes the pressure off his team. And yet, you expect that, deep down, he believes this is a great opportunity for Roscommon to exploit the sense of certainty which has attached itself to Mayo.

It's understandable that Horan is warning about unrealistic expectations among supporters, but his real challenge is to ensure that the players haven't booked their minds into Croke Park in seven weeks' time.

After all, Sligo's defensive structure restricted them to 0-12 and a two-point win in last year's Connacht final three weeks after Mayo had hit Leitrim for 4-20. And while things have changed for Mayo and Roscommon since the 2011 Connacht final, it's worth remembering that Mayo won by only two points on a miserably wet day in Dr Hyde Park.

Mayo will have 11 of the 19 (it would be 13 if Cillian O'Connor and Andy Moran were fit) of the 2011 Connacht final squad, while Roscommon will have eight of the 20 who came so close to upsetting the odds.

Evans reckons that Mayo's easy win over Galway was down to a combination of quality play by the winners and dismal defending by the losers, but clearly the message from Pearse Stadium for Roscommon was this: the work-rate has to be extremely high to survive against Horan's men.

Galway dipped to ridiculously low levels and were swatted aside like minors who had wandered into the wrong venue. Roscommon will certainly be more aggressive and will also clog the approach routes to the likes of Donal Vaughan, Colm Boyle and Kevin McLoughlin who sauntered upfield, often untouched by Galway hands, in the quarter-final.

Mayo thrive against opposition who do not set up defensively, which sends out a clear and practical message to Roscommon – seal the gaps or you have no chance. Mayo hit Galway for 4-16 last month, having scored 0-19 against Dublin, 3-18 against Down and 4-20 against Leitrim in last year's championship.

If Roscommon bolt the door, they have a good chance of surviving for longer than many think. Trouble is, that will reduce their efficiency at the other end. And, having failed to score a goal against Mayo in any of their last four championship games, they need a breakthrough on that front.

Mayo to win, but Roscommon to do enough to nourish their ambitions as they head for the All-Ireland qualifiers.

Verdict: Mayo

Mayo – D Clarke; T Cunniffe, G Cafferkey, K Higgins; L Keegan, D Vaughan, C Boyle; A O'Shea, S O'Shea; K McLoughlin, R Feeney, C Carolan; E Varley, A Freeman, A Dillon.

Roscommon– D O'Malley; N Collins, N Carty, S McDermott; D Keenan, N Daly, C Daly; K Higgins, M Finneran; C Devaney, K Mannion, C Cregg; D Smith, S Kilbride, D O'Gara.

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