Two years ago Castlebar Mitchels travelled to Tuam Stadium as rank underdogs against a Corofin side that were expected to see them off with ease and set up a Connacht final with the then All Ireland champions St Brigid's. But football doesn't always go along expected lines and a dogged and fearless Castlebar Mitchels side, who rode their luck at times early on in that game, ground out a deserved victory to kick-start a journey that went all the way to St Patrick's Day.
Of course, Mitchels ultimately fell short in the All Ireland final and Corofin regrouped the following year and went on to claim an All Ireland title they had been threatening to annex in March this year. Both sides have navigated their respective county championships this summer, and in the past few weeks have seen off the best of the rest in the province between them and now come face to face again this Sunday, once more in the famous old ground in north Galway with the Connacht title and a place in the All Ireland semi-final next spring up for grabs. An hour of exciting and intense football looks to be on the cards come Sunday afternoon. Thrown into the mix for some added spice is the presumptive next Mayo senior manager Stephen Rochford manning the line for the defending Connacht and All Ireland champions for potentially the last time, if Mitchels have their way.
Goals will be key
One thing Mitchels have in their arsenal that will have had Rochford and his colleagues on high alert is the goal threat posed by the county town men. In their six championship games in Mayo this year they've rattled up 16-73 in six hours of football, hitting the back of the net on average of once every 22.5 minutes. They added to that goal tally with three more inside the opening half of their Connacht semi-final win over Clann na Gael, bringing their goal average down to one every 22 minutes.
It's not just a goal threat from their forward unit, Mitchels can score goals from all over the park, and they have had nine different players find the back of the net in their championship games so far this season, with Danny Kirby and Neil Douglas leading the way with four three pointers each, while Barry Moran, Richie Feeney, Cian Costello, and James Durcan all scoring two goals each, with Shane Hopkins, Patrick Durcan, and Eoghan Reilly all raising the green flag once each during their seven championship games.
Corofin know where the net is themselves, having scored 14 goals so far in championship action, with nine of those coming in their six games in the Galway championship and the other five in their victory over Leitrim champions Mohill (1 ) and Sligo kings St Mary's (4 ) in the Connacht championship. Corofin have really found their goal touch in their last few matches scoring 12 goals in their last five outings, starting with their Galway championship quarter-final replay against Tuam Stars after they needed a late Gary Sice point in injury time to stay in the championship at the end of August. But since then they haven't looked back, seeing off Stars by four points in the replay, then having 10 points to spare over Cortoon Shamrocks in the semi-final, before seeing off Mountbellew-Moylough by 3-13 to 0-12 in the final where Ronan Steede, Ian Burke and Martin Farragher found the back of the net to complete a three-in-a row in the Galway championship for the first time in their history.
Big performances needed from big men
Both sides on Sunday are packed full of talent, Castlebar have a very solid defensive unit, and the return to the fold in recent times of Alan Feeney has been a very welcome addition. The former inter-county man has added some extra steel to their rearguard, which has plenty of other leaders and warriors in the shape of Tom Cunniffe, Donie Newcombe, Eoghan O'Reilly, and the flying Patrick Durcan. Ger McDonagh may be named as one of the midfielders on the team sheet but the former Mayo minor man has often found himself adding some extra defensive cover during big games so far this year. Barry Moran is their midfield talisman and with Aidan Walsh they have a formed a very competitive midfield partnership. Up front the twin towers of Richie Feeney and Danny Kirby will be a handful for any full back line in the country, with Neil Douglas, Neil Lydon, and Shane Hopkins equally able to convert chances, along with doing the hard yards all around the middle third. Mitchels also have a number of decent attacking options from their bench, with Cian Costello and James Durcan all making serious impressions when introduced from the bench at times this year.
Of course Corofin are pretty well stacked in the talent department too, with Kieran Fitzgerald having been there and done it all before in the game, and his presence in the full back line is a commanding one that Mitchels will have to break down. Liam Silke has been an impressive preformer for the last couple of years, along with Ciaran McGrath. The All Ireland champions midfield paring of Daithi Burke and Ronan Steede are accomplished actors on this stage, while in attack the likes of Gary Sice, Ian Burke, Martin and Michael Farragher, along with their ace man Micheál Lundy, all able to put serious hurt on any defence.
As All Ireland champions Corofin are going into the game rightly as the favourites, and they'll feel they owe the Mitchels one after what happened two years ago when the sides last met. But this Mitchels outfit aren't afraid of anyone and having already won a Connacht title themselves in the very recent past, they know exactly what it takes to get the job done. It should be a fascinating encounter in one of the great old GAA theatres in the country, where so many Mayo and Galway battles have been played out on its stage down through the years. Let's hope this one is another to remember.