Back when Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly took charge of the Mayo u21s for the first time in 2006, Keith Higgins was the man who they entrusted as their leader on the field. When the duo took the reins of the senior team this year it was the Ballyhaunis man they looked to again to be their battlefield commander. Higgins has been one of the finest defenders in the game over the best part of the last decade and he knows despite what others may say about the championship proper only beginning in August, it kicked off in earnest a long time ago. "If you're a Mayo player and you see the draw coming out and you see you've Galway in Salthill, that's where the championship starts no matter how good your record has been the last few years. That's championship stuff and that's what gets you going. You ask the Donegal boys and they'll say the same thing when they'd to play Tyrone in the first round at the end of May. They can't be thinking ahead to August. But August is where you want to be."
You cannot be looking too far ahead of yourself or you could get caught when it comes to the cut and thrust of championship football, and Mayo will be in peak physical condition going into tomorrow's game, Mayo's captain knows. "You have to be 100 per cent to be honest, you can't try and peak for September. At this stage you're getting to peak fitness in the middle of July and then you maintain it after that. I don't think you can chance trying to peak later in the year or you'll be caught out, so fitness wise we'd hope to be as close to 100 per cent. Football wise we've a bit to go yet, we'll find out the answer to that in the quarter-final."
Taking each game one at a time
This will be the third meeting of these two sides in championship action since 2012, with each side having one victory to its name, with Donegal having the big one beside their name in the history books after their All Ireland final win three years ago. When asked if this was a defining game in that series between the sides, Higgins said that Mayo are not looking at it that way. "It might be made out that way, but from a player's point of view, you can't be looking at that side of things, you have to go out and look at it as it's a game we've to go out and win, and hope we've enough to get over the line, but you won't know until the day." He added: "They've an All Ireland medal in the back pocket and we don't, it's as simple as that. And maybe that had something to do with the performance we put in against them in 2013, that bit of revenge, if that will be there the next day, I don't know, possibly, but we've to wait and see."
While Aidan O'Shea has been stealing the headlines in Mayo's championship games so far this year, they cannot be counting on him to recreate that kind of form every day, and everyone has to be ready to step up to the plate if Mayo are going to win. Higgins said: "I think [I said] after the Galway game, while it worked out well for us that day, it's not going to work out well every day, and we're going to have to have different options, if it's Cillian O'Connor or Andy Moran or Mark Ronaldson coming off the bench, you have to give yourself as many options as you can to score. Aidan's not going to get 3-4 every day, I hope he proves us wrong, but the chances are he won't. When you come across a defence that's going to be packed out, the highball in on top of Aidan isn't going to work so you've to try and find some other way around it, that's the challenge."
Keeping the foot down until the end
Mayo ran up a cricket score against Sligo in the Connacht final, when it was put to Higgins that this was a ruthless streak that May had not shown before he was not so sure about that, saying, "Again, it's a word that would have been used. It's a word that's thrown out there a lot. But how you define ruthlessness on the pitch, it's not as simple as going out and saying we'll do this or that. It will take a while to figure out what you're going to do. That's one of the pleasing things from the Sligo game, while you can't take a lot out of it, that we played to the 70th minute and kept going at it was pleasing, whether that would happen against a better team, probably not. Sligo had probably given up a small bit at that stage, but it's something we would have talked about, but trying to implement it is the harder part."
Keeping going until the last minute and piling on the pressure on weaker teams is something that Dublin have done in the past, and when asked was it something that Mayo had purposely tried to do this year Higgins said, "You'd hope, it's something you want to develop, when it comes down to the tighter game whether you're able to do that again against a better opposition or better defence when it's a level game, it's going to be a lot harder done. But you've to try and do it as much as you can, and I suppose you've the likes of Alan Brogan in Dublin coming on who wants to start the game, and we've a lot of lads similar, like Alan Dillon and Mark Ronaldson, who came on and kicked a few points. They are trying to put down a marker for themselves, while it's about the team, at the end of the day lads want to start themselves, it's a simple as that. Everyone wants to do as best they can when they are on the pitch."