GAA weekend that was: Mayo’s gruelling summer marathon
Rochford’s side will have played a mammoth nine games if they reach the All-Ireland final
Cillian O’Connor missed late chances to see Mayo past Roscommon in Sunday’s All-Ireland quarter-final in Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Grealy/Inpho
Anyone who knows anything about marathon running will tell you it’s not the distance that kills, it’s the pace. As championship runs go, Mayo are fast entering marathon territory and the only question now is whether or not they can handle the pace.
Nine games, one replay, two periods of extra-time and somewhere over 880 minutes of football - at the very least: that’s what will be required of Mayo if they are to claim the Sam Maguire this summer. And that’s not forgetting for one second who else is left in the race.
Has 1951 ever felt further away?
They now face, as Con Houlihan once described marathon running, a sort of horizontal Mount Everest, and in many ways next Monday’s All-Ireland quarter-final replay against Roscommon can only be considered base camp.
Kerry await the winners in Croke Park on August 20th with only three games and around 210 minutes of football in their legs and also the sense they haven’t yet even broken sweat.
Consider too where Mayo are coming from: Sunday’s draw at Croke Park was their sixth successive All-Ireland quarter-final; of their last 13 games in Croke Park, nine have either been drawn or decided by a point, including last summer’s All-Ireland final replay defeat to Dublin. There was also that frantic climax to this year’s Allianz Football League to fend off relegation.
It’s a wonder they still know how to breathe.
From here on then Mayo are entering new territory in every sense. The last three teams to win the All-Ireland football title via the qualifier route - Cork in 2010, Kerry in 2009, and Tyrone in 2008 - all required eight games each, and while momentum was certainly a positive factor, they didn’t come at the same pace that Mayo’s games are now.
Cork’s 2010 All-Ireland title via the qualifier route also included a Munster semi-final replay defeat to Kerry (which also went to extra-time), and a period of extra-time in their fourth round qualifier win over Limerick.
When Kerry won the 2009 All-Ireland title via the qualifiers they also required a replay against Cork in the Munster semi-final, which they lost, and likewise Tyrone in 2008, who lost their Ulster quarter-final replay against Down, then re-emerged to beat Louth, Westmeath, Mayo, Dublin, Wexford and finally Kerry.
This summer, Mayo opened their Connacht championship with a win over Sligo, then lost the semi-final to Galway: they have since beaten Derry in Castlebar (after extra-time), travelled to Ennis to beat Clare, then to Limerick to beat Cork (also after extra-time), before drawing with Roscommon on Sunday. That’s a lot of miles and minutes on the clock and for all the talk of players preferring and wanting more matches, it’s bound to be taking some toll.
It also shines a perhaps worrying light on where the championship will be this time next year. The new Super Eight series of games - replacing the four All-Ireland quarter-finals with a round-robin competition of 12 games - will see the four provincial champions play-off against the last four qualifier winners.
Three rounds, over three successive weekends, and while they will at least be spared extra-time, the pace could yet prove to be the killer, especially given both the All-Ireland hurling and football finals are also being brought forward to the month of August. Only time can tell how that will work.
Managers have always insisted their preference is for the direct provincial route into the All-Ireland series, and everything about this summer’s championships has reinforced that.
Mayo manager Stephen Rochford has also been insisting that fatigue is not a major issue for his team, but that’s more an exercise in psychology. A large part of his task in the countdown to next Monday’s replay back at Croke Park is convincing his players are still fresh enough - mentally and physically - to go at Roscommon again, knowing all too well that in three of the last four games this summer, Mayo were level with their opponents at the end of normal time, having conceded the equalising score in all three.
“It’s an easy answer to say it’s fatigue,” Rochford said in the aftermath of Sunday’s draw. “We were still driving on in to that six minutes of injury time, so guys are in good condition and they’ll be in good condition next week. We had three shots to win that game, so I don’t think fatigue had anything to do with it.”
And yet in kicking those last three shots in an effort to win the game, Cillian O’Connor dropped short on one, and hit the other two wide. A fresher, less fatigued player might well have landed one of them. Aidan O’Shea, Andy Moran, Colm Boyle and even young Diarmuid O’Connor all looked increasingly fatigued as the game wore on.
And perhaps most worrying for Mayo is that Roscommon, in near utter contrast, can’t wait to get another run out in Croke Park. Manager Kevin McStay admitted as much in what sounded like another little psychology exercise, the replay being only their fourth game of the summer, a mere sprint in comparison to Mayo, and for a team mad to get more minutes and miles into the legs.
“We definitely have youth on our side,” noted McStay. “Our age profile is a lot lower than Mayo’s, which is lovely, but then you have Mayo’s experience on the other side.”
Still all of which suggests that in this marathon of a summer already Mayo are about to hit the wall. And as any marathon runner will tell you that is not just psychological.