Mayo will lean on Down's possession woes
All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers round two: Down v Mayo (Saturday, 7pm, Páirc Esler)
IF Paddy Tally has had any luxury in his first year over Down, it’s that he hasn’t had to manufacture enthusiasm or excitement among the natives, who seldom need much to cling to.
A home draw against Armagh followed by another against Mayo. For players and for supporters, it would be hard to think of two more appetising games.
Páirc Esler is this evening set to see one of the biggest crowds for an early round qualifier in years, even if it’s hit by some of the eternally loyal Mayo fans being inhibited by the throw-in time and staying home.
This is a real shot-to-nothing for Down. Barring taking a hiding, which is highly improbable, they can’t really lose.
There is also the base of evidence that Mayo struggle to get the wheels turning at this stage of the summer. Their loss in Kildare last year, the struggle to throw off Derry the year before and needing a highly contentious penalty to break Fermanagh in 2016 is a fair dossier.
Arguably, they are even more vulnerable now than in any of those three campaigns. Because while they had been favourites in Connacht and taken a dent in confidence dropping into the qualifiers each year since 2016, it didn’t alter their trajectory.
Twice in that time, they’d needed final day results to avoid relegation in the league. That was all they needed to do as they built their way through the year.
This year, James Horan freshened things up. He consistently made six changes on a rolling basis through the league, which resulted in them annexing the title. All boded well at that stage.
But with hindsight, staying at such a high peak for months and months seems a big ask. The chassis holds strong but beneath the bonnet, their high mileage is no secret.
And for all that they deepened their resources in the spring, there are still several worrying issues. The two big ones are at either end – who should be number one, and how do they survive without Cillian O’Connor?
His free-taking ability was missed in the Connacht semi-final defeat by Roscommon. They would have won the game had he been fit.
The Ballintubber man is set to return to their matchday 26 this evening after playing 20 minutes of a challenge game against Clare, but he’s unlikely to start having missed the entire year to date following closed-season surgery.
Darren Coen has, in fairness, been a more than adequate replacement in open play. But the frees have killed them.
Rob Hennelly has missed his share of them, and another high-profile error in handing the Rossies a goal off a poor kickout undermines him after a fine league that saw him hold on to his place once David Clarke returned from injury.
Whether that remains the case this evening will be telling in terms of who will be in nets should their summer extend beyond tonight.
Matthew Ruane’s broken collarbone leaves them with a void at midfield, with Diarmuid O’Connor looking like the most likely option to slot in there as he did last year. That should open a space for Andy Moran to come into the attack, while Colm Boyle could well come in at centre-back.
On paper it remains a seriously strong Mayo side, but Down have two key weapons – their full-back line, and their full-forward line.
Benny McArdle’s return against Tipperary was most welcome, and alongside Gerard Collins and the peerless Darren O’Hagan, Down will fancy that they can hold the Mayo inside division.
At the other end, Donal O’Hare is in a rich vein of form, while Connaire Harrison is rediscovering his. Pat Havern is getting scores, while Corey Quinn might fancy that he could sneak into the team ahead of Jerome Johnston after another fine show off the bench against Tipp.
Caolan Mooney’s return to the half-back line solidifies them there too, but it’s from 8-12 that their inexperience shows.
Physically, Down have a lot of ground to make up in that area. And the primary reason that we see so few shocks nowadays is that when the top sides get a stranglehold, their literal strength comes to the fore in the form of a counter-attacking game.
Expect Mayo to go hard after their hosts’ kickout troubles and try to build a match-winning dominance from there.
There are definite flaws that Tally’s men can exploit, not least the fact that Mayo tend to struggle against packed defences. If Down can get a goal or two, as is very possible with their forward line, then the sky could fall in on ‘Ireland’s favourite tragic comedy’.
But the more likely scenario is that Down’s possession woes can’t sustain them against a top-four side.
They’ve gotten away with haemorrhaging ball in Division Three, but Mayo will lean on it and get out with three to spare.
Down (probable): R Burns; B McArdle, D O’Hagan, G Collins; R McAleenan, K McKernan, C Mooney; J Flynn, C Poland; C Francis, P Havern, J Guinness; J Johnston, D O’Hare, C Harrison
Mayo (probable): D Clarke; C Barrett, B Harrison, K Higgins; P Durcan, C Boyle, L Keegan; D O’Connor, A O’Shea; F Boland, J Doherty, K McLoughlin; E Regan, D Coen, A Moran