It’s in deeper layers than just the winning or losing we’ll really learn about Galway and Mayo

In Kevin McStay’s year-and-a-half in charge so far, Mayo have been behind at half-time in a game ten times. The only two of those games they’ve won were against 13-man Monaghan this year and the Salthill game last summer.

Mayo beat Galway in the Division One final at Croke Park
Paddy Durcan's injuries allied to the loss of Oisin Mullin and Lee Keegan from their defence has blunted Mayo's running game over the last two seasons.
Connacht SFC final: Galway v Mayo (Sunday, 4pm, Pearse Stadium, live on RTÉ2)

IT is against the cautionary tale of Mayo and Galway that definitive judgements on everything and everyone in this new-fangled championship have been less swiftly delivered this time around.

Mayo were league champions last year, ready for an assault. Then they lost to Roscommon. Back to square one. Six weeks later, their first game since, they go to Killarney. Only for stinging Shane Ryan’s gloves as often, they might have buried Kerry for the year altogether.

With Dublin and Derry both drawing their opening group game, Galway were the only team left in the championship with a 100 per cent record having won Connacht.

Beaten finalists the previous year, they look to be readying for another assault.

Then Mayo lost a seven-point lead to Cork, Galway got pipped by Armagh, the pair were drawn together and, in an instant, they were pitched into an old-style fight to the death.

Galway lost. They led by 0-8 to 0-5 as David McBrien popped the handpass into Aidan O’Shea’s hands.

Sean Kelly had five yards of cover on him.

By the time McBrien took the almost-instant return, Kelly was five yards behind.

One injection of pace, a neat one-two and Galway’s year was as busted as the ankle their spiritual leader trailed around windy Salthill with him that day.

Losing Damien Comer at half-time that day was equally pivotal. He has played just three full games for Galway since the 2022 All-Ireland final.

It is against a heavy backdrop of injuries that you’ve been trying to judge Galway this spring. Nobody would have expected Sligo to come quite so close to beating them two weeks ago, with Rob Finnerty’s palmed stoppage-time goal rescuing them. They might not have recovered from that.

You’ve still no Cillian McDaid, there’s no Matthew Tierney, Peter Cooke is gone for the year at least.

There is some justification in the feeling that their immune system is struggling to cope with the infection of such absenteeism.

But this time last year they were flying it, being talked to high heaven, ‘go on ahead and give them Sam now’ kinda stuff. Same as Derry this year were until two weeks ago.

Maybe Galway really are swimming against the tide and the truth of their spring will be the truth of their summer.

All we know for sure is that last year taught them when the right and wrong times to hit form are.

Mayo were the exact same. They’d won the league, then gone and took a carving knife to the Kerry defence on their own soil, the first team to win there for 28 years.

Then they laboured past Louth, lost a seven-point lead to Cork, finished third in the group, had to go to Salthill and seven short days later, they ran out of diesel on the Jones’ Road.

Speaking of which, the real question around Mayo is not a timing question. They’ve maybe gotten it wrong going out hard in the league the last two years, something they’ve avoided this time, but mostly it’s about their diesel injection.

McBrien’s goal in last year’s Galway game was the quintessential Mayo defender’s goal. Comer going off had freed McBrien from full-back to centre-half and without that switch, would they ever have won the game?

His positioning out at six this year seems to be very much with a view to giving their running game back that bit of punch. Paddy Durcan’s injuries haven’t helped the last couple of seasons.

You can’t lose Oisin Mullin and Lee Keegan, see Eoghan McLaughlin struggle to rediscover the promise he showed prior to that horror double jaw fracture he suffered against Dublin in 2021, and expect to just replenish.

Look at their half-forward line this time. Jordan Flynn, Fergal Boland, Jack Carney. The three most likely Mayo players to be able to test an umpire’s back from anything outside 30 yards.

Those two elements are really where it’s at for Mayo. Can their running game reach the heights of old, and can they find ways to beat a team that then locks that down?

But mostly, it’s about their ability to win a game when things don’t go their way. They’ve been moving towards more structured play the last two years, out of the old chaotic uniform, but it’s something they struggle with.

In McStay’s year-and-a-half in charge so far, Mayo have been behind at half-time in a game ten times.

The only two of those games they’ve won were against 13-man Monaghan this year and the Salthill game last summer, when they trailed by 0-8 to 0-3 at the break.

On the flipside, they’ve either been level or ahead at the interval 12 times under McStay. They’ve converted 11 of those positions into victories.

Long story short, Mayo are brilliant with a lead and distinctly underwhelming without one.

You can make all kinds of predictions about what might unfold but in Pearse Stadium, the Gods carry serious sway.

The wind completely dictated last year’s game from start to finish, spoiled it as a spectacle really.

Even though Sunday is set to be a calm day, meteorological norms don’t really apply to Salthill.

The winning and the losing of a Connacht title will never be here nor there when it’s Mayo and Galway.

They dislike each other too much for it not to always matter on some level.

But there are deeper layers to be examined.

Can Galway’s key men that are fit find form?

How does an ever-improving full-back line fare?

Can Mayo punch holes from deep?

If they do find themselves behind, can they find ways to claw it back?

It’s within answers we find to those questions and not the result itself that we’ll get a proper sense of their credentials.