For obvious reasons, last Sunday’s league semi-final with Galway has been taking up more processing power in my head than this coming Sunday’s final encounter with Donegal. Sure, what's to come this Sunday is a final and, of course, a national title and some silverware (handed out at Croker too) would be nice but, admit it, we’ve already got the scent of the sea air from Salthill in our nostrils and it’s not buckets and spades we’re thinking of either. So, despite yesterday’s photo shoot for the NFL final, excuse me if I take up just a little more time in analysing the tea leaves from last Sunday.
We won the battle the last day, at least according to the scoreboard, but what did the encounter do for us in terms of the war? When it became clear the Sunday before last that Galway would be our semi-final opponents, I was none too happy but, in some respects, I’m now glad that we did get to face them at such close proximity to the championship showdown. If nothing else, it reminded us (for those of us that needed reminding, myself included I have to admit) that they are a bloody good team.
Hanley is a cracking full-back who commands his area with authority and their entire backline is tight and difficult to break down. Bergin might be a big, gangly git whose shooting prowess is almost as bad as my own but he can fetch ball at midfield and he’s well able to give it too. And they have plenty of good forwards, including some still with All-Ireland medals jangling in their pockets. Ja might be well past it but Padraig Joyce certainly isn’t and he could be shaping up to provide his first proper performance against Mayo for a number of years. Then there’s Savage, Meehan, Bane, the other Joyce, Clancy and, most likely, Armstrong – that amounts to serious firepower no matter how you look at it. Solid at the back, strong in the middle and the potential to be lethal going forward. And we have to play them in Salthill, where we’ve never (to my memory at least) got a result against them in the championship.
One thing that stuck in my mind after Sunday’s match was the Ronan McGarritty factor. Ronan’s season tapered off poorly last year but he was absolutely awesome in the Connacht final and his ability to challenge for and win primary possession around the middle was the major factor in our ability to claw our way back into that match in the second half. He’d be just the man for Bergin and we’ll miss his presence there keenly. Brady and Heaney bring plenty of heft and aggression – always good commodities to have against Ford’s Galway – but neither of them can win ball the way McGarritty does. Harte now and again makes a good leap but his skills are complementary rather than being directly substitutable to McGarritty’s.
This means that we’re unlikely to play The Beautiful Game against Galway and instead I think we’ll see plenty of breaking, spoiling and crowding around the centre, allied to short kickouts and a mixture of long balls from BJ with hard running from the halfbacks. In other words, we’re likely to have to do more work to get up the field and this places an extra responsibility on the forwards to make economical use of the ball that they get. That’s one of the reasons we won last Sunday – we had only five wides compared to twelve for them – and we’ll need to show the same level of meanness in front of the posts in Pearse Stadium too. Another good thing about the forwards the last day was that they took - and shook off - a fair few hits, especially in the first half. It does look as if, finally, they’re starting to bulk up a bit, even Mort but, more notably, Dillon who is destined once again to be a real key man for us this year.
It’s also worth noting that the scores the last day were well spread around, which they needed to be, given that Burke was attached to Mort like a tick. This tactic cost Galway in terms of scores (1-2 or thereabouts in exchange for the fouls on him) but it did take Mort out of the game for much of the day. We needed the points that came from Moran, Harte, Kilcoyne, Dillon and Devenney and, of course, the 1-1 from Ger Brady came in handy too. It would have been good to see Brady play as a more or less orthodox full-forward but I suppose his positioning out around the middle, as well as all the interchanging in the forwards, was part of the shadow-boxing with Ford on the day. Although Johnno will no doubt want to play his cards cautiously this coming Sunday as well (with Ford and his chums reverting to paying patrons for the day – will Ford shout for Mayo, I wonder?), I’d still like to see Brady operate for at least 35 minutes there, if only to demonstrate whether or not he really can.
The other positive from the last day was our solidity in the full-back line, which is a welcome development given all our recent travails in that sector. Galway tried a bit of aerial bombardment – as Donegal surely will too – but we were able to cope comfortably enough with it, Kilcullen making one particular eye-catching fetch under pressure. O’Malley and Higgins are getting better all the time and Aidan Higgins (who may play on Sunday if Kilcullen isn’t fit) is a great option to have in reserve. The half-backs were more unsteady but I still think BJ is the best option we have for centre-back and, like Kilcullen at no.3, he’s growing into the position with each appearance. Sure, it would have been great to parachute in the best centre-back in the country to sort what’s been a problem area for some time but it doesn’t work like that. Johnno had to find someone to do it and I think he’s made a good choice.
The injury count has to be a worry and it’s fairly clear that we’re paying the price for success, in that this coming Sunday we’ll be playing our fifth competitive match in as many weeks. However, Johnno had a point when he said the other day that they’d prefer to be back in Croker this Sunday rather than down in Beleek training. I only hope we don’t lose anyone else after the Donegal game; we’re down to the bare bones as it is. I know, there’s still another four weeks to go after this Sunday before we face Galway and that’s plenty of time for many of the walking wounded to come back (including perhaps even Trevor Mort, despite what my own medical diagnosis had to say on the matter) but I, for one, am getting more than a little weary of all these “Injuries mount for Mayo” headlines.
Then there’s the issue of the two sidelines. Unquestionably, we have the smarter bunch directing off-field operations. (This is the opposite to 2005 when I was struck at the difference in the pre-match interviews given by the respective gaffas shortly before the throw-in. Maughan was bullshitting on about what a great occasion the Connacht final was and how Mayo/Galway matches are always special. Ford said, simply, “It’s a hot day, we’ll need all twenty players”). However, the elephant in this particular living room in the bloody general election, polling day for which could well be just four days after the Salthill match. Can you imagine Alex Ferguson (no, I’m not a Man U fan, before you ask) standing for parliament with polling day on a few days after the Cup final. I know, I know, the analogy isn’t perfect: who in their right mind would vote for SAF? And our match isn’t the final (although it is undoubtedly the real Connacht final) etc. etc. But you get my drift. I’m with Enda Kenny when he says to call the election now – at least the bloody thing would be over a week or so before we face Galway. As things stand, Johnno is going to be enormously distracted over the coming four weeks while Ford won’t be and this state of affairs is more than enough to nullify any advantage we might have had in the smarts department.
In summary, then, plenty of food for thought. But isn’t that always the way when facing Galway? Last year, the Spailpin set out lucidly his fears for what might happen us in the Connacht final, fears that I largely shared, given our flaccid performance up in Carrick. Thankfully, things worked out differently that day but they might not this time round.