Mayo are back where we all want them to be, but they still don't have enough to down serial winners Dublin
All-Ireland SFC semi-final: Dublin v Mayo (today, 5pm, Croke Park, live on RTE2 and Sky Sports Arena)
WHEN Mayo bowed out of the Championship before July had even dawned last year, a sense of mourning caught the weekend wind.
The hype and hysteria that surrounded the ‘Newbridge or Nowhere’ campaign had inspired Kildare to Mayo-esque levels of drive and defiance, leaving Stephen Rochford’s men flat on their face and far from the finishing post they had eyed up the two Septembers previous.
Unsurprisingly, the Lilywhites would sink like a stone once plunged into the murky waters of the Super 8s, finishing pointless and winding up bottom of a group that contained Kerry, Monaghan and Galway.
As supporters filed out of St Conleith’s Park and back onto western-bound buses, the finishing touches were being put to already-penned obituaries. Thanks for the memories Mayo, see you down the road when the next clutch of worthy contenders wearing green and red emerge.
The mourning wasn’t limited to the county’s loyal support either; there was a feeling that, in Mayo’s absence, the Championship would amble towards its inevitable conclusion.
It did. Donegal, Tyrone and Roscommon were held at arm’s length before Galway and the Red Hands were eventually brushed aside at the business end. It was all so one-paced. All so… predictable.
Mayo don’t do predictable; that’s why they’re the darling of the neutral. Newbridge was a classic case in point. The year before they had narrowly avoided defeat to Derry in Castlebar, yet within months were pushing the greatest team of the modern era to the very edge.
That is why this evening’s semi-final, and the renewing of that rivalry with the Dubs, has punters licking their lips. It’s the promise, or at least the potential, of seeing Jim Gavin’s men tested. This is what we have been reduced to.
Mayo’s journey to this point has followed a predictably unpredictable route; losing to Roscommon in the Connacht final, edging beyond Down and Armagh in the qualifiers, brilliant against Galway, awful against Kerry, ordinary against Meath and, at times, superhuman in last week’s defeat of Donegal.
Can they go to the well again in the face of a Dublin team that has enjoyed an average winning margin of almost 16 points while cakewalking their way into the last four? It is a huge ask, but if anybody’s going to do it…
You can be sure that, from the day and hour James Horan’s return to the job was confirmed last October, he will have been plotting the Dubs’ downfall.
Through all his forensic planning, however, Horan is unlikely to have factored in such a quick turnaround from a do-or-die Super 8 date with Donegal, or the fact their opponents would essentially have the same weekend off.
What toll that huge effort has taken, especially on some aging limbs among the Mayo ranks, must be a concern as they head for the wide open acreage of Croke Park.
The loss of Jason Doherty was the last thing they could afford at a time when they were just beginning to get some bodies back to training. Kevin McLoughlin is an obvious replacement.
Horan has generally got his match-ups spot on this summer, and that decision-making will be even more crucial this evening. Paddy Durcan is expected to push up on Jack McCaffrey, then there’s Lee Keegan and Ciaran Kilkenny renewing acquaintances, Chris Barrett likely to be handed the unenviable task of shackling Con O’Callaghan while Colm Boyle and Keith Higgins attempt to curb the influence of Niall Scully and Dean Rock.
Against Donegal last week, Mayo kept the game wide in a first half they dominated, effectively taking Tir Chonaill sweeper Hugh McFadden out of the equation as they methodically picked holes in the Donegal defence.
Considering his struggles when Cork started like a steam train at Croke Park last month, Mayo will surely adopt a similar approach to try and pull Cian O’Sullivan out of position and open up space for runners.
Aidan and Seamus O’Shea cleaned up around the middle last Saturday night, but Horan will need a different plan to contain the more mobile Dublin midfield pairing of James McCarthy and Brian Fenton.
Depending on how close they are to full fitness, he may consider bringing in Matthew Ruane, captain Diarmuid O’Connor or Donie Vaughan alongside Seamus O’Shea, allowing Aidan O’Shea to roam around the 40 and provide that extra bit of protection.
That central area will be critical and it is imperative that, if they choose to press high on Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs, huge gaps aren’t left behind. The Dubs are the masters of staying patient in possession and waiting for the right opportunity.
Horan’s priority, therefore, must surely be to board up the middle - showing the same kind of ferocity in the tackle as they displayed seven days ago - and force the Dubs to the wings where they are less likely to take on low percentage shots.
Patience will be crucial for Mayo too – indeed it is a word James Horan could be heard barking from the sideline through last Saturday night’s game, with good reason.
Fifteen wides doesn’t make good reading when all is said and done, from a game in which they should have been long gone by the half-time whistle.
Then there was the gilt-edged goal chances passed up by Darren Coen and Lee Keegan. It goes without saying, but Mayo simply cannot afford to be so wasteful in front of the posts, and particularly if they catch sight of the whites of Cluxton’s eyes.
We have no idea yet if the weight of the ‘Drive for Five’ talk is resting heavily on Dublin’s shoulders because the requisite questions have yet to be asked.
If Mayo can stay with him towards the final 15, and any nerves start to creep in (do they even feel nerves?), the strength of the respective benches could hold sway.
This is Jim Gavin’s ace in the hole, especially with Diarmuid Connolly back in harness, though how Horan chooses to deploy his subs will also be significant. Does Andy Moran start after such a superb showing last week? You would have to think he has more to offer coming into the fray in the latter stages.
The Ballintubber man has some huge decisions to make, but they’ll have been rumbling around his head for months rather than days. This is where Mayo want to be, but the circumstances in which they arrive are far from ideal after seven heavy-duty games in eight weeks.
They’ll be brave, they’ll be bold, but it just won’t be enough against a Dublin side who have long forgotten how to lose in Championship football.