God, I badly needed that weekend off. Five weeks in a row was taking its toll on the body and the wallet – Newry, Castlebar, Limerick, Killarney and Dublin were all frequented in June and July. It felt like I was playing Discovering Ireland as a kid again!
The young lad was happy with the weekend off too as he caught up on a couple of play dates with his Dublin friends (I know, I’m not happy about it either). His friends were gobsmacked to hear that he had to travel to another county outside of Dublin for championship games. Said we were living in the dark ages. He lost their attention altogether when he tried to explain the concept of a neutral venue!
Anyway, I was able to recharge the batteries, do a couple of rest and recovery sessions, bit of yoga, freshen up the legs and the mind and mentally prepare myself for the massive challenge that lies ahead. The upshot is that I’m absolutely raring to go for Saturday evening. And that’s just me as a supporter! Imagine how much the players needed the break. Imagine how much they are chomping at the bit for what is essentially a winner takes all All-Ireland quarter-final on home soil.
The thirteen days break between games should have done our lads the power of good. Yes, Donegal had the same break but we needed it more. In the five weekends between June 22nd and July 21st, Mayo played five games on consecutive weekends whereas Donegal played just three. Signs of weariness were clearly evident in the white heat of Killarney and in Croke Park against Meath perhaps to a lesser extent. A weekend off won’t have harmed us one jot.
The gruelling five-week schedule was punishing on the Mayo dressing room and the physio table in particular. A profound thought struck me and I actually believe that such a sadistic schedule is disrespecting the traditions of the game, and is part of the last remnants of British culture on these islands. You may question the relevance and applicability of that statement. And you’d be absolutely right to because there is none! Sorry Donal Óg I couldn’t resist but jest at your expense; I will leave the nonsensical ramblings to you in future.
Jokes aside, though, Mayo have picked up a number of injuries since the defeat to Roscommon in May. Matthew Ruane, Diarmuid O’Connor, Lee Keegan, Paddy Durcan and Keith Higgins have all suffered injuries, either in training or matches, that have seen them miss crucial game time. Aidan O’Shea and Jason Doherty both picked up knocks against Armagh with O’Shea not hitting the heights lately of some of his pre-Armagh showings.
However, things may just be turning in the right direction for Mayo on the injury front. Cillian O’Connor and Seamus O’Shea have both returned to action in recent weeks. The injuries to Higgins and Durcan should have abated in time for Saturday and both would be major additions to the starting fifteen. There is also positive news on the availability of Diarmuid O’Connor too after a broken wrist sustained in training. Should our Captain Fantastic even be able to make the bench this weekend, then that would be a major boost to Mayo players and supporters alike. If the game is in the melting pot coming down the home straight, which I expect it will be, we will need all our generals on the pitch.
Tactically, what can we expect from Mayo? Well unlike the Galway and Kerry games (Mayo’s most eye-catching performances of this campaign for contrasting reasons), I do not expect the game to be won or lost in the opening stages. I think this will be a closer game throughout.
In Limerick, James Carr’s two early goals against Galway laid the foundation for our victory. It ultimately gave Galway too big a mountain to climb. That said, we did our best to give them a hand climbing it in the second half.
In Killarney, the game was over after the first half. After eight minutes Kerry led Mayo by 0-4 to 0-3. Between the 8th and the 31st minute, Kerry blitzed us with a ten-point scoring spree to leave the score at 0-14 to 0-4. The game was done and dusted. The second half was solely about limiting the damage, retrieving score difference or putting gloss on the scoreline, whichever way you want to look at it.
What has worried me consistently about our performances throughout this campaign has been our reluctance and inability to retain possession for sufficient periods of time. Against each of Down, Armagh and Galway there were times where we were unable to control the game in a manner that Dublin, Tyrone and indeed Donegal are so adept at. There is a skill in taking the sting out of the opposition, keeping them at arm’s length and allowing supporters to be assured of victory going down the home stretch. This is a skill we do not possess and I’m not fully sure if James Horan even wants us to.
During that attacking bombardment from Kerry in the first half, Mayo had spells of possession but wasted them on numerous occasions. A panic seemed to creep in when we went to three, then four, and then five points down after fifteen minutes. Mayo players seemed to look for the killer pass through the eye of a needle and for goal opportunities that were simply not on to try to get back in the game. This was kamikaze stuff. All we succeeded in doing was to cough up possession time and time again in the full forward or half forward line thus allowing Kerry to launch another offensive. Clifford, O’Brien and Geaney all made hay while the sun shone in Killarney.
