Fight for final four spots this weekend

Chasing the champions: Who'll be left standing in the race to follow in Lee Keegan and Westport's footsteps in winning the Mayo GAA SFC after this weekends quarter-finals. Photo: Sportsfile

Chasing the champions: Who'll be left standing in the race to follow in Lee Keegan and Westport's footsteps in winning the Mayo GAA SFC after this weekends quarter-finals. Photo: Sportsfile

There is no room left for error for any of the eight sides left in the Connacht Gold Mayo GAA Senior Football Championship as the quarter-finals roll around this weekend.

Come Sunday evening the four will become eight as the championship enters the home straight with the destination of the Moclair Cup still to be decided. The action is evenly split over both Saturday and Sunday, with two games down for decision in venues spread across this county each day.

The quarter-finals will get going with a real blockbuster on Saturday afternoon in Breaffy, where the two big beasts of the last decade and half come face to face once again for a place in the last four of the competition. The meetings of Ballintubber and Castlebar Mitchels have been the backdrop of many a classic championship in recent times and they'll go toe-to-toe once more tomorrow afternoon at 3pm.

The Mitchels laid down a real marker of intent back in August when they edged out Westport after a thrilling Division One League final in Hastings Insurance MacHale Park and looked like they would be right there at the business end of the championship. But since then a few question marks have been raised about their title credentials.

They've haven't been playing exceptionally well - their draw against Knockmore in round one was a good result against another serious title contender, but since then they were pushed right to the pin of their collars by both Aghamore and Ballyhaunis - but when all was said and done they got the job done against those sides to book safe passage to the last eight. Neil Douglas has got vital goals in those wins and a side that contains the likes of Paddy Durcan, Rory Byrne, Bob Touhy and the ever reliable Donal Newcombe along with a host of other talents, can explode into life and see off the best their is in the county.

Facing them is the old enemy from just out the road and a side who when it comes to championship football know how to get it done and are a side who will be relishing the challenge of taking down the 'Townie's once again. It's not the same Ballintubber of old, but they still have bags of big game winning experience with the likes of Cillian O'Connor, Jason Gibbons, Diarmuid O'Connor, Bryan Walsh and Stephen O'Malley all capable of putting in match winning performances. Both sides know that if they come in even a little bit under cooked, the scales will tilt in their opponents favour. This one should be close and could very well end up needing extra time to separate them.

The action heads eastwards from Breaffy for the second big showing of the weekend when Charlestown and Knockmore tussle in Claremorris at 5pm. The east Mayo men have shown great resolve to shake off their opening round beating at the hands of Westport to make their first quarter-final in nine years. Not getting out of the group has always made it a difficult task for Charlestown the year after, but this year they have managed to get over that hump, thanks to wins over Claremorris in round two and their winner takes all clash against Ballaghdereen in round three.

Stephen Healy will be looking for his side to keep it tight and get big performances out of the likes of Paul Towey, Conor O'Donoghue, Matthew Leneghan and Gareth O'Donnell if they are to have a chance of seeing off a side who have won two of the last three Mayo Senior Football Championships. Knockmore topped their group by following up their opening day draw against the Mitchels with comfortable wins over Ballyhaunis and Aghamore and look to be improving all the time. John Brogan and Aidan Kilcoyne are running the line for them these days and the duo know that their side has the potential to beat any side left in the competition. If Darren McHale, Aidan Orme, Peter Naughton, Kevin McLoughlin et al hit their marks, they should have more than enough to be looking forward to a semi-final in a fortnight's time.

Sunday gets going with the meeting of the two sides who've been beaten in the last two finals when Ballina Stephenites and Belmullet tangle in a north Mayo derby in Crossmolina at 1.30pm and it could be the game of the weekend. The Stephenites were pushed right to the end by Breaffy in round one, before just getting over the line - but since then they have shown no mercy to either Mayo Gaels or Balla in latter rounds and laid down a serious marker of intent for everyone else to see.

Niall Hefferenan's side are packed full of top drawer players, with experienced heads like David Clarke, Evan Regan, Ger Cafferkey and Padraig O'Hora all to the fore. Throw in younger players like Sam Callinan, Frank Irwin, Dylan Thornton and Ciaran Boland into that mix and it shows how rude the health is of the most successful club in Mayo GAA history.

Belmullet though won't be thinking about anything but what they can do to topple the north Mayo big boys and they'll fully believe that they can. Ryan O'Donoghue is their ringleader and if he's on song there's not many in the county who can curb his influence. But they will need everyone to step up and deliver powerful performances, the likes of Colin Barrett, Eamon McAndrew, Anthony Barrett, Jason Boylan and Ronan Murray will all need to put in shifts when called upon. Belmullet won't go down without a serious fight, but the Stephenites should have enough to get the job done.

The final quarter-final of the weekend would have been a real glamour tie in recent years. But the recent past has seen both Breaffy and Westport move in different trajectories with Westport now the kingpins of the game in the county and the team a lot of people feel can become the dominant force for a number of years, while Breaffy have slipped back into the pack after failing to pick up a county title during their four appearances in the showcase occasion in eight years in the last decade.

Westport's depth chart is well stacked with Lee Keegan and Eoghan McLaughlin leading the way as their two key players, but they have quality in every area with the likes of Colm Moran, Brian McDermott, Finbar McLaughlin, Kevin Keane, Fionn McDonagh and Rory Brickenden all top operators who can have major influences on the game.

For Breaffy, they will be the underdogs but that might do them no harm at all. They were underdogs in round one against Ballina Stephenites and that day they showed there is plenty of quality still in the side and will feel they let that one slip through their fingers late on. They followed that up with solid wins over both Balla and Mayo Gaels to book their spot in the last eight deservedly.

Aidan O'Shea remains key, he got the goals that saw off Mayo Gaels in their winner takes all round three clash and if he can get the right ball into him there's not many around who can stop his progress to goal. But it's far from a one man show with Mattie Ruane, Conor O'Shea, Tommy O'Reilly, Conor Beirne, Mark Dervan, Michael Hall and Davitt Neary all more than capable of having big says in this games outcome. But the champions will be expected to progress.

Mayo GAA Senior Football Championship Quarter Finals

Saturday, September 30: Ballintubber v Castlebar Mitchels at 3pm in Breaffy; Charlestown v Knockmore at 5pm in Claremorris

Sunday, October 1: Ballina Stephenites v Belmullet at 1.30pm in Crossmolina; Breaffy v Westport at 3.30pm in Islandeady.

 

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