Derry might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb way out West in the Last Chance Saloon

Oak Leafers’ season hangs by a thread but Mayo have form behind them in preliminary quarter-final

Conor Glass leads Derry out in MacCumhaill Park. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Derry must come out of the tunnel like they mean business in Castlebar. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

All-Ireland SFC preliminary quarter-final

Mayo v Derry (Saturday, Hastings Insurance MacHale Park, 6.30pm, live on GAAGO)

WAY out West in the Last Chance Saloon… The scene is set for underdogs Derry to come out with their guns blazing, steal back the magic that deserted them so abruptly and rescue a season that hangs by a thread.

In just two months a team that was viewed as Sam Maguire contenders has been reduced to alsoran status as the rumour mill pumped out stories of punch-ups between team-mates and dressingroom discontentment with the manager.

Mickey Harte and his players deny it all, but cracks tend to appear when wins aren’t coming and Derry’s results staggered from the shock-to-the-system against Donegal, to the ill-discipline in Galway and on to the collapse against Armagh.

Last weekend all Derry could do was dig their heels in against Westmeath and grind out a win to stop the slide.

That’s what they did. The performance wasn’t pretty but the Oak Leafers did at least stop haemorrhaging scores although, to put that in context, Westmeath had struggled to get to double-figures in their previous two games.

Against Donegal, Galway and Armagh Mickey Harte’s men shipped a whopping 9-42 (an average of 3-14 a game) and they hadn’t found the net in almost four hours’ of football until Conor McCluskey lashed a shot home against Westmeath.

Emmett Bradley added another to seal the deal but beating Westmeath in neutral Newry is one thing, doing the same against Mayo in Castlebar is another.

Aidan O'Shea will equal Andy Moran's record of 84 Championship appearances for Mayo against Dublin on Sunday. Pic Philip Walsh
Aidan O'Shea will make his 91st Championship appearance against Derry in Castlebar. Pic Philip Walsh

After Derry ground it out on Saturday, Mayo were involved in a 34-score shootout with Dublin on Sunday. It finished 0-17 apiece and Mayo – as is their bad habit – fell just short when Cormac Costello equalised in the final play of the game meaning the Dubs topped the group and Kevin McStay and his men had to set their minds to this game.

Belmullet forward Ryan O’Donoghue was in terrific form and finished with 0-7 including a couple of beauties from play. Aidan O’Shea, on his 90th appearance in the red and green, caused the Dublin defence serious headaches when he played close to goal which allowed O’Donoghue to roam into space out the field.

Meanwhile, Sam Callinan – certain to pick up Shane McGuigan this weekend – did an excellent man-marking job to restrict Con O’Callaghan to a single point but Costello picked up the slack, matching mayo’s O’Donoghue with seven points.

In midfield, Donnacha McHugh was impressive in a marking role against Brian Fenton and Mattie Ruane contributed two points from play. Mayo will be missing skipper Paddy Durcan for the visit of Derry but although last Sunday’s draw will initially have felt like a loss to them, the Westerners are going nicely after a couple of quiet seasons.

Losing to Mayo in Castlebar wouldn’t be a disgrace for Derry. Expectations are low and after their slump in form, anything less than a five-point defeat and they’ll come back up the road with their dignity intact.

But they won’t be thinking like that.

Derry are a wounded animal and there are a lot of medals in their squad that belong to men who are used to winning and expect to win. With their backs against the wall, you’d have to expect the Oak Leafers to find a spark although, worryingly, their attack has lost its cutting edge – Shane McGuigan didn’t score from play last Saturday and Paul Cassidy, who was so consistent throughout their back-to-back Ulster title run, didn’t score at all.

Getting pumped-up and overly-aggressive won’t pay dividends but a safety-first approach won’t work either. Derry have to come out on the front foot without leaving the backdoor open like they did so spectacularly against Donegal and Armagh.

If they can remember how to play in that confident style that made them contenders in the first place, you wouldn’t rule Derry out but so much has to go right for them and they have no form to speak of over the last three months.

Mayo may not be the force they were five years’ ago but they are in a good groove and have to start at favourites. If Derry are going to go, they won’t want to go quietly - they might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.

Mayo: C Reape; J Coyne, D McBrien, D McHugh; R Brickenden, S Callinan, E McLaughlin; S Coen, M Ruane; T Conroy, D McHale, J Flynn; A O’Shea, J Carney, R O’Donoghue

Subs: R Hennelly, J Carr, E Hession, C Loftus, C O’Connor, D O’Connor, E O’Donoghue, P O’Hora, M Plunkett, P Towey, B Tuohy

Derry: O Lynch; C McCluskey, C McKaigue, D Baker; C McFaul, E McEvoy, D Gilmore; C Glass, B Rogers; E Doherty, E Bradley, P Cassidy; E Mulholland, S McGuigan, L Murray

Subs: R Scullion, D Cassidy, C Doherty, M Doherty, S Downey, R Forbes, D McDermott, G McKinless, C McMonagle, C Murphy, N Toner