No turning back as Mayo head for the line
Tyrone capable of mounting sternest challenge so far to Connacht champions but that’s as far as it’s likely to go
Mayo’s Séamus O’Shea who forms a powerful midfield combination with his brother Aidan. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Few counties have come into an All-Ireland semi-final in the qualifier age having experienced as little adversity as Mayo have this summer. There are those in the county who will shrug indifferently at that, as adversity never appeared to benefit them to any great extent in the past.
If it is to be an issue, Tyrone bring to the table a sequence of narrow victories and a modern tradition of not going down easily in Croke Park. Even when Dublin overwhelmed them two years ago there was a deficit of just seven at the final whistle.
You’ve a choice in weighing up Mayo: either take the view that they’ve beaten nothing of consequence or broadly agree with their status as favourites for the All-Ireland.
The former perspective is harder to argue both by reference to the form lines tomorrow’s contestants have in common and also when taking into account Mayo’s progress over the past three years, which has seen incremental improvement and progress.
They have come out in matches this season and established the tempo they wanted at an early stage and then played to their own rhythm. Like all good teams, they simply focus on what they can do and how completely they can implement their game plan.
Against Donegal and Roscommon, who have each played both of tomorrow’s semi-finalists, Mayo bettered Tyrone’s outcomes by a massive 22 points and 10, respectively. For added inconvenience manager Mickey Harte has had to plan without the suspended Martin Penrose, an experienced cog in the machine and All-Ireland medallist. So what’s the point?
Galway and Donegal might have been outsiders but both imagined that they’d be competitive and might even win. When early goals popped that illusion, their challenges disintegrated. Tyrone are more likely to dig in from an early stage, as Roscommon did but without the firepower to convert early dominance on the kick-outs to the scoreboard.
The added defensive challenge for Tyrone is disrupting the counter-attack. Mayo half backs have managed to break hard and fast in matches to date, Donal Vaughan in particular providing an entirely unmarked outlet runner into attacking space. His judgement of when to go for the score and when to pick out a well-placed forward has been clinical.
Cillian O’Connor has been the forward of choice on the end of many Mayo moves and it’s a role in which he’s excelled, particularly in terms of goal threat. Six goals in the past two matches since his return from injury plus the three assists he provided in the first match against Galway demonstrates the danger he brings.
It remains to be seen if Keith Higgins plays the loose, sweeping role of the quarter-final or is detailed to mark Seán Cavanagh but James Horan mightn’t want to interfere with his own plans and it’s probable that Séamus O’Shea will provide a conventional response to Cavanagh – effectively Tyrone’s life force – with Plan B behind glass for the initial stages.
Harte’s team don’t look to have the pace to cope with Mayo but they have the know-how to set up road blocks and although Connor McAliskey doesn’t compensate for Penrose’s instincts and massive work rate, he’s not lazy either and poses a greater scoring threat.
The tackling of Mayo’s forwards has been one of the spectacles of the championship: who a year ago could imagine Eamonn McGee being left isolated on his own end-line, mugged like a drunk and costing Donegal a goal?
It makes the short kick-out strategy sometimes favoured by Harte more risky for Tyrone and would require unwavering levels of concentration plus relentless industry to get back and support the recipients. But what’s the alternative: whacking big ones down on top of centrefield and inviting Aidan O’Shea down the runway?
It’s an area where the injured goalkeeper Niall Morgan is missed by Tyrone. Although his only championship outing featured a meltdown on the long-range place kicking which had been a major piece of artillery for Tyrone during the league, normal service would surely have been resumed and his kick-outs would have been more nuanced than Pascal McConnell’s.
Tyrone will dispute this doggedly. Conor Gormley will marshal the defence shrewdly and they’ll exploit any doubts they can create in Mayo’s mind but ultimately that will only influence the winning margin rather than the result.
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