Present and fu­ture col­lide as sum­mer starts with big bang

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SOCCER -

MAYO and Gal­way meet to­day in what I can best de­scribe as a proper cham­pi­onship match that could dec­o­rate Croke Park in August in a quar­ter or semi-fi­nal. Two teams who have am­bi­tions — the first is to win to­day but the real bonus is to make the Su­per 8. Then the real fun be­gins.

Nei­ther will coun­te­nance de­feat to­day, but life on the road would be more dif­fi­cult for Mayo while it might not do Gal­way any harm at all. They are younger, have more to learn, and a few hard games may not hin­der them in the long run. The dan­ger is that they could run into an­other heavy­weight team early on in the qual­i­fiers, and his­tory is lit­tered with teams of po­ten­tial who never ful­filled it. The bars are full of play­ers who never lived up to ex­pec­ta­tions, they are the box­ers who look back in anger and de­clare: “I could have been a con­tender.” That group are best ig­nored.

Mayo did not do badly on tour last year and ac­tu­ally picked up mo­men­tum on the way. The wins over Clare, Cork and even­tu­ally Roscom­mon made them. All play­ers pre­fer games to train­ing and we will see to­day whether Mayo have the bal­ance right by do­ing very lit­tle in terms of heavy fit­ness work. Fresh legs are the key to vic­tory for Mayo to­day and it is bet­ter to take a chance on do­ing less rather than leav­ing their form on the train­ing ground.

Gal­way are out­siders in a game where all re­cent form points their way. They beat Mayo in the cham­pi­onship last year and again in the league this spring. That match in early Fe­bru­ary saw a change, too, in the mood of these old op­po­nents. It was a sour af­fair while tra­di­tion­ally Gal­way-Mayo games did not have a sharp or bit­ter edge. That dis­ap­peared in Salthill on Fe­bru­ary 11 and to­day’s game will be hot and heavy.

Ul­ti­mately, of course, a player shows his brav­ery and com­mit­ment to his team by hon­est en­deav­our, win­ning break­ing ball and try­ing his hard­est, rather than snarling and pos­tur­ing. If some­one gets put off for that to­day then they can be cat­e­gorised in the ‘com­plete dope’ col­umn.

Gal­way might have been bet­ter off in the league if they did not get to the fi­nal, a game in which they did not go af­ter Dublin — even when they had an ex­tra man. Of course it could prove to have been a very good learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but they did seem very rigid in their for­ma­tion.

I called their method of play ugly early in the year as it seemed to put an onus on their best for­wards like Damien Comer and Shane Walsh to de­fend far too of­ten. The ro­botic na­ture of this play is blamed on Paddy Tally, but I have a cer­tain sym­pa­thy as Gal­way leaked goals over the last few years. That prob­lem has been largely solved, but at the ex­pense of at­tack and I did com­pare Gal­way for­wards of the great team like Pádraic Joyce, Michael Don­nel­lan and Jar­lath Fal­lon and won­dered would this group be al­lowed to flour­ish.

Of course that great team also had men like Tomás Man­nion and John Divilly as won­der­ful de­fend­ers who were happy to do it, while Seán Óg De Paor could at­tack and de­fend. The present com­pany, when left to their own de­vices, would col­lapse against good for­wards — hence the need for re­in­force­ments.

The down­side to that is if you keep bail­ing out de­fend­ers by throw­ing in ex­tra backs then they never learn their job — tight mark­ing, get­ting a hand in, good po­si­tion­ing and so on. There is no need to learn when you don’t have to worry as there is al­ways some­one else to cover for you. It only teaches bad habits and a lot of backs now are just Flash Har­rys who solo up the field and kick the odd point. They need to be driven back on their arse with a good wal­lop and sent back to do their pri­mary job.

Any­way, the Ti­tanic could sail through the Gal­way backs over the last few years, so it is a case of needs must for Kevin Walsh and his man­age­ment team.

Walsh has taken a swipe at the crit­ics of his team’s style re­cently. His com­ment about “lazy pun­dits” was straight out of the GPA lex­i­con used against me in the past. I pre­sume it does not mean we pun­dits lie in bed in the morn­ing, more likely what he means is we do not un­der­stand. Walsh is en­ti­tled to have a go at the fourth es­tate, we can’t be like Mur­phy’s dog — able to give it but not able to take it.

Mayo are in de­cline and the wall­pa­per can­not cover all the cracks. There are a few changes to­day from the All-Ire­land fi­nal but they are changes, not im­prove­ments, un­less Conor Lof­tus pro­duces some­thing new. Stephen Coen is a help in the backs, but the will­ing horses will still carry most of the load and in fair­ness, none of these Mayo play­ers have ever shirked a bat­tle. It cer­tainly won’t hap­pen to­day in front of their own crowd.

The Mayo team which was an­nounced is un­likely to start un­less they have de­cided to com­mit rit­ual I would nearly sprint half-naked up MacHale Park if this team starts. I said ‘nearly’. This full-back line would treat a high ball like an uniden­ti­fied fly­ing ob­ject and Comer would make early hay. If Chris Bar­rett is alive and well then he must start. Stephen Rochford has got a lot of de­ci­sions right for Mayo in his time, he has also had a few howlers and he has to get it spot on to­day. No­body will re­mem­ber the lineup if they win, but poor de­ci­sions by the goal­keeper and backs have cost Mayo All-Ire­lands. They can­not af­ford any more on this team’s watch.

If Cil­lian O’Con­nor pulled his ham­string as badly as it seemed a short while ago, then he might be play­ing but he won’t be fit. He may be needed for the frees and there are likely to be plenty of those on both sides. So the weight falls back on the O’Shea broth­ers, Tom Par­sons, Paddy Dur­can, Colm Boyle and Andy Mo­ran. If they lead well, oth­ers will fol­low.

On the Gal­way side, there is a big­ger ques­tion of lead­er­ship. Comer will pro­vide it (even if he would have been bet­ter off keep­ing a lower pro­file for the last two weeks) but it is a day for Shane Walsh to pro­duce, so too Gareth Brad­shaw, Gary O’Donnell and Tom Flynn. Gal­way cer­tainly need to dis­cover a few new ones in the heat of Castle­bar to­day.

Most matches of this type are won just much on pig iron as flair and Mayo as seem to have a dis­tinct ad­van­tage in the mid­dle eight play­ers. Apart from Coen, they are a hard­ened, phys­i­cal bunch. They surely will push up hard on the Gal­way kick-out, which could be a big weak­ness for them. Not just the kick it­self, but the fight for pos­ses­sion which takes place af­ter the ball drops. And it will be a fight where only the brave and reck­less have any chance. Mayo should do well on breaks.

If Gal­way win, they can look to bet­ter days ahead and will grow into the sum­mer. Mayo are a team of to­day, not to­mor­row or next week. That can look af­ter it­self. This is a game for a home­town hero. Can Ai­dan O’Shea carry that man­tle or will he al­low it to be car­ried out of town?

I ex­pect a great bat­tle but not a great game. The present and fu­ture col­lide. I will go for the old dog for the hard road and think, that at home, the in­tense pride of Mayo will see them rouse them­selves for an almighty ef­fort. Mayo to win but Gal­way are not go­ing away.

They need to be driven back on their arse . . . and sent back to do their pri­mary job

Mayo’s Ai­dan O’Shea in pur­suit of Gal­way’s Shane Walsh dur­ing their Al­lianz League clash in Fe­bru­ary

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