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Kevin McStay: Mayo firmly in the All-Ireland mix as they prepare for defining test

Horan’s side saw off Galway but first-half lapses would prove costly against Dublin

Aidan O’Shea lifts the Nestor Cup as Mayo celebrate the Connacht final win over Galway at Croke Park. Positioning the towering O’Shea at full forward is the best option for Mayo going forward. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Life has taught me that when it comes to the forensic analysis of Mayo-Galway championship games, the coin flip is best.

I did a lot of previewing and podcasts last week and there was so much conjecture and projection about the game that you forget to simply look at the record. The fixture is impervious to venue and form and injuries and circumstance. All of those dials are set to zero when the ball is thrown in.

Favourite or underdog, it doesn't seem to matter. It is an old fixture; venerable. There is a law of maths, the law of large numbers, which supports this. The overall record is 48-46 titles in Mayo's favour. Mayo have an edge 44-42 in the head-to-head. For a hundred years it has been even. So take a coin. Pick a side and flip it.

Sunday offered a good snapshot of where Gaelic football stands in the west of Ireland.

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Playing the game in Croke Park was a terrific call. I did argue in the build-up that it was an ominous decision for Galway. Pádraic Joyce put the best foot forward in welcoming it. But he had to know that the playing surface would be Grand Prix fast. And ultimately that is what did for them.

The traditionalists voiced their anger about bringing the occasion to the capital. My argument was: don't think of it as a Connacht final but rather as the first quarter-final of the year. It had that feel. It was out of its natural home. We weren't in Mick Byrnes pub. The rumours weren't flying around town. The traffic congestion wasn't giving the superintendent nightmares. It was the Westerners' big day out in the city.

The game didn’t quite sell out but the GAA are forced to sell in pod configurations of 5,4,3,2, and the bundles of five are hard to sell. They got 15,000 people into Croke Park which is as much as can be hoped for. There is a serious number of people from both counties living in the capital. And as usual the Mayo crowd turned out in force.

What we saw deepens the argument that Mayo have stolen a march in their strength and conditioning superiority. To be more precise, it is their aerobic capacity which sets them apart. It is the ability to get around the park – big long, lung-busting runs that you can repeat regularly over 70 minutes.

It is like the flanker in rugby getting to the next breakdown. Look at Mayo; Patrick Durcan, Oisín Mullin, Eoghan McLoughlin, Matthew Ruane, Kevin McLoughlin, Conor Loftus, Diarmuid O Connor; that is seven out of eight positions in the middle third filled with guys who never stop running.

They have this ability to get around the park at lightning speed. They arrive in numbers and with intent. All of those qualities were magnified as they tore into Galway in the second half.

Mayo's failings and problems were evident early on when they became inexplicably tentative and nervous

However, Mayo’s failings and problems were evident early on when they became inexplicably tentative and nervous at the end of the first quarter. They struck some horrible wides and made silly turnovers and began kicking ill-advised shots. It changed the tenor of the game.

They were failing to take scores they should have taken and then the errors – careless hand-passing and foot-passing and decision-making became more pronounced.

An edge

Perhaps the best illustration of their lack of concentration was the Shane Walsh goal. He was on the 45 metre line as the ball left Paul Conroy's hand for a pointed effort which hit the post.

In my time it must be the longest distance ever covered by a player collecting a ball off the post. It actually hopped three times before Shane got there. Lee Keegan had fallen asleep and none of the other Mayo players were switched on either.

And it was the same elsewhere. Tommy Conroy, a skill-laden player, got called for an overcarry. They hit passes with too much juice on them. They committed a series of errors which will cost them if repeated against a true All-Ireland contender.

This is where Kerry and Dublin have an edge on Mayo. They are better with hand-passing and foot-passing. These are basic skills. It is something James Horan emphasises but Mayo failed here in the second quarter and they got away with it. They are lucky Galway hadn't pulled further ahead. Because Galway's best players in that second quarter – Shane Walsh, Damien Comer and Paul Conroy – were powering on. They accounted for 2-3 in that first half.

But Mayo were socking it to that trio physically. Their influence diminished as the heat and hits took their toll.

I praised Galway's young cohort here previously. But Croke Park is a different land. The younger lads found the game passing them by. Paul Kelly, Cathal Sweeney, Matt Tierney and Peter Cooke never really passed go. They couldn't get into the flow of the game.

