Tuesday 20 August 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Are western rivals the real deal or mere pretenders?'

Mayo and Galway set to begin a journey that they both hope will end up with Sam Maguire

Tribal rivalry: Players from Mayo and Galway parade before last year’s Connacht SFC quarter-final – both teams will have their sights set on derailing Dublin’s bid for a five-in-a-row. Photo: Sportsfile
Tribal rivalry: Players from Mayo and Galway parade before last year’s Connacht SFC quarter-final – both teams will have their sights set on derailing Dublin’s bid for a five-in-a-row. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The neighbours have gone their separate ways for the Bank Holiday weekend, but while Galway and Mayo footballers are 3,500 miles apart, they won't have forgotten each other.

Neither will admit it, lest the rest of Connacht are prodded into vengeful retaliation, but away from the 'one-game-at-a-time' mantra, they expect to face each other in the Connacht final in Pearse Stadium on June 16.

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So, too, do the markets, who have made them overwhelming fancies to meet in the final for the first time since 2014.

That Galway are 4/5 favourites to win the title (Mayo 5/4) is due to the Tribesmen being on the easier side of the draw with London and Sligo.

Even allowing for Leitrim's impressive advance this year, they are unlikely to beat Roscommon on Sunday week, leaving Anthony Cunningham to take his squad to Castlebar for a semi-final on May 26.

Tricky

Galway boss Kevin Walsh (pictured) and Mayo’s James Horan will both have All-Ireland aspirations for their teams. Photo: Sportsfile
Galway boss Kevin Walsh (pictured) and Mayo’s James Horan will both have All-Ireland aspirations for their teams. Photo: Sportsfile

It looks a tricky assignment for Mayo, who beat Roscommon by just one point in the opening round of the Division 1 campaign, but if the hype surrounding them since the win over Kerry in the Allianz League final is even remotely related to reality, they will return to the Connacht final for the first time since 2015.

The clear message emanating from Mayo this year has been about the urgent need to win Connacht.

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"We've probably let ourselves down the last three years in that competition and we're definitely targeting putting that right in 2019," said Mayo forward Jason Doherty.

Galway would, no doubt, query the 'let ourselves down' comment, having beaten Mayo in all three seasons, twice in Castlebar. Despite that, Mayo reached the All-Ireland final in 2016 and 2017, while Galway twice stalled in the quarter-finals and once in the semi-final.

Kevin Walsh's men continued their dominance over Mayo in this year's League, but missed out on a place in the final when losing to Tyrone in the last round.

If they had won, Mayo would have been squeezed out and lost the massive confidence boost which came from winning the final.

The triumph over Kerry - their second in a few weeks - has left Mayo supporters believing that the All-Ireland is back as an achievable target this year.

That was regarded as unlikely when James Horan returned for a second stint. Many thought a massive overhaul of the panel would follow, inevitably leading to some pain as the new model adjusted to faster circuits.

Galway boss Kevin Walsh and Mayo’s James Horan (pictured) will both have All-Ireland aspirations for their teams. Photo: Sportsfile
Galway boss Kevin Walsh and Mayo’s James Horan (pictured) will both have All-Ireland aspirations for their teams. Photo: Sportsfile

Instead, Horan opted to stick with most of the existing panel, while also slotting in some new faces. Three championship debutants, James McCormack, Matthew Ruane and James Carr, will line out against New York tomorrow, but otherwise there's vast experience across every line and on the bench. Mayo are fourth favourites behind Dublin, Kerry and Tyrone for the All-Ireland title, with Galway next in line.

Kevin Walsh won't be complaining about that rating, but since Galway have had Mayo's measure in all competitions for the last three years, the question arises as to why they still aren't ranked ahead of their greatest rivals.

The answer rests in their poor showings against Tipperary (2016), Kerry (2017) and Dublin last year, games they lost by a combined total of 29 points.

For whatever reason, Galway have been unable to replicate Mayo's championship defiance in Croke Park, a failing that was ruthlessly highlighted in last year's All-Ireland semi-final when Dublin out-scored them by 0-15 to 1-3 in the second half.

Promising

It finished a promising season on a low point, while also casting doubts on Galway's tactical approach. Walsh could justifiably point to how it had taken Galway out of Division 2 and into a Division 1 final while also winning two Connacht titles in three years, but why was it so inadequate against Dublin?

Little changed from a structural viewpoint in this year's League but, in fairness to Walsh, he was working off a weakened hand due to a spate of injuries.

Surviving in Division 1 would, in those circumstances, have been a good campaign, but Galway actually came very close to reaching the title.

The injury worries continue but, with all due respect to London and Sligo, Galway should be able to road-test some new ideas without compromising their chances of reaching the Connacht final.

That's why tomorrow's game will be interesting. If Galway don't go for an expansive approach against opposition that were 26 places beneath them in the League, it's unlikely they will try it later on.

And, on the evidence of recent years, they need change if they are to move to the next level.

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