Mayo have the tools to end long wait for Championship win over fancied Kerry
All-Ireland Senior Football Championship semi-final: Kerry v Mayo (tomorrow, 3.30pm, live on RTE2 & Sky Sports Arena)
IF they were to delve too deeply into the history of their rivalry with Kerry, Mayo wouldn’t bother boarding the bus for Croke Park today.
Twenty five Championship meetings have delivered just four wins, the last in 1996 when the Kingdom were only beginning to show signs of awakening from the decade-long slumber that followed the end of Micko’s famed ‘Golden Years’ team.
Rivalry, in this case, is far too strong a word.
Mayo have long taken up residence at the house of pain but none have dispatched them there, tail between legs, with the regularity of tomorrow’s opponents.
Since that last win 21 years ago, Kerry have beaten them in two All-Ireland deciders, 2004 and 2006, the latter a 4-15 to 3-5 capitulation that saw them 2-4 down and all but out the door just 12 minutes in.
There have been five last four defeats in that period too, the most heartbreaking coming in their last Championship meeting three years ago.
After a draw at Croke Park, the replay was taken to the unusual semi-final surrounds of Limerick’s Gaelic Grounds.
The prelude was surrounded in scepticism from both camps about the choice of venue but what ensued was a game for the ages. Hosting such a heavyweight contest at a provincial ground leant itself perfectly to a raucous occasion, the wildness in the stands quickly breezing down to pitch level.
When one over-exuberant Mayo fan broke the barricades and made a beeline for referee Cormac Reilly, five stewards – FIVE - struggled to hold him back. It was that kind of evening.
But, unfortunately for Mayo, a change of environment did not mean a change in fortunes as a Kieran Donaghy-inspired Kingdom came on strong in the second half of extra-time to seal the deal.
James Horan had taken the westerners so close on so many occasions and could take no more, announcing his resignation straight after.
Subsequent replay defeats to Dublin in the 2015 semi and 2016 final would have been far too much for some groups to take, and for that you have to give Mayo immense credit for continuing to push those failures to the past in pursuit of the ultimate.
But they will be more aware than anybody else that time is running out, and fast. Nine of the 23 players who featured against Roscommon in the last eight are aged between 29 and 33.
Opportunities cannot continue to be passed up, and they have already used up a couple of lives this year after narrowly avoiding a shock exit to Derry in Castlebar before needing extra-time to negotiate a route past Cork.
Neither inspired much confidence as talk suddenly turned to a big three – Dublin, Kerry and Tyrone – rather than a big four.
It suits the Mayo mentality to be written off, and Stephen Rochford will be happy enough that few are tipping them to buck the bookies’ odds and end their 21-year wait for a win over Kerry tomorrow.
Much of the pre-match talk has revolved around how they will handle Kieran Donaghy, the bête noire of Mayo football since bursting on to the scene as the Kingdom lifted Sam at their expense 11 years ago.
He scored 1-2 that day and, while he only contributed a goal to the scoreboard in the Gaelic Grounds back in 2014, Donaghy’s physical presence caused problems for the full 90 minutes.
Even after that some had been quick to pen the Tralee star’s obituary as his inter-county career looked to be drawing towards its natural conclusion, but Donaghy is enjoying an Indian summer.
He has a particular set of skills that, when executed with his level of proficiency, ensure he remains a nightmare to prepare for.
Donaghy is just one of a three-pronged Kerry attack that, on its day, is as dangerous as any in the country, with Paul Geaney – possibly the best inside forward in the modern game – and James O’Donoghue capable of unlocking even the tightest defence.
With that in mind Rochford will likely opt to retain Keith Higgins as sweeper, a role he played to great effect against the Rossies, and could ask Seamus O’Shea to drop back too in a bid to thwart quality ball going into the Kingdom trio.
Donal Vaughan might get the gig against Donaghy, with Brendan Harrison most likely for Geaney and possibly Chris Barrett on O’Donoghue.
Mayo don’t boast anything like that level of talent or match-winning potential among their forward division but, a bit like Tyrone, their real strength lies in the capability of their runners from deep, with a spread of scores a must.
They will take some encouragement from how open the Kerry defence looked against Galway, particularly when faced with direct running from the likes of Damien Comer.
If Vaughan is detailed on Donaghy, he will want to get the big man tracking him out the field as often as possible. Paddy Durcan, Colm Boyle, Tom Parsons and, of course, Lee Keegan are capable of lung-bursting runs up and down all afternoon.
Kerry half-forwards Donnchadh Walsh, Johnny Buckley and Michael Geaney will work to close the space and shut down the Mayo running game, and much could yet depend on where the returning Keegan plays.
In the past Rochford has asked him to pick up the opposition’s most dangerous player, as was the case with Enda Smith against Rossies, and there is an outside chance he could mark Paul Geaney.
For a player with his ability, it would seem a waste to shackle him to one man. If he starts at midfield, he is likely to find Jack Barry for company, but it would be no surprise if he is restored to his more familiar half-back role.
If Kerry do manage to crowd the space around the middle, Mayo still have the option of going direct to Aidan O’Shea. The Breaffy man was brilliant through their Qualifier run, and could once again operate as the link man around half-forward.
The strength of the benches, as we have seen time and again this summer, could also have a huge bearing on the outcome.
In this department, Kerry are well ahead, with the likes of Stephen O’Brien, Anthony Maher, Killian Young and Barry John Keane offering serious options for Eamonn Fitzmaurice, while Mayo – possibly with the exception of Conor Loftus - look to be short on potential game-changers.
It is a tough one to call, and you suspect that if it is in the balance heading down the stretch, Kerry hold the edge.
But if Mayo can strike a balance between ensuring they are well covered to limit the Kingdom’s scoring potential without sacrificing all the good things about their own game, that long, long wait could be about to end. Mayo by two.