Mayo’s Matthew Ruane celebrates after scoring a superb individual goal against Galway in the Connacht final at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

The Walsh injury merits discussion. It came as a result of grappling with Pádraig O'Hora – the RTÉ bootcamp champion. O'Hora is tough out. McGee brothers kind of territory. I have no idea who started it or why it happened. But Shane got dumped to the ground and damaged his shoulder in a way which affected his play. The linesmen made nothing of it.

Joyce was understandably incensed. O'Hora played away. He is emblematic of the evolution with Mayo. He has been around the panel with James Horan and has been very good for Ballina. James has maybe been monitoring his inter-county temperament. He is the kind of tough nut that the Mayo defence needs if they are going to win it all.

So how did Mayo turn things around?

The early penalty was a boon – and legitimises the Aidan O'Shea debate again. At the start of the second half, O'Shea isn't put in as usual for the throw in. Instead he is sent in at 14 so that if the ball is won he is in the right place. Mayo get possession, deliver a ball to Aidan and he wins it. He has the most subtle hands and he creates the path for Mattie Ruane and young Tierney pulls him down. It was a deliberate pull down but the referee walked away from the black card.

Brave choice

This is a pattern. Stuff that is whistled early in the season is let go in high summer. The incident reinforced the argument that the smart play is for the defender to allow the one-on-shot rather than concede the foul and penalty. Ryan O’Donoghue nailed the spot kick and the resurgence was on. (Why are so many Gaelic football goalkeepers gambling with the dive? Why not stay big and hold the position and wait for the strike?)

The second half belonged to Mayo after that. Once McLoughlin put Mayo one up there was no sense that Galway had another kick. They were gassed. And those Mayo strike runners were pouring through the gaps at will and creating those nice little overlaps. It became routine for them. They were crisp in the tackle, the energy levels were growing and they eased away.

Damien Comer shows his dejection after Galway were routed during a one-sided second half of the Connacht final at Croke Park. The Tribesmen failed to score from play in that period. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

I would argue that Aidan O'Shea flanked by O'Donoghue and Conroy is a full forward line capable of inflicting hurt. It would be a brave choice but I believe it's where he could cause the most trouble, a la Kieran Donaghy with Kerry. He is needed in other places too but at full forward he gives Mayo the best chance of reaching their full potential.

Afterwards, the stats I got from RTÉ told a bleak tale for the losing team. Galway were destroyed in their long kick-out, winning just 38 per cent. Mayo won 75 per cent of their own long restarts. That is game, set and match. From those possessions Mayo scored 2-8. Why is that happening?

Well, they have one of the best kick-out presses in the game. They force teams to kick long and then they employ the overload, where they can get five or six around the dropping ball. Again, they get there quickly. They cover ground.

Horan has absolutely shaped this. He has searched these guys out; supreme athletic guys who can play football rather than footballers who happen to have athleticism. It is his sixth Connacht final win – he has never lost one as a manager. And he wanted these guys. Some of them were not obvious choices. He got criticism for bringing in guys like Eoghan McLoughlin. Maybe they didn’t have the big skill set at the start. But he knew he could work on them with that.

It was a 0-11 swing in the second half of a Connacht final. Galway went 30 minutes without a score. They didn't score from play in the second half. It is a shocking indictment. It ended bizarrely with Mayo's James Carr tapping a goal chance over the bar as though to spare them embarrassment. I don't know why he didn't go for it. He hit a cracking goal down in Limerick in a qualifier against Galway so he has the instinct.

That moment should be the enduring memory of the day for this Galway team. Last thing they want is Mayo sympathy

That moment should be the enduring memory of the day for this Galway team. Last thing they want is Mayo sympathy. It is their third successive defeat in a Connacht final. They can’t launch properly until they sort out the backyard. They have had a bad season.

And like a few other counties – Armagh, Donegal – they have to go off this winter and ask the right questions in order to arrive at the correct answers. In a few facets of the game they are well off the standard.

You have to assume that the championship is going to provide yet another episode of the Mayo-Dublin rivalry now. They have an extra week to prepare for the behemoth. They need it just to figure out how to match up and limit the star quality. What do they do against Kilkenny, Scully and O’Callaghan? There is a lot of vital planning required here.

But, you know, to see Mayo man Aidan O’Shea in a Mayo shirt going up the steps in Croke Park after a championship win to lift a cup was a rare and welcome sight.

I still believe we are on track for a Dublin-Kerry final. But Mayo are in the mix now. They will have a huge say. They will be underdogs which is a lovely place for them. We shouldn’t be surprised.