I was in the good seats at the back of the stand in MacHale Park last Saturday night. I had agreed to meet Willie Joe of this parish, Rob Murphy and the rest of the podcast crew to see how the magic happens on match day! I gained quite the insight into the work involved in bringing a podcast together that we are fortunate enough to listen to each week.
Upon Maurice Deegan’s (early-ish!) much welcomed final whistle, rather than making my usual dash to the car, I hung around and listened in on the post-match podcast. To kill time, I sent my young lad off with the cousin to scour the bowels of the stadium for selfies and signatures. He wasn’t left disappointed and he returned with photos and memories to cherish. That should kill the prospect of him supporting the Dubs for another few years at least!
On looking through the photos with match winner McLoughlin, his favourite player Andy Moran, our injured captain Diarmuid, our returning saviour Cillian, the colossus that is Aidan O’Shea with his right foot in a protective boot (please God let it be precautionary!), plus many others, I got an enormous sense of pride in knowing that I am from Mayo, my son is a Mayo supporter and we all, as Mayo supporters, have an absolutely fantastic group of men representing our county.
Those lads that have donned the Green and Red over the last decade are a credit to themselves. They give their all on the pitch and they give their time to young kids off the pitch as well. I for one am exceptionally proud of this team. Whilst we might not have yet reached the Promised Land in terms of All-Ireland glory, we have enjoyed a savage number of good days because of them. Let’s hope we’ve a few more journeys this year.
Okay, nostalgia narrative over for today I promise – time to talk football. As regards on the pitch activities, we managed to return the apples to their orchard but only just. Armagh can count themselves slightly unfortunate to lose as it was a game Kieran McGeeney will feel they very much left behind.
Our victory had all the hallmarks of a typical Mayo performance. Our concession of a seemingly obligatory early goal for the third consecutive game is a worry. Our reaction to that setback was pleasing though. We wrestled back control of the game in the second and third quarters and McLoughlin’s solo run and finish to the back of the Albany end net put us in the perfect position to see out the game without pain. All that was required was a small bit of poise. I should be so lucky!
The last fifteen minutes of the game was sheer kamikaze football. Mayo once again showed their innate inability to control a game, an inability to say we are the better team here – we are the bigger fish. This is not your level yet Armagh. Instead we gave Armagh every opportunity to come back into a game and open the door which we should have hammered and bolted shut a long time ago.
In fairness to David Clarke, he persisted when he could with the short kick outs to retain possession. However, time and time again, Mayo players coughed up possession through a combination of lazy passing, carrying the ball into contact and waiting for the ball to come rather than attacking the play. Be it tiredness or fear, too many players seemed to go missing in the final moments.
Still a win is a win, and with the apples suitably returned to their orchard, it was Mayo that found themselves through to the Round 4 qualifier draw. I delayed my return to Dublin until Monday evening so was still in Mayo for the draw on Monday morning. This time it was the word “Cavan” on repeat from my lips listening to Radio One. No such luck again! Last out of the drum – Galway v Mayo. I should have known. This is going to be a long week!
This particular rivalry immediately sparks good memories for me. One of my earliest memories is the 1992 Connacht quarter-final between Galway and Mayo in Tuam Stadium. I remember going with my Dad while my elder brother stayed at home to watch Euro ’92 on the TV. That kind of early loyalty should be remembered if ever there’s only one All-Ireland ticket up for grabs in the house!
To this day, I can still recall my Dad parking outside a large red-bricked house on the Claremorris side of Tuam and him having to carry me on his shoulders most of the distance. I was a pain in the arse even then! The game ended a draw and Mayo would subsequently win the replay in Castlebar on their way to the Connacht title. I was six years of age and was now hooked on Mayo football. And our neighbours to the south would prove to become one of the long standing protagonists in this particular love affair.
Mayo and Galway would arguably play out the greatest of their rivalries between the years of 1996 and 1999. Mayo won three of the four Connacht titles on offer in this period defeating Galway along the way in 1996, 1997 and 1999. The other year you say? 1998? Well, Galway would beat Mayo in a thriller in Castlebar in the first round of the championship and would ultimately win some minor honour later that year (I can’t recall its name!) and bring it across the Shannon for the first time in thirty-two years.
For me this mini-era was the height of the rivalry as these were two evenly matched teams playing football of a high quality going on to compete in All-Ireland semi-finals and finals on a regular basis. On one side you had the likes of Mortimer, Cahill, Connelly, Nallen, Horan, Heaney, McDonald to name but a few. For the Tribesmen, you had Meehan, De Paor, Walsh, Donnellan, Fallon, Joyce, Savage. One sensed there was a healthy respect and admiration between the players. I’m not so sure the same can be said now of both current squads.
