Showtime in Salthill

It’s time for some final thoughts before heading up the N18 tomorrow for the showdown in Salthill. Galway again. I can’t believe that it’s almost a year since Conor swung over that delicious winning point to beat them at McHale Park last July and when, in true Conor fashion, he then exulted in having converted what he said was the chance to beat them on his own. Lordy, how I cracked my hole laughing all the next day, as I drove down through Galway with my Mayo jersey still on me, taking the opportunity to stop in Tuam (where else?) for petrol on the way.

Oh yes, beating Galway sure is sweet but part of the sweetness is, I think, in knowing that it’s not every year that it happens. We’ve had plenty of days when we’ve been the ones sent packing, usually coming out the wrong end of close encounters, the odd time – 1982 in Tuam is still a searing memory, a quarter of a century later – beaten out the gate. Given the way the close rivalry has been over the years, we always believe that we’re good enough to beat them but we know that the feeling is more than reciprocated.

And so, tomorrow we face up to them again and, once again, we believe (don’t we?) that we’re good enough to beat them, even though it’s in Salthill, despite the fact that it’s “their turn”. I suppose that the day we pitch up to a Mayo/Galway encounter not believing we have chance of beating them is the day that this great rivalry begins to die.

There’s no sign of that happening soon. They beat us by two points in 2005, we had a point to spare last year and again last month in the league semi-final. Both sets of supporters expect it to be a close game, one where the significant spoils of victory could, once again, be secured by the narrowest possible margin. In such circumstances, a draw would shock nobody and, given the insane scheduling of matches (with a five-week layoff for the winners and a seven-week one for the losers), such a result would in fact be of positive benefit to both counties.

We’re the narrow favourites with the bookies, having gone further in the championship last year and having performed a bit better over the course of this year’s league, but that will count for nothing when the teams take the field tomorrow at Pearse Stadium. Indeed, with Galway enjoying home advantage, it would come as a surprise to a few of the pundits if we do prevail.

One thing’s for sure, though, and that’s if we start on the back foot – as has happened in most of our league matches this year – we’ll find it very difficult to dig ourselves out of the hole we’ll have created for ourselves. We managed to recover from such a start in the league semi-final against Galway last month but we know that much of what went on that day wasn’t for real. If we give them the same kind of headstart tomorrow, we’ll find it much more difficult to rescue the situation.

Yesterday’s post dealt at length with the team Johnno and his selectors have picked and so I don’t propose to go over this ground again in depth. Suffice to say that there are plenty of unanswered questions about our line-up, in particular the spine of the team from full-back to midfield. There are questions too about our ability to win sufficient possession around the middle and, as appears to be invariably the case, there are also some doubts about our ability to take what chances we get, given the enormous dependence we have on Conor’s scores. Questions, questions.

But Galway have plenty too, otherwise why would they be persisting with someone like Ja Fallon at centre-forward? And while the like of Padraig Joyce and Savo are dangerous forwards, they also have significant mileage on the clock and you’d have to wonder to what degree they’re up for what is sure to be another arduous battle tomorrow. On their day, Galway still have the ability to hold their own with any team in the country but that’s on the assumption that they can hit the kind of grace notes that they have failed to reach for some time now.

The Bainisteoir factor is a plus for us, given Johnno’s iconic status in Galway, but it shouldn’t be overstated. Johnno is a great manager, one of the very best in the business, and his knowledge of the Galway set-up allied to his renowned eye for detail makes him a huge asset for us. However, once the ball is thrown in, it’s the players on the pitch who dictate how the game will unfold and while the men on the sideline can and do influence the shape and direction of a game, they only do so indirectly. It’s the guys on the pitch who must win it for us.

If it is a close game, the unpredictable weather is likely to have a bearing on the outcome. It was chucking it down this morning a bit further down the coast here in Clare and although the forecast for tomorrow is for the showers to be more scattered, Pearse Stadium is but a trot from the Atlantic so the conditions could be difficult enough to cope with. If the showers prove more widespread than forecast, I hope the lads are better able to hold onto the ball than they were against Donegal in the league final.

Whatever the weather, I think we can look forward to a tense, tight and low-scoring encounter. It was 0-12 to 1-8 last year, 0-10 to 0-8 two years ago. We did cut loose in 2004, rattling over 0-18 but I’d expect tomorrow’s scoreline to be closer to those recorded in the last two clashes. In such an environment, every chance will count.

Prediction? Like Conoreen, I’m always optimistic when facing Galway (although, sadly, unlike him I’ve never had been presented with the opportunity to beat them on my own). Providing we lay into them from the outset and get enough ball around the middle, we should do it but I can’t see the margin being more than a few points in either direction. In other words, it’s a normal Connacht championship clash with Galway, which, like every other year we’ve met them, we know we can win.

Enjoy the match folks. I’ll be back afterwards to talk about it.

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