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Monday 18 December 2017

Mayo need only look to league for inspiration

Kerry’s Seamus Moynihan and Maurice Fitzgerald with Mayo’s Liam McHale compete in the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final. Photo: Sportsfile
Kerry’s Seamus Moynihan and Maurice Fitzgerald with Mayo’s Liam McHale compete in the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final. Photo: Sportsfile

Mayo's All-Ireland SFC demons are the stuff of macabre legend.

And, for the green-and-red oppressed, the devil incarnate tends to wear a green-and-gold jersey and answer to uniquely Kerry monikers such as Gooch, Star or Maurice Fitz, depending on the era of purgatorial punishment.

But here's the really weird thing about this supposedly lopsided relationship: Mayo can't stopping beating Kerry in the league.

Five of their last six Allianz FL encounters, dating back to 2012 and a Division 1 semi-final that went to extra-time, have ended in Kerry defeat.

Éamonn Fitzmaurice has squared off against a medley of Mayo managers (James Horan, the Pat Holmes/Noel Connelly axis, Stephen Rochford) and lost four times out of five in the league.

Kerry and Mayo players during last February’s NFL duel. Photo: Sportsfile
Kerry and Mayo players during last February’s NFL duel. Photo: Sportsfile

His solitary spring triumph happened in March of last year, when the visitors to Elverys MacHale Park recovered from one down at half-time to win by five, 2-13 to 0-14.

At the time that appeared a galling setback for Rochford, leaving the year-one boss on the brink of relegation.

But Mayo recovered and survived … and then recovered once more last February from a slumbering start in Tralee, where they trailed by six points after half-an-hour only to crank up through the gears and win by two, 0-15 to 1-10.

Scrutiny

Even if you trawl back further, starting from 2006, Mayo's NFL head-to-head against Kerry stands up to scrutiny: they have won nine, drawn one and lost just three of their last 13 encounters.

For Mayo, though, league victories don't amount to a hill of beans when measured against Kerry's oppressive championship record against them.

Rochford himself touched on this at Mayo's press night in Castlebar ahead of Sunday's All-Ireland SFC semi-final.

"Mayo, as a football community, we haven't beaten Kerry in 20 years," he warned, albeit it's actually 21. "This group has been close, but that doesn't mean anything going into 2017."

On a more positive note, the manager added: "What I see in this group, they do really stand up to that challenge. And whilst we'll go in as the underdogs, we're not going to go up there in any sense of fear.

"We've got a healthy group, don't have anybody on the physio table. So we'll go with a certain level of confidence, but totally understanding that we're coming up against the form team in the championship."

Historically, championship is what matters for Kerry and where they invariably tend to turn the screw on Mayo, who have won just 16pc of their SFC collisions. The full statistical breakdown reads: played 25, won four, drew three, lost 18.

But it's the recent history that cuts deepest into the Mayo psyche: since John Maughan's crew ambushed Páidí Ó Sé's newly-crowned Munster champions with a brilliant semi-final display in 1996, the counties have met seven times in summer combat.

And Kerry have won six of them, including three All-Ireland finals: the Maurice Fitzgerald show in 1997, the Colm Cooper-inspired 2004 cakewalk and the '06 massacre when Kieran Donaghy, Declan O'Sullivan and Cooper took it in turns to twist the knife.

The Kingdom's only minor blemish came at the semi-final stage in 2014 when they battled back from five points adrift, late on, to draw with 14 Mayo men.

Cue another comeback at the Gaelic Grounds, this time from seven down after 25 minutes, to win a raucous, unruly, rollercoaster epic after extra-time.

The six Kerry forwards who started that replay, and 12 of the team in total, also lined up from the start against Galway in this year's quarter-final.

Upheaval

There has been more upheaval in the Mayo '15' but it's marginal enough, so the parallels between 2014 and 2017 are obvious.

"Yeah, but Kerry went on to win an All-Ireland that year and we're still seeking that," Rochford reminded.

"They have that level of experience as well. They're the National League champions, the Munster champions.

"So the formguide certainly suggests a Kerry win, and that's absolutely fine with us. We'll go to Croke Park with a plan, and a determination that hopefully will spur on a performance that's good enough to win."

If there's any morsel of historic encouragement for the Connacht men, it's this. Their four previous SFC victories over Kerry all came in semi-finals - in 1936, '48, '51 (after a replay) and '96.

And two of those, '36 and '51, proved a precursor to Sam Maguire deliverance.

Hope springs eternal.

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