It has taken a little over 210 minutes of championship football to get here. Leitrim, Sligo and Down all stood in the way, but were not up to the challenge. On Sunday things get very real, but this is what Mayo have been preparing for ever since the final whistle blew in the same venue in last year’s All Ireland semi-final against Kerry. They are back to where they want to be, their fourth championship game in a five game series they hope will end in victory and a place in the All Ireland final for the first time in six years and another crack at bringing Sam Maguire back to Mayo. But that is another battle to be fought at a later date, and all that will be on Mayo minds on Sunday is the game ahead of them.
Team has been taking shape all the time
James Horan has with the aid of his backroom team, brought Mayo on in leaps and bounds from the side he took over. Over the past two seasons he has developed his side to his liking. Last year’s All Ireland quarter final victory over the then All Ireland champions Cork was seen as a huge moment for Mayo, but if you compare the team that started that day to the one that took Down apart on the August Bank Holiday weekend, there have been wholesale changes in the intervening 12 months. Seven different players started the win over Down from the side that dethroned Cork in a variety of positions on the field. In has come the likes of Lee Keegan who has been so impressive this year that talk of an All Star nomination is not just fanciful talk for the Westport man. David Clarke has regained his spot as the number one goalkeeper and was rewarded with the vice-captaincy and following the unfortunate injury to Andy Moran he will captain the side in Croke Park on Sunday. The Davitts duo of Michael Conroy and Colm Boyle had been out in the inter-county cold for a couple of years, but following their club form last year both have forced their way into the starting 15 for Mayo. Barry Moran has finally shaken off his injury problems and worked hard to get back to where he is now as he has admitted himself. “I had a look at myself at the start of the year and realised that I wasn’t up to the inter-county standard. I realised that I wanted to do it and I put my head down and got on it with it.” Kevin Keane is another who has taken the chance when he was presented with it and the teak-tough Westport corner back is the kind of annoying defender that any forward would hate to play against.
Filling the captain’s void
One more enforced change at least will have to be made by Horan come Sunday from the victory over Down. The big question since that game ended has been who will replace Andy Moran in the team. At last week’s press conference Horan said that he had “three or four very strong options at the moment”, and “I’d be very happy with the options that are available to me.” Who that will be at the moment is unknown, as Horan will not name his side until after this publication goes to print, late on Thursday night or early Friday morning. A number of players are in the shake up for the spot, with Alan Freeman the man who came on for the injured Moran in Croke Park the last day. Enda Varley has emerged as a favourite in some quarters to take the spot, or Ballintubber’s Jason Gibbons could get a nod, after impressing in the club championship lately also. There is also the option of putting Barry Moran or Aidan O’Shea into the full forward spot. Moran, when asked at last week’s meet and greet with the press, said he would have no problem filling the role. “I’ll play anywhere, but at the minute I’m probably playing well enough in the middle to be an option in there the next day.” The permutations and combinations will have been well worked over by the team in training over the past few weeks, and it is expected that will be the only change to the side who brushed off the challenge of the defeated Ulster finalists a month ago. Whoever he chooses, Horan will also be looking to his bench which will more than likely be called upon over the 70 minutes and he will also have a number of calls to make as to who makes the match day 26 from the training panel.
Decisions for the Dubs also
They may no longer be the bookies’ favourites following Donegal’s destruction of Cork in last week’s semi-final, and they may have failed to hit the highs of last year, but this Dublin team are going to be Mayo’s toughest test of the year so far, by a long way.
Pat Gilroy’s men have not been very impressive in this year’s championship, but they have still got this far without being beaten, and they have the potential to hit the ground running and catch fire. Mayo will not have underestimated them in any way. Gilroy has his own injury concerns with their lynchpin and playmaker Alan Brogan still in a race to recover from groin injury. Brogan picked up the injury in their Lenister final win over Meath and missed out on their All Ireland quarter-final win over Laois. If Brogan is declared fit for the side, Gilroy will have his own dilemmas as to who he will replace in the side. There is also talk that the Dublin manager will shake up his defence a bit from the one that took to the field in the last eight, with Ger Brennan tipped to come back into the side at centre-half back and Cian O’Sullivan falling back into one of the corner back slots. Gilroy also had not named his side at the time of going to print.
Horan expects more success
No-one will be able to say that James Horan will be happy with just a good performance, and he expects his sides to deliver. When he was asked at last weekend’s press conference if two All Ireland semi-finals in a row and a league final were more than he expected to have achieved in only two seasons, he responded, “No, I expected a little bit more, be we’ll have to do with where we are and just get on with it. I constantly hear about 2010 and where Mayo football was then. But in my opinion, there have always been 20 to 25 footballers in Mayo who are capable of winning an All Ireland. But the inputs and all that goes with it haven’t been as good as they should be, but we’re confident that we’re getting a lot of those inputs right at the moment.”
Six year itch to be scratched
It is six years since Mayo last won an All Ireland semi-final, the opponents may be from the same county, but much has changed for both sides since the past half a dozen years. But one thing is for sure, Mayo will not fear Dublin and having putt the All Ireland champions out last year, they will be hell bent on doing the same this year.