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Since the end of the National League campaign, Noel Connelly has become the public face of the Mayo management team when it comes to engaging with the press. On Saturday evening, it was once again the former Mayo captain who came out to face the questions after Mayo booked their place in the final four of the championship with a comfortable win over Donegal in Croke Park.
"Over the course of an hour we feel we can take on anyone at this level and there are only two horses left in this race," said Mayo junior manager Séan McLoughlin ahead of tomorrow's All Ireland Junior Football Championship final in Croke Park against Kerry. The Knockmore man has guided his charges through wins over Sligo and Galway in Connacht and then the novel semi-final against Kilkenny a few weeks ago. But he also knows his team will have to up their game from that semi-final win saying: "To win the All Ireland we will need to improve on the performance from the semi-final and that's a given, we have to. We'll be looking to do things and talk about stuff we didn't do so well, and try and get it as right as we can for August 8. If we can get a performance we're in with a shout."
Back when Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly took charge of the Mayo u21s for the first time in 2006, Keith Higgins was the man who they entrusted as their leader on the field. When the duo took the reins of the senior team this year it was the Ballyhaunis man they looked to again to be their battlefield commander. Higgins has been one of the finest defenders in the game over the best part of the last decade and he knows despite what others may say about the championship proper only beginning in August, it kicked off in earnest a long time ago. "If you're a Mayo player and you see the draw coming out and you see you've Galway in Salthill, that's where the championship starts no matter how good your record has been the last few years. That's championship stuff and that's what gets you going. You ask the Donegal boys and they'll say the same thing when they'd to play Tyrone in the first round at the end of May. They can't be thinking ahead to August. But August is where you want to be."
After every victory, no more than after every loss in a football game, people look for something to take out of it and work on for the next game. Scoring 6-25 in a provincial final win makes everything appear rosy on the the attacking side. But questions are also asked about the quality of the team you have just beaten. Add in the fact that you also conceded 2-11 to a team you were so far ahead of on the field of play, to go with the 2-8 you shipped against Galway in the Connacht semi-final win, and the attention on Mayo has switched to their potential defensive frailties.
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.
At half time last Saturday in Croke Park, with the teams level, most Galway supporters were pleased with their team’s work-rate and performance and even twenty minutes into the second half, those of us in the Cusack and Hogan Stands were still hoping that if Galway could get a goal, or pull a few points in front, it would ask serious questions off Rory Gallagher's men.
With an EA Sports Cup final place secured Galway United will be hoping to build on Monday's satisfying penalty shootout success over Dundalk when hosting Derry City in the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division at Eamonn Deacy Park tomorrow.
With the Galway Races coming to an end this Sunday and the bookies' satchels either bulging, or their owners with long faces, after too many favourites coming home first - it is an opportune time to look ahead to the four big football games this weekend where all the favourites will be expected to jump the fences being put in front of them.
At least the GAA have done something right for us Mayo fans when combining the Junior All-Ireland final with our Senior quarter-final on August 8. It will be a long sitting in Croke Park however, for Mayo fans with the junior game throwing in at 2pm and the senior game expected to throw in at 6pm. It is a great opportunity for the juniors and I am glad they are getting a run out on the hallowed turf. It may be a first and last experience for some of them as players so I am sure they will cherish it.
Following last Friday's demoralising SSE Airtricity League Premier Division defeat to Bray Wanderers Galway United will be hoping to produce a much improved performance against St Patrick's Athletic at Richmond Park tomorrow.