I recall watching the Irish rugby team playing a Triple Crown match in 1985 against England. The match was very much in the balance with minutes left on the clock. It was at a critical juncture in the game that team captain Ciaran Fitzgerald demanded his team step up to the plate with his by now (in ) famous line “where’s your f***ing pride?” The team responded and delivered a magnificent final few minutes to beat England on that day. I have no doubt that Fitzgerald’s leadership was crucial to that victory. Mayo football is, to some extent, at a similar juncture right now. We need leadership both on and off the field and, more than anything else, we need to display a bit of f***ing pride and heart. After last year’s championship defeats to Sligo and Longford we need to resurrect our reputation before we slip into a downward spiral of mediocrity that could prove difficult to shake off were it to continue. Mayo looked very sluggish and tired last year and some critics even suggested that they did not appear to be playing for one another. This season, however, we retained our division one status with some credible gutsy performances but appeared to hit a dip again a few weeks before the London match.
The challenge match against Offaly before the London match was particularly poor. The performance against London was not pretty either but, for a combination of reasons, ie, good fortune, a bit of luck and a few good substitutes, Mayo got over the line. But those lacklustre performances count for nothing when it comes to playing Galway in the Championship. Let’s be honest now, a Mayo team playing against London will always be a banana skin of a match. Players can find it difficult to motivate themselves for such a game. It should not be so but that is as it is. Would a 20 point victory in London have made one iota of difference to next Sunday’s match? I don’t think so. A Galway v Mayo championship encounter in Castlebar takes on a life of its own. Historically, we have benchmarked the quality of our Mayo side on our performance against Galway. That is not to be disrespectful to the other counties here in the province.
That is just the way it has been since the 1940s. Roscommon were the kingpins back then. This Sunday presents the team with a wonderful opportunity to showcase its talents and prove its worth with a performance that will give us hope for the remainder of the year. So do I think we are good enough to beat Galway? Irrespective of which players pull on a Mayo jersey on Sunday, I always feel Mayo are capable of beating the Tribesmen. Playing against our neighbours nearly always brings out the best qualities in a Mayo player. Another reason for my optimism is that Galway are without three of their best players for one reason or another. Michael Meehan does not start but I hear may be ready and available for some action if required. Sean Armstrong pulled his hamstring last weekend and is definitely out. Nicky Joyce is not available for some reason or other. Galway had a poor league and were relegated to division two. They did improve in the latter stages of the league, an improvement that coincided with Padraig Joyce’s return to the team, and their form in recent challenges suggest they are an improving side. Their success in this year’s All Ireland under 21 final has also reinvigorated their fortunes and is another confidence booster to their chances of winning this weekend’s fixture.
Surprises in the starting 15
The Mayo team selection surprised me when I heard it announced earlier this week, even though the selection had become fairly obvious from recent A versus B matches. It became apparent some weeks ago that Ronan McGarrity would not be fit for Sunday’s game. He is a loss. However Keith Higgins did return for his club and his inclusion in the full back line will certainly bring stability to the defence. Both he and Tom Cunniffe are excellent footballers and should provide Alan Feeney with sufficient cover to ensure that Mayo are not significantly troubled in that department. I expect Higgins to be deployed on Padraig Joyce as he is arguably Galway’s biggest scoring threat. It makes good sense to have our best defender on their best attacker. Our half back line selection caught me a little off guard. Trevor Mortimer’s selection in the half back line is a talking point.
The Shrule/Glencorrib clubman is a passionate fellow who happens to spend most of his working life in Galway so when it comes to playing against Galway he does not need to be told what is required. I was surprised to see him selected as a wing back however. If I recall it is four years since he played a championship match in this position, that against Derry in a back door match which Mayo lost by 10 points. He has also been troubled in recent weeks with a niggling injury which is an added concern. Trevor Howley’s injury robs Mayo of a player who could thrive in a battle such as Sunday’s. Peadar Gardiner’s deployment as a wing forward in recent trial games has me also slightly puzzled as he is a defender with enormous experience and, I feel, could have done a good job for the team on Sunday in a defensive role. Gardiner has never looked comfortable as a wing forward and I don’t expect he will be introduced as one on Sunday.
I am looking forward to seeing Galway’s centre forward Mark Hehir in action. You may remember that he was man of the match in this year’s All Ireland under- 21 final. He appears to possess all the qualities to be a real star. Donal Vaughan will need to be smart, alert, strong and tenacious for the entire 70 minutes on this lad. Incidentally, Hehir is also a quality free taker… enough said.
Big battle for brothers
The outcome of most championship matches invariably depends on who wins at midfield. It is a momentous weekend for the O’Shea household in Breaffy, Castlebar. The two big lads are both selected at midfield for the senior side while younger brother Conor starts with the minors. The Galway pairing of Joe Bergin and Finian Hanley are both formidable and extremely athletic. If the two O Sheas can give us a foothold in this crucial sector it may create a winning platform for Mayo. This may be a big ask as there are doubts about the staying capacity of the Mayo pairing. It would appear that both Jason Gibbons and James Kilcullen have fallen out of favour in recent weeks and it seems Seamus O’Shea has availed of their dip in form for a starting berth. It is a big day for both O’Sheas.
Our half forward line possesses three talented footballers. If Alan Dillon can bring his recent club form to Sunday’s encounter, Galway will have nightmares trying to mark him. He is crucial to our hopes for victory. Andy Moran has developed into a very strong talented footballer in recent years and should not be found wanting. Kevin McLaughlin is selected as a wing forward. He is the best young footballer I have seen in recent years here in Mayo. His best position in my opinion, however, is as a defender and not as a wing forward. His selection on the half forward would suggest that he will be deployed in a more defensive role. Our inside forward line could have done with an experienced wise head beside them. The three lads selected here are talented footballers but are largely inexperienced. They would really benefit from a big strong ball winner who could let these lads do what they do best… score. Jimmy Burke springs to mind.
I have just noticed there are a lot of ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’ in my synopsis above. If Mayo can read the scene a little quicker and smarter as it unfolds on Sunday, then I would expect home advantage might just about prove decisive.