Early season predictions would have envisaged Dublin, Kerry, and Mayo making it to the semifinal of the championship with Tyrone getting a few hesitant votes because of a poor ending to their league campaign.
Nobody, not one soul, would have predicted Mayo's bizarre route to Sunday's semifinal against Kerry. A provincial semifinal loss, three draws, two periods of extra time followed by a devastating quarter-final replay demolition of a team that we drew with eight days previously would have left even Nostradamus scratching his head. But the main thing is we are there.
I am worried about Sunday, obviously, then again it is Kerry in Croke Park in a knock out championship encounter, I have every right to be. It is 21 years since Mayo turned the Kingdom over in a championship encounter at the same stage in 1996, before that it was a semifinal in 1951. Our record against them has not been so hot although we were well and truly robbed in the drawn semifinal in Croke Park and then the infamous replay in Limerick in 2014. Kerry for me have had the perfect passage to Sunday’s semifinal. They waltzed their way through Munster while delivering a hiding to their biggest rivals Cork along the way. They strolled their way past Galway in the quarter final pressing on the gas whenever the Tribesmen got within touching distance.
Danger lurks everywhere for Mayo
Cleverly Eamon Fitzmaurice took off ace attacker and former footballer of the year James O'Donoghue in that game with one thing in mind. He wanted to have O'Donoghue hurting to be primed and ready for Sunday's semifinal. Reverse psychology if you like, I have no doubt O'Donoghue made a few Kerry defenders pay for that substitution at training with the intention of making a Mayo defender pay on Sunday. The other major worry I have is the way the mindset of Mayo fans has changed in two weeks. “Jaysus we haven't a hope against Roscommon” to “surely they'll beat Kerry”. I am forever the optimist but always like to side with an air of caution. I am using the National League final a few months ago as a barometer as to what Mayo are up against, Dublin were unbeaten since forever and expected to walk away with their fifth league title in a row. Kerry had other ideas and tore strips out of the unbeatable Dubs in what was most definitely the game of the year so far. My point is simple, Kerry have the ability to turn it on whenever they feel like it.
Optimistic, but realistic
There is no question, I am more optimistic of our chances than I would have been three weeks ago. Mayo's superb quarterfinal replay win over the Rossies the main reason for that optimism. Mayo looked fresh and full of running in the replay. Mayo will be competitive, no question, and are always capable of putting it up to the best teams in the land. What to do with Kieran Donaghy seems to be the main debate among Mayo fans. He has caused us countless heartache down the years. Stephen Rochford wisely deflected the question about his plans for dealing with Donaghy at Mayo's press night, stating he has far more than Donaghy to worry about with James O'Donoghue and Paul Geaney making up a pretty potent full forward line, but you can be assured it commanded a lot of their planning. For me Donal Vaughan seems best suited to compete with him physically but he will certainly need help if the big full forward wins the ball. It is when he lands with the ball that a mass of bodies will need to be in place to frustrate him or force him into an overcarry. I am sure the Mayo management watched how Tyrone negated his influence many moons ago when Donaghy was at the peak of his power. Vaughan will certainly scrap with him before the ball comes anywhere near them.
Big calls to be made by management
Stephen Rochford also has a big decision to make regarding his starting 15. Somebody who played very well against Roscommon is going to lose his place to let footballer of the year Lee Keegan back in. I am not fully convinced that it is going to be a defender. Mayo have got it together at the right time. It is the first dilemma the management have had this year regarding selecting the team because of a very positive performance and that includes the substitutes who all done well in the quarterfinal replay. Before now any one of six players could have lost their place. This time there are 20 putting their hand up for a starting jersey.
Getting it right in every sector
By all accounts this game is a contest between Kerry's forwards and our backs, but David Moran will require special attention. He has the ability to dictate if he is let, while also contributing to the scoreboard. Tom Parsons and the O Sheas will need to pull out all the stops to break even with him in midfield. If Mayo dominate this sector Kerry may have no choice but to bring Donaghy out there to try to break par which could be a game changer. The bookmakers have Kerry as strong favourites at 1/2 while Mayo are 12/5 to win the game. The handicap betting is at -2 for Kerry, insinuating the odds makers expect a tight game. The draw is at 8/1. Don't rule out our fourth of this bizarre campaign.