Saturday 18 January 2020

Mayo have the means to make it to another decider

Their eyes are focused on one day and every step along the way is just that, says Colm O'Rourke

Mayo's Cillian O'Connor will be looking to help his team defeat Kerry and progress to another All-Ireland final. Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE
Mayo's Cillian O'Connor will be looking to help his team defeat Kerry and progress to another All-Ireland final. Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

In the past, Kerry and Mayo playing in an All-Ireland semi-final was easy to preview. You would make a few nice remarks about Mayo, then tip Kerry to win, and maybe even hazard a guess at the winning margin.

Now things are different. History is there to be made and this Mayo team have what it takes to beat Kerry, all other things being equal, which they rarely are when players gather on a football pitch.

In the past, too, footballers of all shapes and sizes in rural Ireland had jobs. Often employed by dreadful groups called builders and developers, who paid them good money and pumped lots of cash into local clubs. The great propagandist Goebbels would be impressed by how the media in this country have to a very large extent laid the blame for our economic problems on this group. Even the banks have got away with less hassle. Yet seven or eight years ago most people could not get away from banks writing or phoning them to take out loans for all sorts of things. Anyway, the upshot of it all is that a big part of rural Ireland's footballers now play for clubs in the US, Canada or Australia.

Many of these are from Mayo and Kerry and there will be a lot of crowding around televisions in bars from Toronto to Sydney to cheer on their team. Mayo have the greatest supporters in the world and that could probably include all professional teams as few other codes, relative to population, could boast of such enduring support in the face of adversity. I have compared them to Sisyphus in the past, the tragic Greek figure the gods ordered to roll a rock up a hill only for its weight to cause it to fall back down every time. They considered there was no worse punishment than hopeless and futile work. Sounds like a good idea for some students who cause me great annoyance, but no Irish mother would like a Sisyphus in their house.

Kerry may feel the weight of tradition will be worth a few points. Maybe so but my impression is that there is only one side who cast a shadow over Mayo these days and they play next Sunday. If Kerry are to win they will have to play better and probably score a few goals.

That naturally shifts the emphasis on to James O'Donoghue. He is a new hero who has had to take on more responsibility with the Gooch in dry dock. He did it in last year's semi-final against Dublin so Mayo know there is a big job of work for more than one man. The marking responsibility may fall to Keith Higgins, who has the speed, discipline and never-say-die attitude to curb the green-eyed monster. Putting someone in front of O'Donoghue will probably be part of the plan but ultimately every good forward has to be marked by a back. Anything else is a cop-out and where tight marking is diluted among a couple of players there is a recipe for disaster.

The same applies to Cillian O'Connor at the other end. Marc ó Sé has drawn the short straw for over a decade, having to always mark the best opposition forward and the same applies here. Maybe age is honourable and he will get a reprieve but the problem with many defences is that a lot of players are back but nobody actually marks anyone. Nothing beats telling a player that a certain opponent is their responsibility for the game, simple as that.

Each side will decide on their match-ups and so positions, in defence especially, mean little. The Kerry backline has not yet been really tested and maybe Paul Murphy, Killian Young, Aidan O'Mahony and Fionn Fitzgerald are brilliant players, but I am a Thomas on this one, I have my doubts. Galway had too many scoring chances to have great confidence in this group. And this was a Galway team who are only getting going. It is a setback for them that Alan Mulholland is not continuing because he started off at a low base and was just getting the train into a fast gear.

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Mayo handed Lee Keegan a marking job on Paul Kerrigan against Cork and this curtailed him. There may be a similar role again in taking Donnchadh Walsh. Keegan has often been a bit weak in his defensive responsibilities, but the Cork match showed a different side to his game. The real problem for Mayo has been in the full-back line. Ger Cafferkey struggled badly against Cork and Chris Barrett was off the pace. Injuries have taken their toll there and Croke Park exposes a lack of pace and match fitness. Colm Boyle will probably stay back to allow Donal Vaughan free rein upfield.

The battle around the middle will decide the issue. The monsters in this area are the O'Sheas and Moran for Mayo while Maher, Moran, Sheehan and Buckley will all see time in the middle for Kerry over the 70-plus minutes. Even discussing starting teams has become largely irrelevant as the dam-breakers usually arrive in the second half. Mayo can't afford to leave Declan O'Sullivan stroll around midfield spraying passes to inside forwards, so they will have to push someone up on him or else put one of their forwards in a man-marking job. Kevin McLoughlin would seem a suitable man to be volunteered for this role.

Mayo have to make sure that Kerry do not have spare men around midfield as their kick passing is better. The real marking job on O'Donoghue and Paul Geaney will take place out the field, denying Kerry time for the perfect deliveries they put in against Cork.

Kerry have played lovely football in their last two games, their foot passing was exceptional. It is still the best way to play football if it can be mixed up with hand passes going forward and gives time and space to a forward line which has skill, makes intelligent runs off the ball and likes to go for goals.

Yet Mayo look like a team who make a cold analysis of the opposition and then go out and do the job. It has appeared so far this year that there was very little enjoyment taken in doing so. The eyes are only focused on one day and every step along the way is merely that. With such experience now in the team they are also able to adapt on the field as the occasion demands while other teams look for guidance from the line.

I think the Mayo defence will tie up the Kerry attack and the O'Shea brothers can make enough bursts to create scores for themselves and others. Mayo for another final . . . even Sisyphus was eventually taken off the job.

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