herald

Sunday 22 September 2019

Second best of the west

SFC qualifier: Mayo v Galway, Gaelic Grds, Tonight 7.0, Sky

Antaine Ó Laoi of Galway in action against Keith Higgins of Mayo during the Allianz Football League but today the stakes are higher as one of the counties will crash out of the All-Ireland championship
Antaine Ó Laoi of Galway in action against Keith Higgins of Mayo during the Allianz Football League but today the stakes are higher as one of the counties will crash out of the All-Ireland championship

Some mischievous Rossie was quick off the mark this week with a promotional flyer advertising the "Connacht Senior B football final" in Limerick.

Behind the humour lies an awkward truth. Mayo and Galway may both still believe they'd beat Roscommon if only afforded one more crack at them, but that won't happen this summer, certainly not for tonight's fall guys at the Gaelic Grounds.

It's possible there have been bigger games in the history of the qualifiers, but it's hard to recall one where the stakes were so astronomically high.

This is, variously, a season-defining derby, a grudge match to beat all others, a clash of the casualty wards, and a game to signal the end of an era.

But for whom?

Kevin Walsh and his five-year Galway reign? Or the careers of a handful of Mayo legends who will exit without that elusive Celtic Cross?

"I'd agree with that analysis," says John O'Mahony, who has managed his native Mayo for two spells and twice led Galway to the All-Ireland summit. "It will rescue someone's season and it will destroy someone else's season.

"From a Galway perspective," he expands, "the one consistency they've shown over the last three or four years is against Mayo - not against the Tipperarys or Monaghan last year.

"So, in some respects, it's not a bad draw for Galway. The morale would have been low (after the Connacht final). We've all been in these situations, and you need something to rescue you and to unite you - and surely the one thing that could unite Galway is the fact that they're playing Mayo.

"The advantage Mayo have is two wins over Down and Armagh, albeit unimpressive," O'Mahony adds. "No one is going to know until you're 20 minutes into this game what attitude Galway are going to take to this.

"But I expect them to rise to the challenge and to really put it up to Mayo. And then it will be down to whether they can survive without their casualty ward."

Therein lies another imponderable. In the first flush of their league title triumph, James Horan would surely have fancied Mayo to end their scarcely believable seven-match losing streak against the Tribesmen .

But instead of a Connacht final rematch it's a do-or-die qualifier, their first straight knockout collision since Mayo dethroned O'Mahony's All-Ireland holders 20 years ago.

And both sides have major injury issues. Mayo's middle-eight crisis - Matthew Ruane, Diarmuid O'Connor, Lee Keegan and potentially Aidan O'Shea, albeit he was named in the team - has almost reached the level of Shakespearean tragedy.

Not to be outdone, Walsh this week described his own midfield injury woes as "torture", with Ciarán Duggan definitely out and four others - Cein D'Arcy, Fiontán Ó Curraoin, Tom Flynn and Peter Cooke - all struggling.

Paul Conroy is back in the frame and, closer to goal, could Damien Comer be patched up and parachuted into battle?

Picking a winner is fraught with uncertainty; the one thing O'Mahony expects is fireworks. "Back in the day, you mentioned '99, there was huge rivalry but there was a respect," he says.

"But it has got very nasty in recent years. I hope it doesn't, but I could see a situation where it will. That could produce all kinds of drama and have an influence ... and who's to rule out a first penalty shoot-out?"

Not even that would surprise us.

MAYO (SFC v Galway): D Clarke; C Barrett, B Harrison, K Higgins; P Durcan, C Boyle, M Plunkett; S Coen, A O'Shea; F McDonagh, J Doherty, C Treacy; C O'Connor, D Coen, K McLoughlin.

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