Mayo head to Croke Park on Sunday for their fourth All Ireland quarter-final on the bounce since James Horan first took charge of the side. An achievement that any inter-county manager would be proud of, but in Mayo all that matters to some supporters is getting over the finishing line in first place in late September.
Where Horan has brought Mayo since he got the job is a place that those who were in Pearse Park in Longford in June 2010 probably feared they wouldn’t see again for a long time. Four Connacht titles in a row, along with two All Ireland final appearances, has been the reward for the hard yards and long hours put in on and off the training field by all those involved in this current incarnation of the Mayo team.
On Sunday, Mayo are facing into a serious challenge against a wounded Cork team who booked their place in the final eight of the championship last Saturday night with a high scoring win over Sligo in Tullamore. That win sets up a rematch of the first All Ireland quarter-final that Mayo played in under Horan back in 2011 when his unfancied side dethroned the All Ireland champions (a feat they’ve achieved every year since, with Dublin and Donegal both losing their titles when they were knocked out by Mayo in 2012 and 2013 ). Speaking to the press last week, Horan admitted to having a look back on that game in 2011 recently. “There’s been a few changes in hairstyles and weight since then,” he joked. “That was obviously a huge game for us and for this team, the way we drove on that day and went toe to toe. It was a real springboard for us and gave this team confidence and was one of the huge catalysts for this team forming. But we’ve gained a lot since then and are looking to push on all the time.”
Cillian O’Connor, who was in his debut year with Mayo that season, also remembered the game fondly. "I remember that well. It was my first year on the panel and it was a bit of an upset. But both teams have changed fairly radically since that day, and there is not a lot we can take from the game. We played a lot of good football that day and it gave us the confidence to believe we could compete at the highest level."
Aidan O’Shea agreed with his manager and team-mate, saying that the win over Cork in 2011 was a big step in the evolution of the team. “The start stands out because I was at fault for one of the goals, I took the ball into the tackle and bang, they got a goal straight from it. I don’t know what we were down, we were way down. We came in at half-time and said don’t panic and look, Kevin McLoughlin got the goal just before half-time, a cracker of a goal, and I think we shut them out in the second half bar John Miskella’s point, it was a massive step for us a team and with it being James’ first year, it was a big step at the time.”
While three years have passed since that game, there’s not that much changed for Mayo with only Trevor Mortimer from the Mayo starting 15 that day no longer involved in the team along with Aidan Campbell, Peader Gardiner and Ronan McGarrity who all came off the bench in the game.
The Mayo line-up for Sunday’s game is due to be announced this afternoon (Friday ) at lunchtime and very little change would be expected to it from the team that faced Galway in the Connacht final, with Tom Cunniffe, if he recovers to full fitness, the only one who may force a change in defence. While the question over whether Andy Moran and Alan Dillon start in the Mayo attack is the only other real question that has been debated since the Connacht final.