Lee Keegan could be the man to shadow Michael Murphy says Mayo's Alan Dillon
LEE Keegan could be handed a man-marking role on Donegal playmaker Michael Murphy in Saturday’s crucial round three Qualifier at Castlebar says former Mayo skipper Alan Dillon.
Whether it’s starting attacks, finishing them or in a defensive capacity, Glenswilly clubman Murphy is such an important performer for the Ulster champions that Dillon believes it is worth sacrificing Keegan to restrict the influence of his 2012 Allstar team-mate.
“Murphy plays a roving role and you’ve just got to track him,” said Dillon.
“He’s their go-to man, he was putting quality ball into the forwards against Kerry and the forwards knew that it was going to come early and fast when Murphy was on it.
“I’m not sure who James (Horan, Mayo manager) is thinking of but the likes of Lee Keegan comes to mind.”
For Dillon, the two other pivotal players for Donegal are dynamic half-back Ryan McHugh and his Kilcar team-mate, prolific forward Paddy McBrearty. He believes that if Mayo markers can win those two battles, the westerners can come out on top in the winner-takes-all clash and progress to the All-Ireland semi-finals.
“Ryan McHugh is so dynamic on breaking ball,” he said.
“He’s like their point guard when Donegal are coming out of defence, he’s so cool and composed and very clever on the ball, he waits for the openings.
“He touches the ball probably more than any Donegal player and he needs to be watched for the 70 minutes.”
Mayo’s Championship plans have been disrupted by a steady stream of injuries to key players including midfielders Matthew Ruane and Seamus O’Shea, defender Paddy Durcan and Cillian and Diarmuid O’Connor.
Ruane hasn’t featured in the Championship yet while Durcan missed the Super 8 games against Kerry and Meath. Both could return on Saturday but Dillon predicts the game will come too soon for Diarmuid O’Connor.
“In the last couple of games, Mayo have had to use their squad and they’ve used 12 players who had no Championship exposure over the past 12 months,” said Dillon.
“When those changes are forced upon you, you have got to give younger players a chance.
“Some of them have performed, for some it’s a learning curve. It will be an added bonus if Paddy Durcan can get back on the pitch, Keith Higgins, even the likes of Diarmuid and Matthew Ruane, especially coming into the real business end to the season.
“That strengthens James Horan’s hand and it’s something we probably didn’t have in previous years: that strength in depth. It will be very interesting to see what starting line-up he goes with.
“There will be big calls in terms of match-ups with some of the Donegal key players and that’s what makes it really intriguing.
“On the other hand you have Stephen Rochford, and that depth of familiarity and knowledge of the Mayo squad and how players like to conduct themselves in these games — it will be intriguing.”
In 2016 and 2017, Rochford took Mayo to the brink of the elusive Sam Maguire his county has been chasing since 1951. After a relatively disappointing season last year (Mayo were knocked out in the Qualifiers) the Crossmolina native made way for the return of Horan and was quickly snapped up by Donegal manager Declan Bonner.
His in-depth knowledge of the Mayo players will almost certainly have an important impact on a game that Dillon predicts will be nip-and-tuck from the throw-in.
“I think it will be really tight,” he said.
“There won't be much space given and Donegal will make it compact and counter-attack aggressively.
“Mayo need to be patient and dictate the pace of the game. They didn’t manage the game in Killarney very effectively and Kerry got that momentum and scores on the board early in the first half — it was over at half-time really at 15-6.
“Mayo’s game management will need to be very strong, the kick-out retention will be a huge aspect.”
After losing the Connacht final to Roscommon, Mayo did enough to see off Down in Newry and scraped past Armagh at Castlebar before seeing off bitter rivals Galway to make it to the Super 8s. Their one-point win over Armagh at MacHale Park was a welcome success because their form on their home soil has not been encouraging.
At least Horan’s men have had a fortnight’s break to allow wounds to heal and get some energy back into tired legs that looked heavy during their round two win over Meath in Croke Park.
“Getting up for the Galway game in Limerick took a lot out of the players and six days later they were out in Kerry,” said Dillon.
“Mental fatigue is a huge thing; it’s not just physical. Just that willingness to track runners, get tackles in, support the man on the ball — that’s what James will demand the players focus on, and ensure they are match-sharp and have the correct energy levels to go out and play one of their best games of the year.”