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Wednesday 26 September 2018

'Mayo are in exactly the same situation as last year' - Casey

Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea celebrates after scoring a late point against Derry during extra-time in their All-Ireland SFC Qualifier Round 2A clash at MacHale Park, Castlebar. PIc: Sportsfile
Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea celebrates after scoring a late point against Derry during extra-time in their All-Ireland SFC Qualifier Round 2A clash at MacHale Park, Castlebar. PIc: Sportsfile

Now John Casey knows what it's like to follow his team in sound but no vision.

Earlier this month, the former Mayo forward-turned-pundit was driving home to the west from Portlaoise, where he had been covering the Laois/Clare qualifier for RTÉ Radio.

Mayo were next up, at home to Derry. And Casey couldn't be there …

Nor was he watching 'live' on the box so he followed his county's latest traumatic rollercoaster on the radio, flicking between Midwest and Radio 1.

As the clock ticked, it seemed Mayo might be driving head-on towards 'back door' oblivion. He dialled his brother and enquired how long was left. Six minutes; two points down. "But I can see them winning it," his sibling predicted, helpfully.

Mayo manager Stephen Rochford whose side are strong favourites to defeat Cork in tomorrow’s SFC Qualifier.
Mayo manager Stephen Rochford whose side are strong favourites to defeat Cork in tomorrow’s SFC Qualifier.

And maybe that cuts to the heart of Mayo GAA and its unrequited love affair with Sam Maguire. As Casey remarks, more than once: "Ever the optimists we are down here!"

But his brother was right. "I was at the junction in Tulsk and I nearly went across the junction because Conor Loftus had just got the goal," the 1996 All-Ireland finalist recounts.

It went to extra-time where Mayo ran riot. Then they travelled to Ennis a week later and found themselves 0-6 to 0-1 down inside 20 minutes. They recovered - marginally - to trail by 0-8 to 0-6 at the break.

Rapid-fire

"Clare could have been out of sight at half-time - but for David Clarke and Andy Moran," admits Casey, who describes the second half as the "Aidan O'Shea show" … with a little help from the O'Connor brothers, Cillian and Diarmuid, whose rapid-fire brace of goals effectively quelled all Banner resistance.

Thus, we reach another qualifier watershed for Stephen Rochford's mercurial crew. They face Cork at the Limerick Gaelic Grounds tomorrow (5pm). They are 1/5 with the bookies … yet given their wild oscillations, are they really such a sure thing?

Curiously, you can trace the arrival of this Mayo team as a coming force back to another encounter with Cork, in the quarter-final of 2011.

Cork were defending champions. They also happened to be 1/5 beforehand … and Mayo won by 1-13 to 2-6.

That year and for the next five, Mayo reached an All-Ireland semi-final at worst.

They are that perverse conundrum - prone to incorrigible inconsistency during games yet, when it comes to the big picture, ultra-consistent contenders.

Casey describes this latest adventure as "uncannily similar to last year". You can see the parallels.

Each scenic detour was precipitated by defeat to Galway. Each began with an escape-to-victory at home to Ulster opposition (Fermanagh 12 months ago, Derry this time). This was followed by a seemingly emphatic result (Kildare last time, Clare now) that masked an erratic enough performance.

In last year's final qualifier, Mayo's form against Westmeath was even more up, down and all over the place. They'll hope to avoid that against Cork who, despite their own turbulent traits, are a potential banana-skin waiting to happen.

Encouraged

For all that, Casey is encouraged by what he sees as Mayo being "cast aside" in the debate about likely winners - "which suits us down to the ground. Some people seem to forget we were in exactly the same situation last year," he reminds.

"And we scored two own goals against the best Dublin team ever - or the best team ever - and drew with them (in the final). Eight or nine months later, people are saying this team are finished."

To ensure that they aren't, however, they must start improving. And quickly.

Casey again: "Consistency is the big thing, 100 percent. You are hoping the poor shooting against Derry was a once-off. If you go asleep like you did against Clare … against Cork or even Roscommon (if that transpires), the game could be out of sight at half-time.

"So it's about being in the game from the get-go. Aidan O'Shea in the last two games won every single throw-up. That alone should give a team the impetus to drive forward."

One other obvious issue is defence. What was Mayo's bedrock against Dublin last September has looked worryingly brittle when recent opponents ran through the middle.

Whereas they might be expected to beat Derry or Clare in a shootout, Casey presumes they will set up differently if they get to face Kerry or another heavyweight.

Otherwise, "if you leave space for Paul Geaney or James O'Donoghue or any of the Dubs, they will tear you to bits."

And yet Mayo's optimism springs eternal. They travelled in big numbers to Ennis - cue an attendance of 11,576. "The supporters are just second to none," says Casey. "They'll probably out-support Cork by 20 to one."

He mightn't be too far wrong.

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