Wednesday 22 November 2017

Mayo to complete 'big four' line-up

Lee Keegan’s 1-3 haul last week compensated for the disappointing tally of four points from play from the Mayo forward line. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Lee Keegan’s 1-3 haul last week compensated for the disappointing tally of four points from play from the Mayo forward line. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Dublin, Kerry and Tyrone, three of the four long-time All-Ireland favourites, have checked in safely for semi-final action, but Mayo still have business to transact if they are to complete the fancied quartet.

Unlike the others, who all took the direct route to the quarter-finals, Mayo had the safety net removed before mid-June, leaving them vulnerable ever since.

They have had some scares along the way, but were able to draw on their vast reserves of experience and resilience to help them survive.

Indeed, they have become so good at it that when Roscommon hit them for two early goals last Sunday, there was no discernible sense of crisis, but rather a steely determination to stick with the game plan and trust that it would find a solution.

Heartbreaking

That's what comes from years of exposure to high-pressure situations. The overriding perception of Mayo may be of a squad trapped in a heartbreaking run of big-day defeats, but there's another dimension, one based on consistency levels that see them bidding to reach the last four for a seventh successive year.

Only Dublin and Kerry can match that, but then Mayo have been unable to emulate the other two by winning the All-Ireland.

They haven't even won the Connacht title for two seasons, instead plotting the course to Croke Park via the Qualifiers.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter how a team gets there - indeed, if Mayo win today the busy schedule may leave them better tuned for the semi-final than Kerry, who weren't stretched by Clare, Cork or Galway.

Claims that Mayo's busy schedule makes them vulnerable are based on nothing substantial.

Super-fit players can easily cope with it and, as Mayo manager Stephen Rochford pointed out after the draw, it wasn't an issue against Roscommon.

"We were still driving on in the six minutes of injury-time. The guys are in good condition and they'll be in good condition to go again next week," he said.

Durability has never been Mayo's problem, as they have repeatedly shown over several seasons.

In fairness to Roscommon, only their most committed supporters expected them to beat Mayo last week, but they ignored the odds and came very close to pulling off the biggest surprise of the championship.

Now the question is: did they miss their chance or will the positive experience unleash even more power?

History shows that favourites who are held to a draw almost always win the replay. Roscommon have fairly recent experience of that, having drawn with Galway in last year's Connacht final, only to be beaten heavily in the rematch.

The damage in that game was inflicted early when Galway took control, opened a sizeable lead and coasted all the way to the finish. Mayo, no doubt, harbour similar ambitions and after their slow start last weekend will be determined to flick the concentration switch straight away today.

Roscommon had the near-perfect start last week, galloping into a seven-point lead before Mayo woke up to the reality that it was going to be a lot tougher than they might have thought. Indeed, it was a severe test of their resolve and they responded in convincing fashion. Having done that and opened up a two-point lead by half-time, they seemed well-primed to press on against less experienced opposition.

Instead, they scored only four points in the second-half, with Roscommon kicking 0-6 to earn themselves a second chance, which they thoroughly deserved.

It must be a matter of concern for Rochford that his starting forward line scored only four points from open play. Lee Keegan's 1-3 haul compensated for that, but his enterprise was facilitated by Roscommon's line-up, rather than a tactical plan.

Keegan was despatched to midfield to shadow Enda Smith, who had exerted a match-winning influence on the Connacht final.

Mayo could hardly believe their luck that what was, in effect, was a man-marking move, turned into something much more advantageous.

Kevin McStay later moved Smith to full-forward, taking Keegan and Mayo's biggest threat with him, which was a relief to Roscommon. It will be interesting to see how McStay and Rochford deploy this pair today.

McStay deserves enormous credit for the manner in which he carefully rebuilt Roscommon's morale after a league season which ended in relegation from Division 1.

Criticism

Not only that, but McStay and his team took some heavy criticism, some of it from very close to home, which was as ridiculous as it was unfair.

McStay always believed that there was more to Roscommon than their league results (one win from seven games) suggested; a faith that has been vindicated this summer.

Last week's game will have further boosted their confidence, especially the manner in which they worked in the second-half. Having a seven-point lead wiped out in the first-half was a draining experience, but Roscommon responded positively with two points on the restart ,which set them up for a defiant stand in circumstances where others might have folded.

They are certainly a squad with potential, but, in terms of experience, they are a long way behind Mayo. That could be crucial today.

Roscommon's early goals in the drawn game gave them a cushion which sustained them for a long time. It's very unlikely that Mayo will be as defensively sloppy today, while there's also lots of room for improvement in attack.

Roscommon will feel that there's more in them as well, but it still might not be enough to prevent Mayo booking a semi-final clash with Kerry next Sunday week.

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