Not long to wait now so no better time to welcome JPM back into the guest slot to preview Sunday’s contest.
Photo: Mayo Mick
The All-Ireland football semi-finals are here. Mayo versus Tyrone and Dublin versus Kerry. Arguably the four top teams in the country. All are Division One teams and each have a pedigree to their name. Dublin, Leinster champions and League winners. Tyrone, League runners-up and arguably top dog from Ulster. Ourselves, League semi-finalists and Connacht champions. And Kerry, always Kerry.
We are first up and it’s actually the best position to be in. Whoever comes out on top Sunday will have the luxury of watching the following match in comfort, able to analyse their respective opponents’ positives and negatives. The other semi-finalists will have no such security as they will be concentrating hard on trying to beat their opposition rather than inspecting the fare that will be on display Sunday next.
From a fan’s point of view it’s also great to be here. We may still be basking somewhat in the afterglow of destroying the All-Ireland champions again. But we can also look forward with anticipation to the next hurdle in a brilliant year for the county. For our team though it’s a new challenge now facing them.
Much has been spoken of Tyrone, including contributions on this site, and reading further afield from Hogan Stand and GAA Board. The gist of it all is that we cannot underestimate them. Look at their record this year alone. After promotion from Division Two they followed that up by getting to a Division One League final, an achievement in itself.
Their goal then was to push on and challenge once more for the Ulster title. However they were beaten in the first round in Ballybofey where again, similar to last year, it was a case of chances not being taken with goalie Niall Morgan in particular having an off day.
But since then, after the automatic tumble into drawer B for the qualifiers they have been nothing short of a revelation. In the history of the qualifiers I don’t think any team has gone on the road five times to different counties and provinces and week in week out recorded success at every stage. The ability to dig deep and win (however ugly it might appear) is hardened into the marrow of this Tyrone team.
Much has been said also of how cynical they are, and rightly so as everyone has witnessed. But let’s not forget that the same accusations were pointed at us last year so we know what it’s like. Also this continuous highlighting and finger pointing is only helping create a siege mentality in Tyrone amongst the players and the fans. Plus what people seem to ignore is that while this cynicism and gamesmanship may not always have been as prevalent, far worse has been witnessed on GAA pitches in the past. Take a peek yourselves at some of the “classic moments”:
These are really only the tip of the iceberg. You can imagine yourself what went on prior to TV and smart phone coverage. The bottom line is that while the black card is coming in next year, until that happens we have to accept that what has been observed this year is just part of the modern game.
Also it’s dangerous to focus on one particular facet of play. This Tyrone team are much more than this. They are blessed with a mixture of youth and experience across the pitch. They have All-Ireland winning medallists in their ranks along with several players of the year. Stephen O’Neill may not be the player he was in 2005 however if he were to click into action for only one more game at this stage, then Tyrone fans would be more than happy. There are others who are worth mentioning though. In particular is Seán Cavanagh. No need to talk here about this man’s ability or will to win. The question that really has to be asked is how come the hunger is still there after so many years of success already under his belt. The answer I feel is the one other major plus this Tyrone team possess.
A devout man, Mickey Harte is recognised throughout the world as a great GAA manager. He may be an old stager on the management scene but I believe he is far more important to Tyrone football than any individual player they possess. Having listened to several of his interviews it’s inspirational how he delivers a positive message the whole time. After all we can only imagine what this man has been through. But his spirituality shines across that divide, and he has been the main fundamental that has made Tyrone such a force in modern GAA terms.
Suffice to say that the likes of Seán Cavanagh, Stephen O’Neill and the rest will do anything for this man. At the moment that anything is to win another All-Ireland title for him. And when you have a group of players who will die for their manager, that group will be very difficult to stop.
In order to do this of course they must first get past ourselves. And, however sad it may seem, there is rarely any sentiment in sport. We must not show any this Sunday either. We’re in a tricky position right now as it’s difficult to know how good we currently are. The suggestion after the Donegal victory is that we are majestic and (similar to Dublin), miles ahead of the rest of the country. The likelihood however is that Donegal were muck (compared to last year) so although we have moved up in terms of strength, conditioning and ability we are not remotely as far ahead of the pack as we might like to be.
Key to beating Tyrone and all other top teams will be targeting them at where they’re strongest. So midfield is likely to be where this is won and lost. What a tussle this will be. First of all it is probably unique as memory fails me for when the last time we had two sets of brothers opposing each other at inter-county level at semi-final stage?
Rightly Aidan O’Shea and Seán Cavanagh are touted as the top midfielders currently out there. It will be interesting to see if they are playing on each other or whether others will be tasked with orders to manage these key men. Personally for me Seamie O’Shea this season has been a revelation. While Aidan has taken all the plaudits in the press, Seamie has quietly gone about his business match after match with prize-winning performances. He does the simple things well. He takes the smart option, breaks a tackle and lays the ball quickly off. He doesn’t look to be a starring game changer and works like a dog for the rest of the team. And still he manages to get forward and score. That’s a great player to have in your ranks. The assumption in my mind is that it will be his task to marshal Seán Cavanagh.
Another area that will be interesting is where Keith Higgins will play. Tyrone are a different team to Donegal so what changes will James Horan employ for this battle? So far he has chosen a “horses for courses” team to go out and perform for Mayo. It’s a great asset to have so many thoroughbreds in our stable to do this. Too often in the past we have been limited in this regard.
Another to look at is where Stephen O’Neill will play. Stephen needs the ball to make an impact and in at full-forward it may not be as forthcoming as he would prefer. So it’s quite possible that although he may line out at the edge of the square he could well be brought out the field to link the play on the 40 similar to the Gooch. This would prove a different challenge for our rear-guard and it would be interesting who would get the call to mark him. Would Donie stay back to mind him or would he be let off the leash once more to cause havoc up front as he has done so far this year? Lots of key battles and tactical possibilities.
Another is who is going to pick up Cillian O’Connor. Our star forward will surely be targeted again on Sunday. His shoulder stood up to the Donegal challenge (including a few sneaky late ones). But how will it fare now against Tyrone and their physical defending?
While all of these questions remain to be answered one thing that is constant about our team this year is that we don’t have a particular player who is the be-all and end-all. If one man is off his game there are several others who can step up. Andy Moran is recovering his steady composure and improving, Alan Freeman is improving and looks stronger and more up for a physical challenge with every game. And Enda Varley, Michael Conroy and Jason Doherty are there as well fighting for a position. And that’s just for the full-forward line.
We have others as well who would walk onto any team in the country, Barry Moran and Cathal Carolan spring to mind. In fact that’s probably the best thing about our team this year. As a whole the squad have built up their strength and been able to keep their composure.
NOTE: Tyrone will surely target this aspect as well so our guys will need to maintain their discipline on Sunday.
Overall on paper we should have too much for this Tyrone team. So far we have been ruthless in our attack and the ability to play at a high intensity for 70 minutes has eventually worn out all opposition. And when the cracks have come, our forwards have been quick to burst the dam. We also have been able so far this year to handle the favourite’s mantle. This will have to continue again on Sunday. If we lose our focus and allow Tyrone assert their game plan the wheels could come off this year’s bus very quickly. I would hope that our guys can see this and that another All-Ireland date is within their grasp. If they can I would be confident they will have enough to force their way past the Tyrone obstacle.
Focail scoir: As a supporter I will be there to shout the team on and that’s all we can all do as Mayo’s voices from the masses. The sixteenth man will come into play at some stage and as the call to arms has been made all that remains is to echo it now. So roll on Sunday and Game 5.