Tuesday, July 23, 2019

And so it all comes down to next Saturday week. Be still my beating heart.

For everything we have experienced in following Mayo’s pursuit of the Holy Grail, it’s beyond even our comprehension just how hot the atmosphere is likely to be when Donegal come visiting Castlebar to fight us for the right to reach this year’s All-Ireland SFC semi-finals. Gone is the wriggle room; there’s no second chance from hereon. Only the strongest will survive.

It’s a situation Mayo would gladly have settled for heading to Croke Park for yesterday’s double-header. It was all too plain that nothing less than two points for the Green and Red over Meath was going to be good enough if they wished to remain relevant in this year’s championship race, but even then was the fear that a Donegal victory over Kerry, which as things transpired could easily have happened, would have brought scoring differences into play – leaving Mayo with an uphill battle of beating the Tir Chonaill men to a place in the last four, even in the event of beating them in MacHale Park. But the sharing of spoils between Donegal and the men from the Kingdom has thrown a whole different slant on the final game in Group 1 of the quarter-final series. No calculators will be needed. A one-point win will do Mayo. A draw will draw the curtain on their campaign and perhaps even on a handful of careers.

You could see how badly this remarkably resilient group of Mayo footballers wanted to assure themselves of earning their cut at Donegal next time out, in the manner they applied themselves during the final quarter-hour of their rumble with the Royals. It’s fair to say they had been playing far from vintage football and there seemed, in fact, every possibility that one lucky break in a Meath direction might even swing this game in favour of the Leinster underdogs.

But when Mayo needed leadership the most, they got it in spades. If Colm Boyle’s 57th minute point, the one that put them ahead for the first time in the second half, was inspirational, equally so was his full-frontal challenge that poleaxed Meath substitute Barry Dardis when on the hunt for a goal that could have returned the fat to the fire. There was David Clarke’s unrivalled dependability beneath the high ball and the ice-cool thinking of substitute Andy Moran who, if only scoring one point, was responsible for helping create so much more of the 2-10 shot by Mayo in the second half. The old heads helped steer the ship safely to port.

But if not quite the overall performance, then certainly the result was in stark contrast to what had happened away to Kerry seven days earlier. But that’s the difference between travelling to play Division 1 opposition who are also Munster champions on their home turf compared to taking on they who this year were of Division 2 standard and beaten Leinster champions, on doing so in a neutral venue that just so happens to be a pitch you prefer even to your own. Which brings us on to the subject of just what will be at stake when Mayo and Donegal collide in front of a sold-out MacHale Park on Saturday week because both before and in the wake of Kerry’s victory over Mayo in the opening round of this All-Ireland quarter-final ‘Super 8s’ series, the unbelievable unbeaten record that the Kingdom can boast at Fitzgerald Stadium had come into focus.

In 24-years, Kerry have played 31 games of senior championship football without losing so much as once at the Killarney venue. So that has got me wanting to compare Mayo’s results in MacHale Park over the same timeframe – especially given the absolute necessity of winning next time out if James Horan’s team is to place itself among the last four contenders to lift Sam Maguire.

Since 1995, Mayo have actually played five championship matches fewer in Castlebar than Kerry have in Killarney, yet have still clocked up five defeats along the way compared to Kerry’s none. And what might concern Green and Red fans most this next fortnight, ahead of this winner-takes-all affair with the Tir Chonaill men, is that their team has lost both of its last two championship outings on home soil – Roscommon this year and Galway last year. And that’s not to forget that in the championship game directly before those two, they were more than a tad fortunate just to draw (before winning after extra-time) with a Derry team fresh from being relegated to Division 3 of the National Football League.

Ultimately, overcoming the Oakleafers that day in 2017 was Mayo’s fourth championship win on the spin in Castlebar, as they had also beaten Sligo in that summer’s Connacht SFC and Fermanagh and Kildare in the 2016 All-Ireland Qualifiers. But none of those were Division 1 opponents at the time, and nor were Galway at the time they conquered Mayo in MacHale Park in ’16.

In fact, where Mayo went the twenty years from 1995 to 2005 losing just two of their nineteen senior championship matches played in Castlebar, they have now lost three of the seven they have played there in the last four years. And perhaps what is most worryingly from a Mayo perspective now is that it’s all of thirteen years since the Green and Red have won a senior championship match in Castlebar against a team that would be playing Division 1 football the following season – as is the case for Donegal who beat none other than Meath in the Division 2 final at Croke Park earlier this year.

But that 0-12 to 1-8 win for Mayo (Division 1A) over Galway (Division 1B) in 2006 was in a Connacht final and didn’t come on the back of a campaign that has already resulted in two championship losses for Mayo this summer.

If it was because of Donie Buckley’s in-depth knowledge of the Mayo players, him having previously coached so much brilliance into them, that Kerry, with Buckley now as their tutor, were able to turn the tables on Mayo with such assassin-like efficiency in Round 1 of the Super 8s, then how concerned should we be that the team against whom we can settle for nothing short of victory in our next game, have in their corner Stephen Rochford, mastermind of their two All-Ireland appearances in 2016 and ‘17?

As subplots go, that’s of the Hollywood variety. There’s a blockbuster in store, surely.

James Horan takes in the atmosphere ahead of his side’s clash with the Royals. Picture: INPHO

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By Anthony Hennigan
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