Ups and downs - but the win in the pocket

GAA: Casey's Call

The long road for the hardcore fans: Michael Plunkett makes his way off the field through happy Mayo supporters who made the long trek to Newry last Saturday evening. Photo: Sportsfile

The long road for the hardcore fans: Michael Plunkett makes his way off the field through happy Mayo supporters who made the long trek to Newry last Saturday evening. Photo: Sportsfile

Down - but thankfully not out. Mayo got the wheels back on the cart after a somewhat encouraging display against Down in perfect playing conditions in front of a huge crowd in Pairc Esler Newry.

First things first - I was astonished at the huge amount of Mayo fans that travelled to support James Horan's team considering the timing of the game and the distance to Newry and back, which would have left many supporters getting home in the early hours. Tremendous credit must be given to everyone, it was like playing in front of a home crowd and the atmosphere could only have given the players a lift.

Some will say the scoreline was a fair reflection on how the game went, others will say it was slightly flattering. I'm somewhere in the middle. Dare I suggest that if Down had taken one of a few glorious second half goal chances along with kicking 50 per cent of some very kick-able frees or attempts from play, then Mayo could have found themselves in a very sticky situation.

David Clarke pulled off two fine second half saves that ended up being crucial. Aidan O'Shea was a towering presence at midfield and it was great to see the attacking prowess of Lee Keegan in full flow again - helping himself to 0-3 from play while also getting the added responsibility of curbing the threat of the athletic Down midfielder Caolan Mooney who was causing Mayo all sorts of problems - before Keegan put the shackles on him.

Defensively Mayo were opened a few too many times, resulting in Mooney's first half goal and the hard running Down midfielder almost got another in the second half, but his shot went over David Clarke's bar much to our relief. Fionn McDonagh's championship début went well as he looks eager to make up for lost time; however Kevin McLoughlin struggled as did Keith Higgins when he was left isolated with Donal O'Hare. Higgins did however intercept at a critical time in the second half to deny Down another goal chance.

After the missed free against Roscommon, McLoughlin's confidence could be a little low as he mishandled a lot of straight forward passes that went his way. He will be keen to rectify that issue this weekend. Maybe it's time Keith Higgins was given a more advanced role, where his line-breaking ability and speed can be used to a more telling effect from an offensive point of view.

I was barely tucking into my Coco Pops last Monday morning when Mayo's name came first out of the bowl in the qualifier draw. The pairing against Armagh represents the second toughest opponents we could have been drawn against - Tyrone obviously the least appealing. Tyrone are now out of the equation as far as Mayo are concerned, unless they meet in the Super 8's. I have no doubt the GAA bigwigs aren't one bit happy as the draw is very lopsided as the four strongest teams left in the qualifiers are meeting each other as Kildare were drawn against Tyrone, meaning Laois/Offaly and Westmeath/Clare are only one game away from making the Super 8's.

Whichever of the provincial losers meet the winners of those two games they will surely fancy their chances of making the super 8's, no matter how fragile a state their team is in after losing their respective provincial finals- even Meath, after their horror show in the Leinster final.

I watched Armagh twice in the flesh this year and again the same rules apply. Total focus and concentration is required by Mayo but they are very beatable at the same time. Their two danger men - Rian O'Neill - a nephew of Oisin McConville - and Jamie Clarke, were totally snuffed out in the drawn Ulster semi final by the Cavan Defence, where Jarly og Burns excelled from midfield, scoring 1-2 while also missing another glaring goal chance.

In the replay against Cavan, Clarke and O'Neill were much more to the fore, scoring 13 points between them while substitute Stefan Campbell had a very effective game in trying to haul Armagh back into it. Cavan completely over-ran them in the final ten minutes, winning comfortably by 0-23 to 0-17. Midfielder Burns was surely suffering from a blow he received to the head in the drawn game as he was totally ineffective in the replay.

Armagh’s confidence will surely be sky high after impressively defeating Monaghan last weekend by 1-12 to 2-17, spelling the end of Malachy O'Rourke’s tenure as Monaghan manager. Armagh had twelve different scorers from their starting 15 and any one of seven players could have got the man of the match award indicating a fine team performance.

The big question on everybody’s lips is 'What is the story with Cillian O'Connor?'. It seems to be the same message coming back that we heard last February. He's nearly back. James Horan has dismissed any rumours of a rift between the two. I sincerely hope we see him on Saturday evening, it will give supporters and the team a huge morale boost that is needed for these tricky qualifying matches. Mayo, Tyrone, Laois and Clare to make it to round four for me.

The dreadful news that emerged of Diarmuid O’Connor’s injury on Wednesday while playing a training game on Tuesday evening has left another gaping void to fill on our team. We simply cannot afford to cope without players of his calibre. It's a sickening blow for himself as captain and it leaves us really short on the ground in that area with Tom Parsons, Seamie O'Shea, Mattie Ruane and now Diarmuid all on the sideline.

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