Given the scorcher of a day that was in it, against a team with such an array of attacking talent, surely a more patient possession oriented approach would have been the order of the day. Even when five or six points down, I felt the onus was on Mayo to take the sting out of the game for five or ten minutes, retain possession, maybe win a few frees and try to find our feet as well as some oxygen. Alas, as we know all too well it didn’t pan out that way.
I believe that a more measured and methodical approach is required on Saturday if we are to emerge victorious. We cannot pin our hopes on an early blitzkrieg of the Donegal defence and pray to hang on for dear life for the remainder of the game. I’m not suggesting for one minute that we stifle our attacking instincts – I think our running game with Keegan, Durcan, McDonagh, and Higgins will still be the fulcrum of our game plan mixed with a quick kicking game into the full-forward line where possible. However, there will be times when possession and patience around the middle will be crucial if we are to come out the right side of the result in MacHale Park.
Our kickout strategy has been discussed at length and I fully expect Donegal to push up on David Clarke’s kick outs in the same way that Kerry did. If there is an option of a short kickout, perhaps if the play is a bit broken, then, with Keith Higgins or Chris Barrett always make themselves available, we should use this. However for the most part, I expect Clarke to go long on top of both O’Shea brothers (if Seamie starts).
I’m fine with this provided we have sufficient numbers out there clued in to the breaks. Donegal have a strong midfield too and plenty of big men to compete aerially. I suspect a lot of work and discussion has been focused on the breaking ball over the last week or so and it is vital that Mayo improve in this department, an area of which we once were the masters. Big games will be needed from the likes of McLoughlin, Boland, McDonagh, Boyle and Keegan around the middle if we are to gain primary possession from our own restarts.
What of Donegal? Well they too have had a spate of injuries in recent weeks most notably Eoghan Bán Gallagher ruled out for the rest of the season with a broken ankle. Neil McGee and Paddy McGrath both missed the dramatic draw with Kerry last time out and Paddy McBrearty appeared to tweak his hamstring towards the end of that game. The consensus is that all three will be available for selection this weekend.
This Donegal team is an impressive attacking outfit and Bonner (and Rochford) has them playing an exciting brand of football. The shackles of the Jim McGuinness and perhaps more pointedly Rory Gallagher eras have been well and truly thrown off. This is evidenced from the quality of football we have seen on the pitch but is also reflected on the scoreboard too. In their five championship games to date, Donegal have an average score of 1-19. In contrast, in Mayo’s seven championship games to date, we have racked up an average score of 1-16.
Donegal have a nice mix of youth and experience with players such as Stephen McMenamin, Jamie Brennan, Hugh McFadden and Jason McGee adding to the experience of players who have seen and done it all before like Michael Murphy, Ryan McHugh, Neil McGee and Paddy McBrearty.
In Shaun Patton, they have a Cluxton-esque like goalkeeper who can seemingly put the ball on a sixpence. He is as capable of finding his target 60 yards down the field as he is with a short kickout. Patton, along with Murphy and McHugh, has arguably been Donegal’s most influential player this year. Horan and his backroom team will need to have a plan on whether or not Mayo press the Donegal kickout and try to take away those short kickouts to the full-back line. He will also need a plan for the longer kickouts to the midfield runners on the wings as I suspect Donegal will try to keep the aerial ball as far away from Aidan O’Shea as possible.
There are so many interesting aspects to this game for supporters – match-ups for Murphy and McHugh, whether to start Andy Moran or not, kickout strategies on both sides, little tactical nuances, the return of injured players, the Stephen Rochford factor, one more kick in Mayo, etc. All of this adds to the build-up and intrigue, and gives us as supporters plenty of room for discussion in the office or in the pub or on the street, and especially on this forum.
As Mayo supporters we have had fantastic days in the past and will undoubtedly have many more in the future. Whilst you might think we have seen it all, we actually have not and indeed this Saturday evening will be a unique occasion, one which Castlebar has not experienced before. The town and indeed county will be buzzing with anticipation over the coming days. The Super 8s has its flaws, and I for one have my own gripes with the format but this game is essentially what it is all about – one game, winner takes all.
The prize on offer is simply mouth-watering; an All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park against either Tyrone or Dublin next weekend. For now, it’s all about this one game. Come 6pm on Saturday, MacHale Park will be a full house brimming with green, red and yellow. But just remember one important point – MacHale Park is our house. It’s our county ground. It’s our home. Time once more to get behind the lads and make it a fortress again on Saturday evening!