Tuesday 25 October 2016

Focus can tip scales in favour of Mayo ...

Kearns' men have blazed a trail but now face the Premier league

Alan Dillon Photo: Sportsfile
Alan Dillon Photo: Sportsfile

It requires only a cursory glance at the record books to remind you of the obvious parallels between tomorrow's All-Ireland senior football semi-final and another last-four collision dating back 12 years.

Then, as now, Mayo had copperfastened their role as odds-on favourites by scoring a significant quarter-final victory over Tyrone.

Then, as now, Mayo were facing a 'back door' bolter from the minnow classes - for Tipperary today read Fermanagh in 2004.

And back then, the 'fairytale' almost came true ... 14-man Mayo were pushed to the brink in a fraught semi-final ending 0-9 apiece before eventually eking out a two-point replay win.


This potted history lesson is especially aimed at younger and more excitable Mayo fans with no clear memory of '04. We suspect the same cautionary tale has been recycled for the benefit of their current team-mates by Andy Moran, a panellist back then, and Alan Dillon, who started both games.

"It's an ideal scenario for Tipperary," Dillon said at Mayo's press night, "because we were raging hot favourites from the Tyrone quarter-final (in 2004).

"But there's a different dynamic in terms of the squad this year. This is our sixth semi-final. Back then, Mayo probably weren't in a semi-final since '97.

"Again, you really have to accept that what Tipperary have done this year to get to a semi-final has been very impressive.

"They're a team we definitely can't take for granted because they've so many quality individuals and they've beaten a Division 1 team in Cork, kicked 2-10 against Kerry, negated the likes of Derry and Galway … and their scoring ratio has been very impressive as well."

Suffice to say, the Mayo veteran is 'on message' ... but he's right to be. Tipperary's advance to the last-four is no fluke. Liam Kearns' trailblazers have earned their spurs, three times, against counties from a higher division.

They also happened to beat up Galway by nine points to seal the county's first football semi-final berth in 81 years.

If the margin had been doubled, they wouldn't have been particularly flattered. And who had Galway taken out just six weeks earlier in the Connacht SFC.

That's another lesson for Mayo, more relevant than 2004, as the 2/9 favourites seek to block out the widely peddled presumption that their big-match experience, power and proven quality are guaranteed to prevail here. And that's why focus will be key for Stephen Rochford's side.

We saw it clearly, from the first bell, against Tyrone two weeks ago. But then Mayo had no other choice: right through the qualifiers, they had oscillated between flashes of their old brilliance and even longer periods of distraction and it was obvious that any wavering repeat would be pounced on by the Ulster champions.

Now the question is whether Mayo can retain that focus as the big prize that perennially mocks them looms into view. If their quarter-final performance (which, by the way, was still a long way off perfect) represented a watershed in their season, then they should do so and victory will be theirs.

But if it was a once-off? Then don't be surprised if Tipp are ready to pounce.

Their progress, in the context of their famously oft-quoted absentee list, has been little short of stunning. But quality has shone through, not just but especially against Galway.

Whether it's the pinpoint restarts of Evan Comerford; or their indomitable half-back duo Bill Maher and Robbie Kiely; or the inspirational midfield drive of their skipper, Peter Acheson; or their multi-faceted forward qualities crowned by the predatory skills of Conor Sweeney and the class of Michael Quinlivan ... they have been the story of the championship to date.

But, notwithstanding what Galway visited upon a listless Mayo in June, the bar is about to be raised. Against Tyrone, a majority of Mayo's team leaders stepped up to the plate: Lee Keegan, Aidan O'Shea and Cillian O'Connor were the three most obvious examples, but they weren't alone.

Game by game, Kevin McLoughlin looks more in tune with his 'sweeper' duties. Rochford has multiple bench options, far more than Kearns. And, surely, if any type of a close contest evolves, Mayo's hunger will trump the effervescence of Tipp?

ODDS: Mayo 2/9 Draw 12/1 Tipperary 4/1 VERDICT: Mayo

SFC semi-final: Mayo v Tipperary, Croke Park, Tomorrow 3.30 (live RTÉ1)

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