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If all 2,500 of Mayo’s season ticket holders make the trip to St Conleth’s Park in Newbridge, they will take over almost half the capacity of the Lillywhites home ground on Sunday. While it is not expected Mayo supporters in that number will make the trek east on Sunday a very healthy number of supporters will be on hand to see the latest update of James Horan’s Mayo make their proper competitive debut of the year, after the shadow boxing of the FBD League. Horan has given two players their Allainz Football League debuts with Aghamore’s Brendan Harrison getting the nod to start in the half-back line alongside Shane McHale and Lee Keegan. While Mayo Gaels’ Adam Gallagher will come into the team in the number 12 shirt in a half-forward line anchored by Keith Higgins and with Cathal Carolan on the other wing,
Now that 2013 has almost gone to the history books it is time to reflect on the year that nearly was. The Mayo senior team played their first game against Leitrim in the FBD league on January 13. Little did we know back then what the year was about to unfold. Mayo’s National League campaign was not of the consistent variety and after a convincing win at home to Kerry on February 3 we became expectant again. That was followed by four consecutive losses to Tyrone, Dublin, Down, and Kildare. The Tyrone game was a crushing defeat, Stephen O’Neill’s last gasp penalty winning for the red hand. Mayo were given a taste of Stephen Cluxton’s ability in the league game in Croke Park in March, the Dubs convincing winners; Bernard Brogan was unmarkable the same night. Worrying for Mayo were the losses to Down and Kildare, two games they should have won. Mayo were now in real danger of being relegated and had to beat All- Ireland Champions Donegal in Castlebar and then travel away to Cork to try to complete a miraculous escape. What was of great concern was the lack of goal chances and goals, Keith Higgins’ goal against Tyrone the only attempt to hit the net in five matches. Michael Conroy bettered that stat with a soccer-style finish against Donegal in a game in which Barry Moran was in superb form. Mayo well and truly ground out a result in Cork, winning by the slimmest of Margins 0-11 to 0-10 to achieve their goal of staying in division one of the league. It was a complete bonus that they sneaked into a league semi-final and had another big game in Croker against the Dubs. Confidence may not have been too high after Dublin easily won the league semi-final by 2-16 to 0-16. Bernard Brogan was untouchable in the first league encounter, Paul Mannion the star of the semi-final scoring 1-04. It really was amazing Mayo got to a league semi final despite losing four games on the spin while staring relegation in the face. Two goals in eight matches had to be a very worrying stat for James Horan and his management.
All roads lead to Castlebar on Sunday for Mayo’s showcase football final. The proximity of the two clubs with brothers and cousins being on opposite teams makes it intriguing to say the least. Barry Moran being fit for the Mitchels is a must to combat the power of the O’Shea brothers. I expect Castlebar to have the resources to shut out the threat of Alan Durcan, Liam Irwin, and co, and don’t expect them to get the same freedom they were afforded in the semi-final win over Charlestown. However Breaffy have a mean back line themselves and a very hard working half forward line to boot. I still think Castlebar hold the aces up front, and in Neil Douglas, Neil Lydon, and Richie Feeney they have three top drawer forwards. It is simple, the mid field battle decides who wins the game. If Castlebar break even in the middle their superior forward line will see them through. The bookies see this as a foregone conclusion, I am not so sure it’s that straightforward. Castlebar at 10/11 to start at -2 is the bet of the weekend.
A certain brand of Danish lager does not do GAA weekends but if they did it would not be a patch on what unfolded in Croke Park last Sunday (as long as you’re from Mayo). I had a dream last week that we had two teams in Croke Park for All-Ireland final day- that dream is now a reality. Not since 2008 did any county have teams in both minor and senior finals when Tyrone were successful on both occasions. I sat beside Barney Rock for most of the minor game and at full-time he and Oisin McConville could not have heaped any more praise on our minor team when both described them as a serious outfit. Mayo ripped Monaghan apart, scoring goals at crucial times, culminating in a very impressive total of 3-19 and they had contenders for man of the match all over the field, I opted for wing back Michael Hall who seems to be trying to emulate another number five on our senior team. On a day that had mixed emotions for the minor camp, may I wish Cian Hanley a speedy recovery from his very unfortunate injury.
They have been there and done it three times in the past decade, while we are still waiting to do it for the first time in over 60 years, and on Sunday in Croke Park the Mayo juggernaught will collide with the Tyrone colossus for a place in the All Ireland final in four weeks’ time. Mayo have breezed through Connacht and swatted aside the challenge of the reining All Ireland champions en route to this showdown, while Tyrone have taken the scenic route that has taken them from defeat in May in Ballybofey, on to Tullamore, Roscommon, Newbridge, and Croke Park to get to the semi-final. James Horan named an unchanged side from the one that beat Donegal in the quarter-final on Thursday afternoon, with Tom Cunniffe getting the nod despite limping out of the Donegal game.
Hunger was the difference between Mayo and Donegal last Sunday according to many pundits; it was more like starvation. What more can you say, the best ever performance by a Mayo team in Croke Park and I don’t say that lightly. Donegal didn’t know what hit them, the way they dismantled the All-Ireland champions was so impressive it scared the living daylights out of everybody watching including the remaining three teams left in the competition. I was on Highland Radio (Donegal’s local station) the Wednesday evening before the quarter final and after telling it as it was, that I thought this Mayo team were in a really good place because of their build up, the competition for places and their ability to ease and not rush players back from injury unlike Donegal, and that Mayo were in serious physical shape, only to be jibed somewhat by James McHugh and Paul McGonigle (two former Donegal players) that “according to John Casey Donegal shouldn’t bother turning up on Sunday”. Well, maybe they should have listened.
1.Aidan O'Shea is playing the football of his life: