The time is nigh. Mayo will put their Connacht championship on the line when they travel to Salthill in Galway to take on the home side in the Connacht semi-final on Sunday. It has been 10 weeks since we watched the green and red in competitive action, but the time seems to have just dwindled away, such was the anticipation about what may unfold in Salthill.
Opinions are well and truly divided about what may occur: “They’ll be lucky to get out of there Casey, let me tell you that and I know football,” declared a customer in our shop last week. “Galway are useless,” another told me. “I was at their game in Carrick-on-Shannon and Leitrim should have beaten them, they were so lucky. Mayo will beat them by 10 or 15 points,” he declared, and that guy does know his football (his name will remain anonymous ). So where does that leave the average Joe Soap when they try to predict the outcome? Confused, I’d be thinking.
Mayo have breezed through four Connacht championships in a row, albeit having a scare in London four years ago in James Horan’s first ever championship game. Last year it took the experience of Andy Moran and Alan Dillon to come to the rescue in Hyde Park to see us through by two points.
Mayo’s success within the province has to be unbearably painful for the rest of the Connacht counties, especially a county with a proud football tradition like Galway. I can only imagine how current Galway manager Kevin Walsh feels about his team’s failures against Mayo since 2008. Galway have an obvious head start on Mayo this year, having played two championship games already in the 2015 campaign. However, the quality of the opposition will always be questioned, but it still allows a team to gain momentum and set a certain pattern for their play which can only happen in real encounters. No matter how many challenge games you play, it never gives you a real indication of how capable a player is and how they will react in certain situations when the chips are down.
It will be interesting to see what Mayo team is selected. I can’t imagine there are going to be many (if any ) debutants for Mayo. I’m sure if Evan Regan was fit he’d be a likely championship debutant, but you are dealing with a very experienced set of individuals most of whom are still well in their prime. Some of those experienced players, like Colm Boyle, Donal Vaughan, Ger Cafferkey, and Jason Doherty, are quite simply not going to roll over and let a newcomer take their place without a fight (quite literally ). Mark Ronaldson is likely to get his place, but he did play under John O’Mahony in 2009. In my time, I remember several fisticuffs within the camp the week previous to a championship game. Players try to stake a claim and won’t give an inch, some for a place on the team and others for a place in the match day programme.
In my first year as an intercounty footballer in 1994, I was a shoo-in to start against Sligo in the championship, and was selected on the A-team the week before at training in Ballyhaunis. I was quite literally bullied and beaten into submission by a far more experienced player, which ultimately cost me my place. I was urged to take a swipe at the aggressor by my A team mates, but resisted as I was a little young and naive. Someone else did it for me but the damage was done. I lost my starting place but I did come on as a substitute the following week against Sligo. I wasn’t long learning; kill or be killed. It didn’t happen again. I could only imagine the intensity at Mayo training last weekend. Tom Cunniffe, Ger Cafferkey, and Kevin Keane vying for two places in the full back line alongside Keith Higgins. Who’s going to miss out between Colm Boyle, Donal Vaughan, Chris Barrett, and Lee Keegan for the half back line? I’m sure there were sparks flying between Tom Parsons and Barry Moran to see who’ll partner Seamie O’Shea in the middle. Our two most experienced campaigners, Alan Dillon and Andy Moran, will also want game time alongside Cillian O’Connor (if deemed fit for 70 minutes ), Kevin McLoughlin, Jason Doherty, and Aidan O’Shea. It’s a healthy predicament for joint managers, Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes. They have ample cover from number nine back to one. Aidan O’Shea will surely start at 11, but I’d like to see him drift into the full forward position to see how Galway cope. A few weeks ago I was nervous about this game but as it draws closer my confidence is growing. It’s only nine months ago since our team drew with, and should have beaten, the now all-Ireland champions, so they have hardly turned bad overnight. Most of this Mayo team have never lost against Galway in league or championship at adult level. Pat and Noel won’t thank me for this, but I expect Mayo to be comfortable on Sunday; nothing like the 17 point whitewash two years ago, but totally in control at the end. So, I think the handicap betting of Mayo to start at -2 at 10/11 is the bet of the weekend. Let the fun begin.
Oh, and if you can’t make the game, I’ll be on commentary duty for Mid West on Sunday. After that, I’ll be joining Marty Morrisey for his new show, The Marty Squad, live from Salthill from 6pm on Radio One. By then you’ll probably have had enough of me for a while.