In James Horan’s first reign between 2011 and 2014, Mayo beat Galway in all three championship games in which they faced each other. Mayo would repeat the trick under Holmes and Connelly too in 2015. The average winning margin of championship victory over Galway was 9 points over a five-year period. This was utter Mayo dominance over a sustained period.
The low point for Galway football in this rivalry was in 2013 when Mayo embarrassed Galway on a scoreline of 4-16 to 0-11 in Pearse Stadium. Galway had Niall Coleman and Gareth Bradshaw sent off elucidating an indiscipline and lack of character which permeated the Galway team during this period. Alan Mulholland did little to inspire on the sideline either and in the autumn of 2014, having dispensed with Mulholland, the Galway County Board turned to former Sligo manager and Galway footballing legend Kevin Walsh.
Walsh seemed determined to shed Galway of their “nice footballer” image and adopt a more hardened approach. He seemed to have one goal in mind for Galway, and to paraphrase Sir Alex Ferguson, that was “to knock Mayo off their f*cking perch”. It saddens me to say, but Walsh succeeded in his primary aim.
Galway football right now may not be pretty. It is of the pragmatic rather than the aesthetic variety. It no longer evokes memories of Joyce, Fallon, Donnellan or Meehan. It may even cause those with longer memories to pine for the days of Purcell and Stockwell. Make no bones about it though, Kevin Walsh doesn’t give a damn about those notions. Walsh would argue that he is in a results-driven business and when it comes to his record against Mayo, he cannot be challenged.
In Walsh’s first year in charge in 2015, he suffered an honourable four-point defeat to Mayo in the Connacht semi-final. However, since 2016, he has yet to witness defeat to Mayo in league or championship, with Galway have beaten Mayo five times in competitive matches over this period. Whilst Mayo went about their victories between 2011 and 2015 in a swashbuckling and offensive manner, Galway have adopted a more defensive and functional approach. After all, needs must from a Galway perspective.
Since 2016, quite inconceivably, Mayo have failed to score more than 14 points against Galway in league or championship. The average scoring from Mayo’s attacking endeavours against the Maroon and White in the last four years is a meagre 12 points. In the 49 championship games played in 2019 to date, 14 points would have been a sufficient tally for victory on just 3 occasions. In other words, 14 points will not bring championship victory in 2019 94% of the time. Food for thought for James Horan I would have thought and how he approaches the game in Limerick on Saturday evening.
Mayo’s average scoring rate in league and championship this year is 17 points. In comparison, Galway’s average scoring rate is 14 points. Mayo have the skill, ball-winning ability and firepower to beat Galway on Saturday evening. However, above all what they need is (a) be fully ready for a battle and (b) to adopt a patient approach in their attacking play.
Now, these two traits may seem mutually exclusive but they are not. A patient approach is needed with possession in the same way as Roscommon evidenced in the second half of the Connacht final. If the shot is not on, Mayo must recycle the ball, pick and probe and take their opportunity at the right time. It is not an evening for panic. We have shooters in the likes of Durcan, McLoughlin, Coen, O’Connor and Moran. Patience is after all a virtue.
Mayo also need to be at the pitch of the game from Joe McQuillan’s very first whistle. After all this is a Connacht rivalry, regardless of what province the game is being played in. What Mayo require is a controlled aggression; what we cannot afford however is idiotic indiscipline. Both Keith Higgins and Diarmuid O’Connor saw the line in 2017 and 2018 respectively for petulant acts of retaliation These Galway lads are cuter than we think. It’s surely time for Mayo players to have wised up to these actions. Even in the league game in Castlebar this year, we had the game in our grasp only to concede needless and silly frees against the wind. Calm heads are needed. If we can keep fifteen players on the pitch at the final whistle, I am confident of victory.
And so we march on to Limerick. We venture back to the scene of that classic All-Ireland semi-final replay against Kerry in 2014. It’s a long way to travel for Mayo fans but these lads and this team are worth it. The Gaelic Grounds felt more like the Colosseum on that day in 2014 – an amphitheatre of nerves, passion and tension if ever there was one. This proved to be the final act of Horan’s first coming. Horan will not be thinking of anything other than the game in front of him though. There is a place in the Super 8s within sight. There is a battle with the old enemy to be fought – a sort of tribal warfare.
“The battlefield is a scene of constant chaos. The winner will be the one who controls that chaos, both his own and the enemies”. (Napoleon Bonaparte)
Time to control the chaos lads!