Confusion reigns as far as this columnist is concerned in trying to predict the outcome of Sunday’s league final. It is eerily quiet about the place, for many reasons, which has meant the build up to this final has been quite different. There is also a wintry sting in the air these past few days which does not help create an exciting atmosphere for a big game. The reality for the downbeat mood could also have something to do with the fact that that we just do not really know what to expect on Sunday. But I felt that way too for the semi-final, when so few from the participating counties took an interest in proceedings. Very few I met or spoke to prior to the game gave Mayo much of a chance of reaching the league final. Most thought that Kerry had played tricks with the Mayo players’ minds during the final round of the league one week earlier in Tralee. Kerry played with the kind of arrogant cocky swagger which is their wont for most of the afternoon in Croke Park without displaying an ounce of panic until the game had practically slipped away from them. On this occasion there were no big guns on the subs bench to rescue the situation… they were all on the field of play. They played poorly and fitness levels were questionable. They were also missing two of their big stars in Declan O’Sullivan and Tomás Ó Sé, and a combination of these factors meant that they could not stop a more energetic Mayo side once they got a sniff of victory. In times past when Kerry felt any level of threat, they simply put the foot back on the pedal and drove on. Not so on this occasion and after Pat Harte’s brilliantly executed penalty Mayo looked re-energised, fitter, fresher, and stronger as they recorded another famous victory over the Kingdom. The handful of loyal supporters that travelled were not found wanting when assisting their team over the finishing line.
Getting it right in back to back games
But Mayo have difficulty with putting performances of real substance in back to back games. Our form has been all over the place throughout this league campaign. We started really well with two good victories before a horrible second half performance against Donegal raised questions not just about the team’s ability but about the entire structure. We were far from impressive when we coughed up a five point lead to Sunday’s opposition in Castlebar a couple of weeks ago, but the performance was significantly better. But then the hugely impressive obliteration of Dublin renewed confidence once more and all was rosy in the garden again. I always felt we were in with a shout down in Tralee against Kerry who had already qualified for the league semi-finals, so while a draw here was credible, I felt Kerry were not too pushed about the result.
So Sunday’s encounter is a real benchmark of the true worth of this team. I have been really impressed with the steely confidence displayed by several Mayo players in recent games. Keith Higgins has embellished his already enormous reputation as one of the finest defenders in the country. But the man holding down the No 3 jersey, Ger Cafferkey has been superb throughout the league and as we know the stakes are really high when your beat is the edge of the square. Donal Vaughan at centre back has returned to last year’s championship form and is highly respected as a defender of real substance. Colm Boyle was terrific last day out and he, more than any single player, typifies a new confidence in the side. Unfortunately our midfield sector is a bit of an Achilles heel at the moment. Several combinations have been tried and while all have been honest and courageous, no one has caught the eye with the exception of Aidan O’Shea. His absence on Sunday cannot be overlooked and it is this sector in particular that I would be concerned about.
I do not think the National League semi-final results will have much bearing on the outcome of Sunday’s match. Down looked really lightweight throughout the field and there was an inevitability about the outcome of that semi-final 10 minutes into the match. One thing is certain about this current Mayo team, they will not be tossed about like rag dolls. Last week’s warm weather training will have harnessed a camaraderie and spirit that will ensure an honest hardworking performance right to the end. If we get that and we come up short I, for one, will not be too disappointed. The bookies have Cork as slight favourites and I think they are just about right.