Our All-Ireland semi-final with Dublin is now only a few days away and I’m delighted to welcome back JPM into the guest slot to preview Sunday’s showdown.
After last weekend’s upset, the second semi-final is upon us and as Mayo men we are in the mix once more at precisely the right time. And with everything to play for and the dream All-Ireland against Donegal at stake, the goal on Sunday must be just to get over that line. Everything after is simply a bonus.
Dublin move into this position as (not quite) red-hot favourites but favourites nonetheless. And correctly so! The return of Alan Brogan to the team should make a marked improvement as his distribution, pace and movement will enhance the entire forward line. The only questions surround his match fitness and whether or not he has 70 minutes of championship football in him. His return will also allow big Diarmuid Connolly to move back into the full-forward position, where he is deemed more potent when closer to goal. On the other side the loss of our inspirational captain through unfortunate injury was probably the defining factor that swung the tide in the bookmakers’ decision.
Mayo however should not be totally despondent. In all honesty Andy’s injury is a major blow and the timing of it could not have been worse. But at least we have had four full weeks to come up with a plan to replace our talisman. The hope for James Horan and all the supporters is that whatever plans are now in place for Andy’s absence are delivered upon by those players involved.
Another factor in our favour is that we don’t fear this Dublin team. All-Ireland champions they may be, however they have yet to light up the championship this year. Also our same Mayo team roundly trounced the daylights out of them in Castlebar. This may all change on Sunday and that is what the entire Dublin backroom team and fan base are hoping for. In fact there is no doubt that Dublin are seeking revenge for that humiliation (as highlighted by Michael Darragh Macauley in yesterday’s Irish Independent). But revenge is a dangerous tool. To focus too much on this one factor may mean losing sight on the bigger picture.
Revenge can also have a negative impact on team discipline although both managers must surely have their troops warned that any ill-discipline will only cost themselves. Referees are coming increasingly under scrutiny and the highlighting of last week’s minor debacle on The Sunday Game will place even more focus on them. The pressure will be on Joe McQuillan on Sunday to ensure that nothing untoward is allowed.
The bigger picture for Mayo is their performances to date. Beating Leitrim and Sligo did not spark any fires nationally but the thrashing of what was a supposedly reasonable Down team has given the supporters confidence that these players can produce it at the top table. Undoubtedly though we won’t be given the same latitude as we had against the Mourne. Sunday’s test will most likely be a battle of discipline and tactics especially in the middle third. Whoever comes out on top in this sector will have a serious advantage in the overall proceedings.
To date Barry Moran has been immense for Mayo in gaining primary possession. Dublin however will have noted this and once again it should be expected that someone will be there to try and knock him off his stride. Most likely Michael Darragh Macauley will begin in and around the middle with the aim being to pick up at least several breaks and go bursting through against our defence. Both half-back lines will also be given authority to attack instantly when opportunities arise.
Another crucial approach for us will be getting the ball into the hands of Aidan O’Shea with the command to drive forward at that Dublin defence. This tactic will put pressure on their half-back line and will result in pressure being applied and frees conceded. Overall winning the middle third is vital. Dublin cannot be allowed to gain momentum or the upper hand here. Momentum has always been the key to Dublin’s victories and breaking this will be vital to our chances.
Another area of concern will be Stephen Cluxton’s quick accurate kickouts. In McHale Park they were very effectively dealt with, however Croke Park is a much bigger field. Against Laois, Dublin always seemed to have a man free that Cluxton could aim for. This can’t be the case against us or Dublin will simply change the modus of their attack to short fast kick outs and a full-on running game. So key for us will be a tenacious half-forward line.
Centre half-forward will once again be a huge call for James Horan. All year it has been a questionable position for Mayo and although Cillian O’Connor was named there against Down, he instead took up a more roving position where he was thoughtlessly followed by the Down backs. This tactic worked a treat as Down were left exposed time and again through the middle with Kevin McLoughlin exploiting with glee the gaping holes left behind. It’s unlikely however that Dublin (or Kevin Nolan) will follow suit in Down’s meanderings and if this is the case then a Plan B must be in place to allow Mayo’s forward line the space and opportunities to put valuable points on the scoreboard.
Overall Sunday’s game should be a very tight affair. It may come down to fitness and any goals will also be crucial. In our favour all the pressure should be on Dublin to deliver and if things are not going to plan the mob from the Hill will surely turn upon them. We have nothing to lose as Andy Moran’s injury will be seen as a legitimate excuse if we don’t prevail. This gives us a little edge as it takes some of the pressure off our guys although make no mistake – they must still perform in his absence! Most likely though it will be up to whomever wants it the most on the day.
At this stage last year we were roundly beaten by a Kerry team that should have won the All-Ireland. No-one in Mayo expects that to happen on Sunday next. The hope instead is that our men have grown beyond that experience and can deliver in a much tighter affair. The team must realise that they will never get a better opportunity to beat this Dublin side. The hope is that on Sunday they believe in themselves (as we the supporters do), as this belief will help them prevail.