They have been there and done it three times in the past decade, while we are still waiting to do it for the first time in over 60 years, and on Sunday in Croke Park the Mayo juggernaught will collide with the Tyrone colossus for a place in the All Ireland final in four weeks’ time. Mayo have breezed through Connacht and swatted aside the challenge of the reining All Ireland champions en route to this showdown, while Tyrone have taken the scenic route that has taken them from defeat in May in Ballybofey, on to Tullamore, Roscommon, Newbridge, and Croke Park to get to the semi-final. James Horan named an unchanged side from the one that beat Donegal in the quarter-final on Thursday afternoon, with Tom Cunniffe getting the nod despite limping out of the Donegal game.
The battle of wits on the sideline between the wiley Mickey Harte and the calm and composed James Horan will be as much a focal point of interest as who comes out on top in the midfield battle of brothers between the O’Sheas and the Cavanaghs.
Tyrone come into the game with their backs up and an ‘us against the rest’ mentality following on from the attention that was poured on them after Seán Cavanagh’s ‘rugby’ tackle in the quarter-final and Joe Brolly’s comments afterwards, while they will also feel aggrieved at losing the services of Martin Penrose following his straight red card for an incident before half time. The men from O’Neill county are dab hands at using things like this to their advantage and come into Sunday’s game with plenty to prove and the tag of underdogs to smash through.
But none of that is Mayo’s concern, they’ve just to concentrate on their own game and keep doing what they’ve been doing all championship so far, imposing themselves on the game and forcing teams into errors and taking advantage clinically, this is only game five of a six game series they’re looking to win.
It’s an unusual situation that Mayo find themselves in, going into a game of this magnitude as favourites and not only favourites for the game, but for the All Ireland title at 11/10 with one leading bookmaker, while Tyrone are the 9/1 outsiders of the four remaining teams left in the melting pot.
What Mayo team takes the field is another big question, as there are no guarantees that the 15 that were named yesterday are the ones taking to the pitch on Sunday, as recently witnessed by Keith Higgins’ move to the half-foward line for the quarter-final against Donegal. Whatever way Mayo set up it will be the result of a lot of thought and planning by James Horan and the rest of his backroom team.
Brothers collide on the double
The key battle on Sunday is of course in the middle of the park in the battle of the brothers. Aidan O’Shea has been outstanding so far this year and another big game is expected from the Breaffy man. While Aidan has been steeling the headlines, big brother Seamus has been having a stormer of a year himself and is the perfect foil for his sibling. Seamus, it’s expected, will be given the task of keeping track of Séan Cavanagh, while Colm Cavanagh will be handed the same task by Tyrone to keep tabs on Aidan. Coming out on top in this department will go a long way to deciding the outcome of the game.
At the back Mayo’s defence has been outstanding so far his year, while Donal Vaughan’s goal scoring exploits has seen him move up in the national consciousness, Colm Boyle in particular has been the key man here. The Davitts defender is as hard as nails and puts his body on the line without thinking and others would not dare. Along with Lee Keegan on the opposite flank, both of these wing backs are central to Mayo’s chances. At full back Ger Cafferkey, last years All Star full back no less has come on even more and has become the type of number three Mayo have not had since the days of Kevin Cahill. Cafferkey, if Tyrone stick to what they’ve done before, will match up against Stephen O’Neill. The former footballer of the year is maybe getting on in years and didn’t score against Monaghan, but he still need serious watching. Mickey Harte could throw curveball and withdraw the Clann na nGael clubman to the half-foward line, which will give Horan something else to think about. Tom Cunniffe who had to limp off injured 20 minutes into the quarter-final would be a big loss to Mayo’s plans and could force Higgins to play in the corner, but if himself and Chris Barrett are the kind of tenacious and tough tackling defenders who won’t wince at what Tyrone have to offer.
Tyrone will be looking to choke off Mayo’s free scoring attack from as soon as they cross into their half and a lot of pressure will be placed on Alan Dillon. The Mayo playmaker was superb in the quarter-final and while he has been working hard to get over a long term stomach/groin injury this year, Dillon’s commitment and vision to pick a pass has not dropped off at all.
Cillian O’Connor, whether he’s played in the inside and outside forward line, has the natural football ability to worry the Tyrone defence no end and his goal scoring record in the past two games has him even more as a marked man. His prowess from free-taking will be another key weapon Mayo will be looking to use on Sunday. Alan Freeman has been back to the best form everyone knew he had in him this season. The Aghamore man’s ability to win his own ball and take his scores will give Conor Clarke plenty to think about as he tries to contain him.
Doing just enough
Sunday is the meeting of two sides who have had very different routes to this stage, while Mayo have slayed all before them, Tyrone have had to grind out a couple of point wins over Roscommon, Kildare, Meath, and Monaghan since the hammering they handed out to Offaly in the first round of the qualifiers. They are the masters of doing enough to get over the line and close out games at the end. It’s going to be a very, very interesting day on Sunday, but Mayo have not shown any sign of fearing anyone to date and that is not likely to change between now and then.