Saturday, April 02, 2022

Make no mistake about it, the National Football League is worth winning. For a county starved of silverware, we cannot be turning up our noses at golden opportunities when they present themselves and this Sunday’s final against Kerry is just that. I think it is universally agreed that for quality, competitiveness and stories, the NFL is an even better competition than the championship.

Kerry’s Sean O’Shea and Mayo’s Matthew Ruane will come face to face on Sunday. Picture: INPHO/Cathal Noonan

It is often said that the final round of the league with most teams fighting for something is the highlight of the inter-county season but, strangely, nobody seems too bothered about who actually wins the thing.
Mayo should be bothered about winning it though and must go all guns blazing on Sunday to dethrone Kerry. We have only won four national titles at senior level in 71 years and 2019’s league final victory against the same opponents was one of the few glory days in our county’s checkered football history. That win marked the dawn of a new James Horan era and his squad have gone from strength to strength since then. Securing victory on Sunday could act as a catalyst for more great times ahead and should really be targeted.
Kerry are the most decorated of all Gaelic football counties in Ireland but you can be sure that they won’t be blasé about capturing a national title this weekend. What really struck me after their win against Armagh was how excited and animated Jack O’Connor was to have secured the two points. When you saw him charging on to the pitch celebrating you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was a rookie, down on his luck manager who finally got a big win. The correlation between league and championship success, however, is not lost on O’Connor. In his previous reigns, Kerry won the All-Ireland in 2004, 2006 and 2009 having won the NFL title earlier that season. Coincidence? Jacko thinks not.
For the Mayo players, there will be a serious buzz in the camp this week after putting in such a classy display last weekend and with the prospect of a showpiece televised affair in GAA HQ on Sunday. It certainly beats a heavy block of conditioning and running that would have likely been scheduled for the training field had they failed to overcome Kildare. Sunday’s match against a high-flying, ambitious Kerry will be as good as 10 training sessions for the Mayo camp and should be seen as ideal preparation for the mammoth Galway game on April 24.
Three weeks between the league final and first round of championship is also the ideal spacing and the new split-season GAA calendar is now so much more attractive for players and supporters than the old system where an interminable two- or three-month gap would have to be filled between league’s end and championship beginning. Given the two worrying injuries to two important players on Sunday, some may argue that another game is the last thing James Horan will want but that is ignoring the reality that teams suffer as many injuries in training as on matchdays. On co-commentary for Midwest Radio for the Mayo-Armagh game last month, Colm Boyle bemoaned this very fact when recognising that many of Mayo’s major injuries in the last few seasons have happened in training. I understand that there are some players that you don’t want to lose and must be protected at all costs but with a strong 35-man squad, Mayo are in a better position than most to absorb these blows.
Many of that squad were on top form in Carrick last Sunday. What was most pleasing about that performance was how dangerous and smooth we looked in attack. This column and many commentators have been critical of Mayo’s spread of scorers and return from open play this season. Against Kildare, both of those issues were addressed. Kicking five points from play, Jason Doherty looked extremely sharp and took a lot of the pressure off Ryan O’Donoghue to be the scorer-in-chief. Jordan Flynn continued his impressive form and once again contributed handsomely on the scoreboard. Flynn’s emergence as a reliable, scoring and dominant midfielder has been the find of the season for Mayo in 2022. Jack Carney really grew into the game and showed his talent and maturity late on by keeping the scoreboard ticking over with some lovely scores.
The great spread of scorers is probably best illustrated by the fact that Mayo’s teak-tough enforcer, Swanee O’Hora, sallied forward on a number of occasions to join the fun and kick two points. Not to be outdone by his defensive counterpart, Michael Plunkett got in on the act and also raised two white flags. Not for the first time, or the last, Ryan O’Donoghue was man-of-the-match. As a forward, he has it all. The O’Donoghue-Clifford showdown next Sunday will be intriguing as they’re the top two forwards in Ireland on form right now.
While Kildare kicked points for fun in the first-half, Mayo’s defence ran a tight ship and the Lilywhites didn’t look like threatening our goal too much. It was Rory Brickenden’s best performance for Mayo. Brickenden often goes unnoticed on county duty but he really stood up and made things happen on Sunday and exerted his considerable size and pace on proceedings. Kudos to Rory Byrne for keeping another clean sheet. He will be feeling much better about himself and confident in his surroundings having played three NFL games this campaign.
Mayo should have scored more goals and left a lot of good goal-scoring situations behind them but I wouldn’t be too worried about that as Mayo’s creativity and movement were a world away from the turgid bore-fest in Omagh a week previous. In fact, there were more scores in the first-half last Sunday than the whole game in Healy Park.

Rory Byrne has benefited from a steady run of games between the posts for Mayo.Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

A dry ball and extremely benign weather helped Mayo’s flow but there was more to their stylish display than just good weather conditions. Mayo’s mentality looked much more attack-minded and the team’s accurate, crisp kick-passing really stretched the match and had Kildare’s defence under serious pressure. We have seen Mayo’s best attacking displays this year when they have used the foot as opposed to the putting-the-ball-under-the-jumper stuff we infuriatingly saw versus Tyrone. Indeed, the last time we were in Croke Park, and another time we scored two goals in the NFL this season, was in Round 4 versus Dublin. On that night, our long, direct kicks into the full-forward line opened up the Dubs and had their defenders all at sea. More of the same this Sunday, please.
These Kerry players never get an easy ride in games against Mayo and I get the feeling that they don’t particularly enjoy playing against this Mayo team. Mayo’s pace at the back and athleticism around the middle have made it an uncomfortable experience for the Kingdom in recent years. A few weeks back, I cheekily suggested the possibility of an epic Mayo-Kerry trilogy in 2022. Winning the second instalment on Sunday would certainly lay down a marker for the summer ahead. But forgetting about laying down any markers for any matches or competitions down the road, it would just be lovely to win a national title in the here and now.

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