Gaelic: Mayo lack attack to expose Kerry
AS we approach the business end of this year’s championship, it is fascinating to see how views can differ across the spectrum of the GAA public in relation to the remaining contenders for Sam.
Too often, it is easy to be sucked into the traditions of the remaining counties involved and opinions are offered based on performances of yesteryear with a disregard to the current status of each team.
So based on traditions with the four remaining contenders – Kerry, Dublin, Mayo and Donegal – the script should be as follows: ‘Sure Kerry win All-Irelands for fun and when they get back to Croker Park they are invincible’; ‘Mayo will arrive in Croke Park on Sunday and see the green and gold of Kerry, roll over and leave like startled earwigs as they did in 2004 and 2006’;
‘Dublin will believe in all the hype and duly collapse either to a Donegal side replicating the form of 1992 or else beat Donegal and surely collapse to Kerry in the final because Kerry don't lose finals’. This simply isn't going to happen in 2011 and whilst it hard to argue with the past traditions and results, I think the make-up of the four remaining teams is very different to recent years and this championship may just play out very differently to the way many expect. Kerry are not the team they were in 2009 and still have yet to replace the key players they have lost over the last two years.
Yes, they are still strong contenders for Sam but with a lack of quality games under their belt, they come to Croke Park this weekend a small bit vulnerable. Apart from 30 minutes of blistering football against Cork, Jack O'Connor's men have yet to show signs that they are at full tilt and ready to reclaim the Sam Maguire. Limerick offered a futile resistance in both games and Kerry cannot have taken much from either of those clashes. As always, the word on the streets in the Kingdom is one of confidence but for me, Kerry still have some questions to answer and maybe this game against Mayo is the perfect opportunity to answers those questions.
Not unlike Tipperary against Dublin last Sunday in the hurling semi-final, the Kingdom need a game that will test their resolve fully and I think Mayo will provide that acid test. Who would have thought that this Mayo team would be competing in an All-Ireland semi-final after their defeat by Longford in last year’s qualifiers and a near embarrassing defeat against London in their championship opener just 12 weeks ago. So after a top-class performance in beating last year’s All-Ireland champions, Cork, the one potential doubt hanging over the county of Mayo can be summed up in one word: consistency.
Can Mayo replicate their quarterfinal performance and upset the odds by beating Kerry? It’s highly unlikely they will match the standard of their quarter-final form but if they are to topple the Kingdom everything will need to fall into place. James Horan has come in with a new broom and in effect built his panel from scratch with many new players breaking into the team. The defence has been reconstructed, the O'Shea brothers form a new midfield partnership and he has unearthed a few new forwards like Cillian O'Connor and Jason Doherty to assist the experienced Alan Dillon and Andy Moran.
Nobody gave these players a chance of progressing when they stumbled in Ruislip on May 29 but Horan has transformed the group with an ethos based on a collective high work-rate throughout his team. Horan will look to expose some potential flaws in O'Connor's team by simply trying to make life difficult for Kerry. His primary objective has to be to deny Kerry space and time on the ball as that's where they are at their most dangerous. The Kerry front six are still the best around and if given time in possession they can pick out passes for fun and unlock defences at will, resulting in easy scores for Declan O'Sullivan , Colm Cooper and co. Mayo have been solid defensively all year and their concession rate of scores, particularly in the second half of games has been exemplary.
However, the challenge of holding this Kerry forward line is one of entirely different proportions. The midfield battle will be crucial – Mayo's O'Shea brothers gave the Connacht men a platform for victory against Cork whereas the Kerry duo of Bryan Sheehan and Anthony Maher proved their doubters wrong in the first half of the Munster final against the same opposition but faded as the game progressed. Mayo will have to dominate this sector in order to compete with Kerry and if the Kingdom break even in this area it will provide them with sufficient possession to create enough scoring opportunities which will be translated onto the scoreboard for this clinical Kerry side.
However, I don’t think Mayo have the firepower to really put Kerry on the backfoot. At times against Cork they were guilty of dropping shots short or just lacking that real clinical accuracy. Whilst O'Connor's side lacks the same strength in depth as he had at his disposal in 2009, his underlying concern must be for his defence and whether they can cope with the open spaces of Croke Park. AGEING Dublin showed against Tyrone that an ageing defence can be exposed in Croke Park and with five of the starting back six the wrong side of 30 and a lot of mileage on the clock, the scrappage scheme could be on the horizon.
O'Connor will hope that his experienced defenders will deliver for him once again and it would be foolish to question them just yet based on their Munster final performance. Marc Ó Sé is their best man-marker and defender, but has been sacrificed to fill the full-back berth. Eoin Brosnan at centre-back is not a natural defender and when Limerick’s Stephen Kelly ran straight at the heart of the Kerry defence it caused them problems. But this flaw was disguised as Kerry where always comfortable throughout their quarter-final clash.
If the Kerry defence are disciplined, do not give away handy frees and nullify the influence of Andy Moran and Alan Dillon then Mayo may struggle to get the required amount on the scoreboard. To sum up, Mayo may just need too much to go their way but they will not be found wanting this time and this game will in no way replicate bad days of the past. The speed, class and use of the ball within the Kerry forward line will just prove one step too far for the men from the West.
Kerry by four points.