GAA Football

Mayo are the horse you just don't back against

Mayo and Monaghan have never met before in championship football, and tonight's contest could be a thriller - if Monaghan back themselves and go at the hosts. Picture by Seb Daly / Sportsfile

All-Ireland SFC qualifiers round one: Mayo v Monaghan (today, 4pm, MacHale Park, live on Sky Sports Arena)

BACK in the 1890s, followers of the English horse racing circuit began noticing the correlation between winners at Brighton’s racetrack and at Epsom.

The two courses were similar and in a book on the sport published at the time, writer Alfred Watson wrote that “a common phrase on the turf is ‘horses for courses’.”

And so was born a phrase that has travelled land and sea for over a century, and sits very nicely in the conversation around Monaghan’s trip to Mayo this afternoon.

Monaghan took an absolute battering for the way they were set up against Derry. On BBC’s half-time analysis, the panel of Mickey Harte, Oisin McConville and Peter Canavan questioned if they had learned anything from watching Derry’s win over Tyrone.

The Oak Leafers would drop back, turn the ball over and counter-attack into the space. Monaghan ran the wrong horse on the wrong course. They left the space and were crucified in it.

Monaghan have played a lot of man-to-man football under Seamus McEnaney. The influence of Donie Buckley on their defensive outlook has been evident since he came into the backroom team. It’s something Mayo don’t need told about, given his past work with them.

Weeks it has suited Monaghan to go toe-to-toe. They’ve become progressively better at it. Darren Hughes will always sit back in the pocket but the rest go man-to-man. They’ll try and keep a couple of bodies up and they’re not afraid to kick the ball.

Indeed, they’ve been much less afraid this year. They will have noted the one high ball they put on top of the Mayo defence in their league meeting led to a goal chance that Micheal Bannigan should have taken, but struck meekly.

The early kicking that day made a first-half feast for Jack McCarron, who would have had a bagful had the shooting not let him down a bit. A mark (which he missed), a goal, two points from play and two fouls he gleaned off Padraig O’Hora in 35 minutes.

O’Hora isn’t named to start tomorrow, with Enda Hession taking his place.

A lot of how they line up will depend on the fitness of Oisin Mullin, who is named at full-back.

The hamstring sniper picked him out just after half-time against Galway. James Horan said during the week he was “fine” and back in training. 41 days is borderline enough to trust that. If he is fine, it’s a huge boost. If not, O’Hora will come back in.

Paddy Durcan, who hasn’t played since the Kerry game on March 12, and Rob Hennelly (out since mid­-February) both return to their starting team.

They will definitely be without Michael Plunkett, who’s done well in defence this season, but the big one is Ryan O’Donoghue.

Horan was keeping schtum on him but a groin injury seems set to keep him out.

He has, in the absence of Tommy Conroy, largely carried their attack this year. The return of Cillian O’Connor for their Connacht defeat by Galway might have been expected to free O’Donoghue up a bit. What they didn’t see coming was Galway’s big tactical shift.

If Padraic Joyce’s men had been wearing red-and-white and talking with northern accents, they’d have been kicked up and down the road for the way they played in Castlebar, with their double-sweepers at all times. But it worked.

That’s despite Galway struggling to make the ball stick in their own attack, having enormous trouble on their own kickout, not really getting Shane Walsh into it in open play at all, and hemorrhaging possession.

They won because they forced Mayo to shoot from wings and corners and distances they didn’t want to be shooting from.

It was lauded as a brilliant tactical display, but take out the game’s first 10 minutes and the 11-minute spell where they went from two up to six up, Mayo were the better side for the other three-quarters of it.

They just lacked penetration and a bit of urgency, all of which they found in the last seven minutes to cut a six-point gap back to one.

Had Cillian O’Connor’s 13-metre free and Jason Doherty’s goal chance been scored when it was level in first-half stoppage time, Mayo go in three or four up and they win that game.

They simply met a horse that took advantage of their stumbles and ran the course well.

“I haven’t been talking to one Mayo person who thinks we’re going to beat Monaghan,” said their former defender Colm Boyle in The Mayo News.

In a county that can go from the pits of pessimism to bubbling with hope very quickly, perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into that. They tend to do qualifiers dramatically but mostly they do them well.

Maybe Monaghan will take their tactical lead from Galway, and maybe that would be the right way to go for a first-ever championship meeting with a team they’d remarkably never met competitively in anything prior to 1981.

You just feel that if they panic now and go away from their strengths off the back of getting it wrong against Derry, they could go out without throwing a punch here.

It really comes down to their strength of mind and their belief in what they’ve been doing for the last three years.

They have to want to create a game like the one with Armagh last summer, an open game that suited the way they play now.

That’s been the only significant championship win three years into Banty’s second reign, but this is the first time he’s had the luxury of the back door.

If they approach it that Derry was a blip and they’re brave enough to go at Mayo, they’re good enough to win in Castlebar.

But the more likely outcome is that the red-and-green bandwagon will be the one refueling to start off around the country next weekend, with no notion where it might end up, and every chance that it will be Croke Park again.

Mayo are the horse you just don’t back against.

They’ll edge what could be a real thriller.

                          R Hennelly

S Coen               O Mullin              L Keegan
G Mohan          J McCarron       C McManus

E McLaughlin    E Hession            P Durcan
M Bannigan        K Hughes    R McAnespie

                    M Ruane       A O’Shea
                    N Kearns      D Hughes

B Walsh                 J Carr          D O’Connor
K O’Connell      C McCarthy             D Ward

C O’Connor         J Carney              A Orme
R Wylie                 C Boyle               K Duffy

                             R Beggan

Mattie Ruane v Niall Kearns: 
WITH Mayo’s reported injury concerns running as deep as they are, it’s hard to be definitive in too much of a man-to-man prediction, but Niall Kearns and Mattie Ruane are just about the only pairing you’d be confident of. And what a battle that could be. Despite Conor Glass having huge moments, Niall Kearns probably just about shaded their battle in the Ulster semi-final. His aerial presence was the rock on which Monaghan built their third-quarter revival and come rain or hail, they can depend on him to show up. Mayo have pinned enormous hope on Mattie Ruane but after a good league, he did ok in the air against Galway but was poor with the ball in his hands, missing three shots at the target. Given his All-Ireland final display last year, he needs a big game in a big game.

TACTICAL TAKE: THIS game will come to what way Monaghan set up. They were roundly criticised for how wide open they left themselves at the back against Derry, but this is a very different challenge. It feels as if Monaghan panic and flood all the bodies back, going away from everything they’ve done in the last three years, they’ll be inviting Mayo to overwhelm them. Standing up and trading blows, trusting that they have more in their full-forward line than James Horan has in his given it looks likely to be shorn of Ryan O’Donoghue, would be brave but feels like their best chance of winning in Castlebar. Monaghan must do a better job on getting their match-ups right this time, which could be tricky given the uncertainty over exactly who Mayo will have available.

REFEREE: Barry Cassidy (Derry)

WHERE TO WATCH: Sky Sports Arena, coverage from 3.30pm

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