Mayo manager James Horan has made four changes to the Mayo line-up for Sunday’s novel Connacht final against London in McHale Park. Breaffy’s Rob Hennelly who was recalled to the panel in recent days following a goalkeeping injury crisis, has been selected between the posts for his first championship start since the 2011 All Ireland semi-final defeat to Kerry in Croke Park.
David Clarke limped out of Mayo’s Connacht semi-final win over Roscommon just after half time, while Kenneth O’Malley picked up an injury in a behind closed doors challenge game last week. The absence of Donal Vaughan, who sustained a hamstring injury in club championship action for Ballinrobe has seen a shuffling of the decks in the back six, with Keith Higgins moving out from the corner to fill the void left by Vaughan’s absence, with Chris Barrett coming into the side in the number four jersey. In the forward division, Andy Moran is coming in for his first start for Mayo since his cruciate injury against Down in last year’s All Ireland quarter-final and he gets the nod in the full- forward line with Darren Coen also coming into the 15 named to start on Sunday, with Enda Varley and Cathal Carolan the two men to drop out of the starting line-up.
The rest of the line-up sees Tom Cunniffe and Ger Cafferkey hold on to their places in the full back line and Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle flanking either side of Higgins in the half back-line. The O’Shea brothers will patrol the midfield once again, while in front of them will be the half forward line of Kevin McLoughlin, Alan Dillon and Richie Feeney. The returning Moran and Coen will be in the corners either side of Alan Freeman at full forward.
The last times these two sides met in championship action was one that will live long in the memory of those green and red die-hards who made the trip across the Irish Sea. “It could have ended a few of our careers if it didn't go according to plan” was the first line of this writer’s report from the Emerald Grounds in Ruislip in late May two years ago. That quote came from the mouth of Andy Moran outside the dressing rooms in London GAA’s headquarters as he and his team had completed a great escape in south Ruislip.
But ever since then Mayo haven’t looked back in championship action under James Horan and they are now standing on the fringe of a third Connacht senior title in as many years for the first time since the 1950s. When the draw was made for this year’s Connacht championship, it looked like Mayo were going to have to do things the hard way, beating Galway and Roscommon, before seeing off probably Sligo or Leitrim in the final. But it’s been a crazy sort of year so far in Connacht as Mayo have blitzed all before them and the exiles from London now making their first appearance in a Connacht final.
The expectation on Mayo is huge going into the game, but at last week’s press-event in the build up James Horan was focused on just getting the job done. “The approach we’ve taken over the last number of years is that we make sure that we’re right. Be it division one or division four, it doesn’t matter, it’s about us preparing doing our thing and getting ourselves right, our heads right and working on our game and skills and being as sharp as we can. It really is all just that simple, that’s the approach that we take, no matter who we’re playing.”
That game in 2011 isn’t something that Horan will be using as motivational tool for his team, as there is no need to he said as those who were involved then will remember it well. “We may reference it, but we won’t focus on it. To many members of the team, it’s still very dear to their heart I would say. So there’s probably no need to go back over old ground there. It’s well chronicled at this stage and the players are very aware that, if the preparation isn’t right and everything that goes to prepare for a game isn’t there, you can struggle. That occasion for us was a key learner for us as a group and a team. We’ve certainly kicked on from there.”
Working hard on improving skills
Mayo are a much different animal know and they become one of the top teams in the country, but they are constantly working on improving their skills, according to the Mayo manager and that’s what has got them to where they are today. “We changed a lot of what we do and how we play, we spend a lot of time focusing on our skills and technical ability, that’s one of the things this year we’ve really focused on. For me the game is faster than it’s ever been and the skill levels are higher than they’ve ever been. For us to be successful, we need to make sure we can execute skills at a very high level and tempo. We spend an awful lot of time at sessions at working on the skills of the game. The running ability and the defensive systems tend to cancel each other out over the season. To make sure when we need to, we can execute the skill and the pass under pressure in the game, it’s been a key focus this year.”
Mayo’s tackling and ability to turn over possession in their opponents half and convert that into scores has been one of the hallmarks of them so far this year and it’s not just down to luck, according to the Ballintubber club man. “Tackling is a skill, we’ve put a lot a work into that, we were probably conceding to many fouls, so we feel we’re making very good progress there and it’s probably been evident in the two championship matches we’ve played, we make sure we do it within the rules of the game, we feel it’s a strength that we have and we can use it and we’re looking to improve it all the time.”