It’s very difficult for those of us involved to be in any way objective about how tomorrow’s big match will go and so I’m delighted to welcome Emmet Ryan of Action81.com into the guest slot to provide a neutral’s informed perspective on the contest.
When the draw for the Quarter-Finals was made on Saturday night, fans in Mayo were likely happy enough with their lot. Kildare and Kerry avoided, the Connacht Champions would surely fancy their chances of progressing to the last four. Down however had equal cause for optimism, drawing the opponent most suited to taking on with their attacking strengths.
Having the fortune to be unable to draw Donegal, who dominated James McCartan’s men last month in Clones, Down faced two unenviable draws. In April Cork delivered the most comprehensive beating I have witnessed by any team not named Crossmaglen this season, and that includes Mayo’s win over Dublin in the League. The Rebels’ physical superiority may have only carried them to an eight point win over Down but the result was never in doubt. Avoiding the Munster Champions was a must.
Despite Down’s win over Dublin in the spring, they would not have fancied taking on the Leinster Champions in August. Deep defences can fluster an attack but only when they work. Down have clearly failed in this regard. A strategy must be built around the strengths of the personnel involved and the Mourne men’s are clearly further forward. An attack like Dublin’s can rip through lower quality deep defences with a mix of cross-field balls and direct running.
So, by default, Down’s preference was Mayo. Like the other contenders, James Horan’s charges have an impressive defensive system but not one in the swarm style of Dublin or Donegal. Mayo look to isolate the ball carrier and make it difficult to find an outlet. When it works they are a match for anyone. Down however will see this as the fairest fight of the three they could have drawn.
Down were forced to switch back to their strengths in the Ulster Semi-Final against Monaghan. Starting the second half in a deep hole, Down found their identity by taking a high-risk attacking game to Monaghan. It was, just about, enough to win the day and with it two shots at the Quarter-Finals. Midfield will also be an area where Down feel they can gain an edge. Impressive as Barry Moran was against Sligo, Down have ball-winners who could give their attack the platform to force the game into Mayo’s half. To beat Mayo, Down must take risks and accept the game could devolve into a shoot-out.
Attractive as the draw was, the challenge ahead remains daunting. In simple terms, Mayo are superior in every part of the field. The middle third isn’t just about the men in numbers 8 and 9. Mayo’s half-backs and half-forwards aid in developing that man-isolation game. This forces turnovers and should see plenty of opportunities for Mayo’s forwards to break forward. By winning the contest here, Mayo should be able to find holes in Down’s already questionable defence. Mayo’s aberrant display against Sligo should be seen as a wake-up call more than a cause for concern. More often than not this year Horan’s charges have performed their duties well.
Being drawn against Mayo was the best option available to Down but they should rightly be seen as underdogs. Barring a repeat of the Connacht Final display, Mayo should advance.