For me the championship proper starts tomorrow at Croke Park. What has gone on before is bordering on a joke. Apart from Kildare defeating Cork in a round three qualifier and Cork almost catching Kerry on the hop in the drawn Munster final the rest has been straightforward and in some cases embarrassing. The first year the quarter-finals were introduced the cumulative winning total of the four games was just 11 points, the first two this year yielded a 35 point winning margin for Kerry and Dublin. I have no doubt Kildare would have taken a respectable few points loss to Cork in that qualifier rather than trying to come to terms with that 27 point humiliation at the hands of Kerry last weekend. Who would ever have thought that Kildare footballers would suffer a 19 point and a 27 point hiding from Dublin and Kerry and in the same season knock Cork out? Football has gone crazy.
If Mayo are to win the All Ireland this year they will certainly have earned it. Donegal’s defeat in the Ulster final means three of the top four favourites are all stacked on Mayo’s side of the draw (Mayo included of course ). To win Sam Maguire this year Mayo will have to beat Donegal, Dublin, and most likely Kerry in the final should they get there. A big ask, but within the team's capabilities.
Donegal bounce back
Donegal look rejuvenated after their Ulster final defeat. In all fairness they didn’t turn bad overnight anyway, and I couldn’t understand how people wrote them off after the Ulster final which they only lost by a point and kicked 16 wides in the process. I was in Croke Park last Saturday for their round four qualifier against Galway, and was very impressed. They looked dead and buried at half time, out on their feet, while Galway sprinted to the dressing room Donegal players picked themselves up off the Croke Park grass and hobbled in, a point with which former Meath player Bernard Flynn concurred, we both agreed Donegal looked finished. Whatever Rory Gallagher said at half time it had a seriously positive effect; it was like they knew this could be the end for a lot of them, they looked a totally different team and outscored Galway by 2-08 to 0-4 in that second half.
The 15 players on the field all won their individual battles after the restart. With the quick turnaround for Donegal and some of their players carrying injuries the team named by Rory Gallagher for tomorrow's clash will definitely not be the team that takes the field. Eamon McGee and Karl Lacey are doubts which means Donegal are scrapping the barrel for defensive cover; this will be of course to Mayo’s advantage. Mayo have gone with the same team as they did for the Connacht final, our bench looks a lot healthier than Donegal’s. Most are billing tomorrow's encounter as an Aidan O'Shea v Michael Murphy duel but it’s much more than that, although it is very intriguing as they are two of the most iconic footballers of the modern era. Donegal have the stingiest defence and Aidan O'Shea will not be given the luxury of what he was afforded against Galway and particularly Sligo. It won’t be just Neil McGee in his vicinity. The attention O'Shea will receive from Donegal may just open the game up for someone else. Long range point kicking and crisp foot passing out of defence is essential as Donegal will filter their entire team back to their 45 and try to catch you on the counter attack. They retreat with such precision to close all the avenues for their opponents to attack. When they turned the screw against Galway in that second half their work rate was immense. Where they got the energy I do not know. Colm McFadden played brilliantly in the second half last week, playing more out the field, he was their only outlet time after time while they had sacrificed 14 players to sit behind the ball, and he orchestrated the attack from the centre forward position, his floated pass to Murphy for Ryan McHugh’s goal was sublime.
Big questions to be asked about Mayo defence
Mayo went for shock and awe against Sligo, to tear the life out of them as early as possible, which they did but it left our full back line exposed on many occasions, we will not get away with that against the better teams. I have no doubt Michael Murphy will spend a lot of time on the edge of the square tomorrow, and he will be bombarded with high ball to see if Donegal can expose any frailties in the Mayo full back line. As with O'Shea, Murphy is virtually impossible to mark on your own so I’m sure Ger Cafferky will be aided by a team mate or two when the ball is played towards him. If you try to out muscle him, forget about it, look at the point he scored against Finian Hanley last Saturday, sheer brilliance. Your best option is to wait for him to land and engulf him with bodies to try to dispossess and frustrate him. Mayo humiliated Donegal the last time the teams met at this stage, I can’t see it being that one sided again. It’s going to be a cracker but I plan on having the bragging rights in my house on Saturday evening.