Western warfare takes place in Croke Park

Galway face Mayo this Sunday afternoon in a Connacht final with extra significance. Not only is it a continuation of the old-school straight knock out championship, but, to accommodate the expected large crowds, the game has been moved to Croke Park.

With Covid regulations only allowing 3,500 fans in Castlebar's McHale Park, the Connacht council, in conjunction with Croke Park, decided to move the game to GAA HQ which will allow for 18,000 fans, a significantly higher number.

With such fine margins between these big rivals, there is a massive chance that the winning of this game will come down to which team copes better playing in front of the largest crowd they will have seen for almost two years.

With large turnovers in personnel since 2019, both sides will be missing huge experience all over the field which in the past would have helped massively if the game was in the melting pot.

Galway manager Padraic Joyce says his players are revelling at the chance to play in Croke Park.

"Looking forward to it, the lads are looking forward to it, to get up there and get playing in Croke Park."

"You can see both sides of the argument, that it is going out of Connacht," said Joyce. "But it makes supporters’ lives very very easy. I think it is a wise decision.

"At the end of the day it’s where footballers aspire to play. It’s great that we are getting there for it. It is going to be a historic occasion, we are going to be part of that, the first time the Connacht final has been played in Croke Park."

"There is probably a bit of spice added to it now and a bit more importance that it is in Croke Park as well. It makes the occasion a bit bigger. It will give our lads great experience. Definitely our lads have no fear going up there."

Amazingly the Galway player who has had the most success in Croke Park in recent times is Moycullen's Paul Kelly. Having played in minor final in 2019 and most recently in winning the U20 final last December, Kelly, Cathal Sweeney and Tomo Culhane are among the select few players to have had more than one win in Croke Park. The players will be hugely looking forward to the challenge in front of them on Sunday, but most certainly it will not be an easy one.

Mayo may have lost several players from last year's team that overcame Galway twice. Added to that, they have injuries to both Cillian and Diarmuid O'Connor. Cillian picked up a season-ending injury against Clare in the league semi-final, but Mayo will be hoping Diarmuid can take some part in having limped out of that Clare game with a hamstring injury, but was fit enough to take a place on the bench against Leitrim.

But they still have huge experience in Lee Keegan, Paddy Durcan and Aiden O'Shea. This, added to the threat Tommy Conroy poses whenever he gets the ball near the goal, and the very impressive Óisín Mullen, adds to their menace. With Mullen or Durcan expected to pick up Galway captain Shane Walsh, Keegan will be left free to try to impose himself on full forward Damien Comer. Both men will need to be on top of their game if the Tribesmen are to break their duck of never beating Mayo in Croke Park.

Mayo, under James Horan, have been an honest, hardworking team of players who want to press high up the field, believing in their abilities, and defenders behind them. With Finian Ó'Laoí impressing as a sweeper in Galway's system, it will be interesting to see how and who presses him from Mayo' s defence. While Connor Gleeson did very little wrong on his championship debut against Roscommon, the kickouts at times were quite slow. This will not work against this Mayo team as they will have all found a man quickly. For every kick out, he will need to have decided where the ball is going before it is placed on the tee.

While Mayo have been winning every game convincingly so far this year, they have been playing division two teams in the league and division four in championship. Galway may have struggled during the league season, but they should have learned much more than Mayo have about themselves so far this year.

It is eight months since the sides met in the championship last time around, with Mayo edging the Connacht final by a solitary point in Pearse Stadium last November.

And although sides passed each other in opposite elevators at the end of their league campaigns with Mayo on their way back up to division one and Galway on their way down to division two after losing out to Monaghan, Mayo will not be thinking they have an advantage, putting minnows to the sword in division two, while Galway were getting battle hardened in division one.

The wide-open spaces of Croke Park also should suit Mayo, along with their massive experience in the venue on big days over the past decade. But Padraig Joyce will be whetting his lips at the chance of turning over Mayo in the big house and laying down a marker of intent as they try to reclaim their place as top dogs in Connacht once more.

Come Sunday at 1.30pm the form book will be thrown out the window as these two western giants fight for local bragging rights and a place in this year's All-Ireland semi-final.


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