Once Monaghan had ended Donegal’s three-in-a-row Ulster championship dreams in St Tiernach’s Park in Clones, a couple of hours after Mayo had wrapped up their own hat-trick of provincial titles, this Sunday’s quarter-final pairing was the one that the neutral and plenty of non-neutrals wanted to see come out of the hat. And so it came to pass, not long after 8.30pm last Saturday, the gods conspired to set up a rematch of last year’s All Ireland final, with Cavan man Joe McQuillan the man brokering the peace in the middle of the two packs.
The temperature ahead of the battle was turned up by a confident and composed looking James Horan last Sunday night, when he made some pointed comments about Donegal last year bringing “a new dimension to football in many ways, particularly in the area of physicality they brought that to a new level”, and on their injuries to key players, pointing out he had his own concerns to deal with this year: “They're suffering from a number of key injuries, but I've yet to see a top level inter-county that hasn't suffered from injuries. Over the course of this year it's been phenomenal, we lost eight players from our match day 26 in the first round of the club championship, and a number of our key players have been out for a number of months, look getting injuries is par for the course, there's no need in whinging and whining about it, you just get on with it and that's what we've done.”
Horan is doing his job
Horan has been the master of understatement since taking over the Mayo job, but his comments have added fuel to the fire that was starting to blaze not long after the draw was made. Former Mayo midfielder David Brady, speaking to the Mayo Advertiser this week, reckons that Horan was just returning a serve. “I’d say Jimmy McGuinness got his timing wrong on what he was trying to say and James got his return serve in well. We all want to see players being protected, no-one wants to see a player go off injured and end up in hospital for a few days and missing work. But in all this Stephen Gollogly’s getting a bit unfairly vilified, he went in wholeheartedly for a ball and could have easily came out the same way.”
Former All Ireland winning Galway captain Ray Silke said that Horan was getting in a pre-emptive strike for his team. “Last year Mayo came in for criticism after the All Ireland semi-final after what Joe Brolly said, and I think that James is just laying down a marker and after what Jim McGuinness said on the Sunday Game, James wasn’t going to let him get away with it, without hitting back.”
Brady thinks that Mayo have a few more gears to go up through after the Connacht campaign and this is the perfect game for them to do it in. “This is a different Mayo team with a bit of different bite in them, that’s on the field and off the field and James has laid down a marker on it from his side, by saying that he’s not going to let any mind games come into this and affect the game. There’s another good few per cent that Mayo have in them that they have to pick up on Sunday going out on that field against the All Ireland champions.
Mayo moving the right way
For Mayo he has more or less the same match day squad at his disposal as he had for the Connacht final, with Horan saying: “We’ve some guys in a lot better shape, they’ve a couple of more weeks conditioning under them and are really competitive options. I’d say we’re in much a stronger position than we were for the Connacht final.” He did confirm that both David Clarke and Kenneth O’Malley will be out for some more time, while he did not rule out Michael Conroy being able to take some part after picking up a hamstring injury in the Connacht final, not long after coming on. The Ballintubber man reckoned it did not matter who Mayo got in the quarter-final as far as they were concerned. “It doesn't matter to be honest, we're just delighted to be in the quarter-final,” before he went on to say, “We're very happy with where we are and how we're developing and meeting each challenge that comes our way.” He also said he thinks his squad are in a better place now than they were before last year’s All Ireland final between the teams. “Oh, I definitely say so. I think we've a stronger team, a stronger panel, we've a better understanding of our game and what's needed to play at the top level.”
Key battles will decide the outcome
For Mayo to win, they are going to have hit the ground running from the throw-in, the midfield battle between O’Shea’s and the Donegal duo of Neil Gallagher and Rory Kavanagh is going to be the first major staging post of Sunday’s battle. Aidan O’Shea has been particularly dominant in the middle of the park this year and will need to be again on Sunday. The battle for Mayo’s own kick-out will be an area where they will have to really try to boss the game. But with their clubmate Rob Hennelly kicking the ball out to the pair of them confidence should be high they can win that battle. At the back, keeping the duo of Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden quiet is going to be the major task for the Mayo rearguard. If they can shut down this dynamic duo it would go a long way to giving the Mayo attack a platform to win the game. That task will fall to Ger Cafferkey and either Tom Cunniffe or Keith Higgins, depending how Horan lines out his team on Sunday positionally. Cafferkey was particularly good in the Connacht final and the All Star full back has become one of the master performers in the country at his position. Cunniffe’s return to the squad this year has seen the Castlebar man be a major addition and his strength and speed will be a major asset.
Up front Mayo’s ability to get on the dirty broken ball around the middle of the park will be the key to getting their attack moving, Kevin McLoughlin will surely be marked out for special attention by Donegal. The Knockmore man has a unique ability to read the play and be in the right place at the right time to win the ball and get attacks going and the ball into the likes of Alan Freeman and others. It is sure to be a battle and a game to savour when the ball gets thrown in on Sunday afternoon when the time for talking is over and become the time for actions to win out.