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Moran out to rule the skies

For too long in a past sprinkled with football gold dust but speckled by ultimate failure, adversity has been Mayo's greatest ally. This Mayo team may come no closer to amending a depressing historical script of hurt, but their attempts betray a cruder dismissal of the follies that have infected so many of their predecessors.

Playing with style so often seemed the primary requirement for Mayo football supporters through the generations. Too often it prevented them from actually winning.

James Horan has attempted to eradicate that flaw from the county's DNA. The kingpins of Connacht pitch up in Croke Park tomorrow with a more firmly implanted belief in their own ability than at any time in their recent past.

"The Dubs in Croker," muses Horan. "It will be pretty close to a full house. That's where you want to play. That's what you want to do. We're looking forward to it. Can't wait."

Horan has swept the minefields of Mayo for insecurity and added mental strength to their renowned physical abilities; Sunday awaits the consummation of this potent marriage of the cerebral and the corporeal.

The crippling insecurity that may be caused by the absence of talismanic score-getter and distributor par excellence, captain Andy Moran, has had four weeks to be absorbed by the squad.

Last week, it was clear that Horan had already assumed the responsibility for tailoring his plans.

Asked would he mind slotting in at the edge of the square, as he has done so notably in the past, Barry Moran demurred.

"Don't answer that, you'll be a hostage to fortune," smiled Horan, who had by then already earmarked Cillian O'Connor for the role.

With Alan Brogan's fitness still deemed extremely doubtful, Mayo supporters know that the imbalance caused by Andy Moran's absence has an obvious counter-weight. For their part, Barry Moran's story reflects Mayo's arduous climb from adversity to opportunity.

This time last year, he watched Mayo from the bleachers as they first dethroned Cork before displaying a familiar inability to back up a winning performance against eventual beaten finalists Kerry.

The luckless injury victim relates a story that could apply itself to Mayo football in general since Horan's ascension from the managerial ranks in club football, where he took an unfancied intermediate side in Ballintubber to a once-in-a-century senior title win.

"I had to have a look at myself," says Moran, who will be part of a sturdy, ball-winning Mayo midfield tomorrow.

"I picked up an injury at the start of the year and I wasn't really up to inter-county standard and was cut when it came to the championship panel.

"I had to look at myself and put the head down. I'd great help from James and all the back-room team who got me fit and healthy."

Two Man-of-the-Match performances this summer reflect his progression. Initially, Moran cut his teeth in inter-county football largely as a full-forward, having been first introduced to the panel as a teenager in 2005.

He came on as full-forward in the All-Ireland final the following year; returning to the edge of the square tomorrow would indicate that Mayo have forfeited their pre-match plans and handed the initiative to Dublin.

The arrival of canny Cian O'Neill and Ed Coughlan to Mayo's back room -- the Mayo management is a model of delegation -- has strengthened Moran's capability of lasting the pace at this level. Again, he offers a microcosm of the squad's quasi-professional approach.

"When I started off a few years ago with Mayo, you'd go into a gym and it would be a case of lift this, lift that. The more you could lift the better. James and the back-room team -- Ed Coughlan, Cian O'Neill -- have done an awful lot of work with me.

"Stretching is a big thing for me now, not necessarily going out to lift massive weights. I've done a small bit of yoga.

"They've definitely helped me compared to my approach a few years ago, which was probably counter-productive if anything. It's all about endurance training with me now."

The middle third, as always, will provide the key to Sunday's game; Mayo will surely need goals to thrive and a surfeit of possession will be required.

Dublin's reliance on defence, amidst ongoing qualms about their cohesion up front, will see them try to limit the game's potential as a shoot-out.

Expect Michael Darragh Macauley to once more sweep the midfield as a break-winner, rendering Moran and Aidan O'Shea's attempts to snaffle clean fetches null and void.

However, Dublin will have noted the tearaway nature of Mayo's half-backs this term; the threat is liable to come from anywhere. The football must still be secured, though.

"It's all about primary possession now," says Moran. "And it doesn't matter whether it's the corner-back, the wing-back or the midfielder getting it.

"And you're going to have lads coming in at you the minute you field the ball. So it's all about trying to lay it off as quickly as possible. Try to set up an attacking play. I still think that fielding the high ball is a valuable part of the game.

"If you catch a ball and you're lucky to come down with it but suddenly see three guys coming towards you, you want to get possession away as quickly as possible, otherwise you'll just be bottled up.

"A lot of teams have begun to realise that now. It's probably the way that the game is going that you need to adapt to that now."

Mayo's adaptability to circumstances has franked their improvement as a side. They remain, though, a member of the elite without the definitive achievements to back it up.

Tomorrow they aim to take that decisive step. Mayo's adversity is no longer a distraction, but a motivation.

Irish Independent