I might still be off-duty but An Spailpín Fánach isn’t and I’m delighted to welcome him back into the guest slot to preview this weekend’s Connacht final.
If Mayo think of Sligo as Cinderella at the ball Mayo are guaranteed to lose the Connacht Final. Sligo 2012 should be thought of as one-half rattlesnake and one-half tarantula, and I mean that as a compliment to the Yeatsmen.
It had looked like the sun had set on Sligo’s golden generation. The team of the past ten years were Sligo’s best since the Mickey Kearins’ era, but they left a Nestor Cup behind in 2010 and defeat last year to Leitrim in the first round of the Connacht Championship and then to Wicklow in the first round of the Qualifiers suggested that the window had closed.
And then this year Sligo come along and perform an act of supreme giant-killing in Salthill. A team that was dead and buried against the form team in Connacht, maws still dripping with Roscommon blood, and in the form team’s home patch. Sligo had no hope in the world.
But not only did Sligo win, Sligo won pulling up. Galway weren’t beaten. They were hammered. Hammered. Sunday’s game is more about Sligo than Mayo – was that win over Galway a fluke, the final sting of a golden generation or the announcement of a totally new era in Sligo football?
Seán Rice in the Mayo News reckons that there are nine changes from the team that beat Mayo in 2010 and the team that beat Galway in June of this year. That’s an astonishing turnaround for a county with Sligo’s resources. Eamon O’Hara’s time is over, but Sligo don’t even appear to be missing him. How can that be?
The only way that can be is if Sligo are suddenly mining rich new talent. The youth system in Roscommon has been the talk of the province in recent years but it doesn’t seem that they’ve been sitting on their hands in Sligo either.
Adrian Marren was the star of the show for Sligo in Salthill. He racked up 2-6, 1-4 from play, at full-forward and, if he does it again on Sunday, it’s surely goodnight, Vienna for the county Mayo.
Marren was able to do his damage because Sligo gained the possession in midfield necessary to feed him. If Mayo win midfield, Marren and David Kelly wither on the vine with nothing going up to them. If not, if Sligo break even at midfield or win it, then it’s game on.
How good is the Sligo midfield? The Galway midfield isn’t outstanding, so that could have given the Sligomen a false gloss, but it’s hardly a secret that if Aidan O’Shea were fit he’d be first choice in midfield. O’Shea is an outstanding player and his loss is not to be under-estimated. There will be a lot of pressure on Barry Moran and Danny Geraghty on Sunday.
If the Salthill result wasn’t a flash in the pan, then the Sligo inside-line is stronger than Mayo’s. Mayo have been looking for a top-notch inside-line for as long as I can remember, but they’ve never quite put one together yet. Walsh, Donaghy, Cooper. Meehan, Savage, Joyce. Brogan, Connolly, Brogan. There’s no equivalent line in Mayo’s recent football history. Three years ago, we were salivating over a full-forward line of the Killer, the Pillar and the Thriller. That hasn’t quite gone as planned.
Of course, the way Mayo currently play isn’t based on the horse-it-in school. The only thing is, it’d be nice if they could horse it in every now again, to add depth to their attack. Alan Freeman was the one bright spark on an otherwise miserable day in Markiewicz Park in 2010. He’s not starting now. That’s how hard it’s been for Mayo to forge an operational full-forward line.
Mayo’s defense is as good as it’s been since Maughan’s team of the 1990s, but those lads had an outstanding midfield in front of them to take some of the strain. Very few teams are held to 0-0 in Gaelic football; if the ball comes in to the Sligo forwards, they will use it. Will Mayo’s run-based attack be able to keep pace with Sligo if Marren and David Kelly start lighting it up?
Experience, tradition and depth of bench should see Mayo ahead by a point or two by the end, unless there are goals. Both teams are set up to score goals, and any goals scored in the Hyde will have a shuddering impact on the game. People in Mayo were worried that they would have no test until Croke Park in August when Galway went down. They should disabuse themselves of that notion straightaway. From a Mayo perspective, the Connacht Final is to be endured before it can be enjoyed.
An Spailpín Fánach blogs at http://spailpin.blogspot.com/.