Rebooted Mayo can bring an end to Tipperary fairytale at semi-final stage
All-Ireland Senior Football Championship semi-final: Mayo v Tipperary (tomorrow, 3.30pm, Croke Park – live on RTE2 and Sky Sports Mix)
WE’VE become accustomed to Mayo carrying the fairytale flame into the latter stages of the Championship, but Gaelic football’s most famous curse has hardly got a look-in this year.
Up in Ulster you had the upstarts from Cavan cantering up the inside, conjuring Lazarean comebacks to eject Monaghan and Down before trading blows with Donegal for 70-plus minutes, eventually emerging with the Anglo-Celt Cup.
That ended a 23-year wait but Tipperary went one better again when the curtain came down on 85 years of near misses and capitulations as Cork – shock conquerors of Kerry – were felled on the most emotional of days at Pairc Ui Chaoimh.
Mayo, who provided the story of so many of our recent summers, have been left to carry out their business in the shade of the winter sun instead; no dramatic back door, no huge migration from the west into the capital.
Yet getting back to this stage, and looking impressive doing so, represents one in the eye for all those who penned premature obituaries 16 months ago.
On that semi-final day, Mayo rolled into Croke Park carrying the hopes of most GAA supporters outside of Dublin. Under Stephen Rochford they had provided the sternest test of the Dubs’ credentials on the biggest stage, but time was seen to be running out for so many of those loyal footsoldiers.
At half-time Mayo – now under the charge of James Horan – had the Dubs rattled, and led by two. But 2-6 in the space of 12 extraordinary minutes at the beginning of the second half not only killed off their All-Ireland ambitions for another year, it felt like a last stand from a faded force.
Fast forward to the same stage in a strange year and Mayo have rebooted. Eoghan McLaughlin, Tommy Conroy, Ryan O’Donoghue and Oisin Mullen have brought fresh energy, their raw pace and athleticism giving Mayo an added dimension.
The intensity that came to define them going back to Horan’s first stint in charge, and throughout Rochford’s time, has been cranked up a notch. Just ask Leitrim, Roscommon and Galway.
On their way to claiming the Connacht Championship, the press from the forward line of Conroy, Aidan O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor has provided a template for the rest of the side to work off, O’Shea and captain O’Connor in particular mastering the art of the turnover and leaving opposition managers with food for thought on how best to escape the green and red web.
And, as Padraic Joyce and Galway found to their cost at the other end, every time they thought they had one door blocked off another would open, Mayo’s ability to break the lines from deep through the likes of McLaughlin, Paddy Durcan and Lee Keegan causing constant pain.
Even when the Tribesmen did get on top, managing to free the shackles from the electric Shane Walsh with a gale-force wind at their backs, Mayo didn’t lose their heads. Instead they held their nerve, dug in and saw the game out in trying conditions.
That experience they possess, allied to the pace and power of the youth in their ranks, ensure Horan’s side remains a potent force. A side that feeds off energy, even with nobody cheering them on, a fast start could leave Tipp choking on dust.
David Power will know that but, for his men, tomorrow is another free shot - just as it was going into the Munster final when few gave them much chance of stopping the Rebel revival.
So much around the occasion, the Bloody Sunday anniversary weekend, the commemorative jerseys, fed into the Tipperary performance that day. Rather than being overwhelmed, they embraced it and brought an urgency and intensity that Cork were unable to match.
Tomorrow, they have to bring that all again, and more. That is a huge ask for a team coming off the emotional high of ending their Munster famine. It also can’t be overlooked that, less than a month ago, the same Tipperary needed extra-time to scrape past Division Four Limerick, and failed to get out of Division Three in the League themselves.
It is amazing what confidence can do though and while question marks remain over whether the Rebels had fallen into the trap of believing their own hype, there is no doubt the Premier possess the players to trouble almost anybody.
They will have taken huge belief from the Cork win and, knowing that Mayo will press them high and hard from the get-go, Tipp simply must replicate the midfield heroics that provided a platform a fortnight ago.
Evan Comerford will be more than happy to go long but, once he does, Tipp have to make it count. With Aidan O’Shea stationed further up the field, Mayo have struggled with primary possession thus far, playmaker Conor Loftus far from a traditional hulking number nine while the likes of Tipp powerhouse Steven O’Brien, Liam Casey and Colin O’Riordan - who roamed around the middle third - will fancy their chances of edging Matthew Ruane and Diarmuid O’Connor under the high ball.
Should Jack Kennedy return to the Tipp fold after the calf problem that kept him out of the Cork clash, they would have another added aerial edge.
Mayo will have worked on curtailing the huge threat posed by twin towers Conor Sweeney and Michael Quinlivan, the pair who bagged 0-12 between them in the Munster decider.
Lee Keegan went into full-back to pick up Quinlivan in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final win over Tipp, holding him scoreless from play. The same battle could unfold today, while Horan might consider Stephen Coen for Sweeney.
Some of the scores Quinlivan took against Cork were breathtaking – if he has another big day, then anything is possible. However, Tipp will need scoring options coming from other areas too if they are to pull off another major upset, leaving an onus on half-backs Bill Maher, Kevin and Robbie Kiely, as well as Brian Fox and Conal Kennedy, to bring more than just industry.
So many of these Mayo players have been here and done it before, albeit in front of packed houses at Croke Park. The empty stadium might level the field somewhat but it is hard to escape the feeling that the extra bit of guile and know-how among the Mayo ranks, allied to greater depth of options on the bench, could keep their own fairytale flame burning for another day.