Galway gunning for old rivals in pivotal western shoot-out
Proven Mayo have every incentive to resume their former dominance of neighbours
Mayo’s Kevin Keane is tackled by Gary Sice and Shane Walsh of Galway during last year’s semi-final clash at Castlebar. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Mayo’s Colm Boyle tackles Galway’s Patrick Sweeney. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Mayo’s Seamus O’Shea gets in his kick despite the attentions of Galway’s Declan Kyne during last year’s Connacht semi-final at Castlebar. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
A storm is threatening and in the west nobody knows whether it’s going to visit Galway or cause havoc in Mayo.
How things change. In the years when the big provincial rivalries were as solid and unchanging as Civil War politics, the Connacht theatre was often decried for the paucity of its fare. Compared to Dublin-Meath or Cork-Kerry or Derry-Just-About-Anyone, the big Connacht derby often seemed mothballed and fringe.
The maroon revolution of 1998-2002 under John O’Mahony changed all that and once that stunning Galway team began cooling off, Mayo’s evangelist period became the story of Connacht football. For almost 20 years now, these two counties have, for better and worse, been at the heart of the championship’s best story lines. And what’s more, Galway-Mayo is the one axis which has hung tough as Gaelic football sped off in a new direction.
It was a point which former Galway defensive stalwart Diarmuid Blake was happy to make during the week in a chat-for-broadcast hosted by Rob Murphy in Ward’s Hotel, the Salthill establishment run by former Mayo forward Anthony ‘Fat Larry’ Finnerty.
“It is probably the only provincial rivalry left. Cork Kerry went out the window and Dublin Meath went out with Duran Duran. It is probably the last great neighbourly rivalry of any real significance.”
Simon LeBon would undoubtedly protest the datedness-by-implication but the point is fair. The All-Ireland football championship has been ongoing for over a month and despite the best efforts of team RTÉ and team Sky to parade its fascinations, it has been a drag. And all of a sudden there materialises a match and a rivalry that seems weighted with a deeper significance than mere passage to a Connacht final.
“It feels like a huge game,” says John Casey, the former Mayo sharp-shooter.
“I feel as if the championship is starting on Sunday with regards that it will be the first game when a team has legitimate reason for feeling disappointed at losing and featuring two teams with sights set on silverware whether at national or provincial level.
“Galway want to prove they can beat one of the big three on a continuous basis. Losing would be a setback after winning the province and Division Two in the league: winning this would be further progress. You counteract that with Mayo going through the disappointment of not getting six in a row and wanting to keep one of their big rivals pegged.
“Mayo did well last year after losing to Galway but I think complacency counted going into this match a year ago. And for that reason I think they will put in a strong performance all over the field. I think they are going to play as if their lives depended on it.”
Do their lives depend on it? This is the big question preoccupying Mayo’s football fraternity – the entire population, basically – throughout the week.
If Mayo don’t come out of Salthill with a win, does that mean the dream is over? Flick back to the summer of 2010, when John O’Mahony, a magus in both constituencies, stepped down from his second term in charge of his native Mayo immediately after a huge upset defeat to Longford in the qualifiers.
Mayo had appeared in the league final against Cork just two months earlier only to crash out of Connacht against Sligo. David Clarke, Chris Barrett, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins, Kevin McLoughlin, Andy Moran, the O’Shea brothers and Donal Vaughan all started that day seven years ago.
Mayo seemed to have reached an impasse that day but O’Mahony said he believed the players on that team would have their day. He was right.
In the six years since, the same group has been at the core of a team that is comfortably Mayo’s best side since 1949-51. They are the first Mayo team since that mid-century gang to have played in an All-Ireland final and not lost. No team has troubled Jim Gavin’s Dublin as consistently as Mayo.
Still, this will be their seventh summer operating at full throttle. Five successive Connacht championships gave them the platform for those huge, emotional shoves for the All-Ireland. Last year’s raid by Galway followed by the spring promotion to Division One have made it clear that Kevin Walsh’s team have closed the gap.
“We are probably pleased over the last six or seven months with our consistency,” said Galway captain Gary O’Donnell at the launch of the Connacht championship.
“We lost one game to Meath by a point which we felt we probably should have won. Overall the bench has been strong and there is competition for places and most games we won by a few points, it was our bench that pushed us over the line.”
Galway’s reserves have been held up as an example of the covert strength-in-depth of Walsh’s emerging team. Michael Daly, so impressive in the U-21 campaign, may start on Sunday but if he is held in reserve, he will be part of a highly accomplished bench. Michael Meehan, Sean Armstrong and Ian Burke are waiting in the wings and Gary Sice, who has been Galway’s go-to player for the last seven years, may also be held back.
It gives Galway options and makes it possible to forecast a scenario in which Galway’s irrepressible attacking talent ultimately overwhelms a Mayo defence that has been on the road for six long and gruelling championships.
John Casey doesn’t believe the added firepower will worry Mayo unduly, arguing that they are accustomed to coping with stacked benches.
“There are definitely several stand-out players on that Galway bench. But you compare it to a Dublin or Kerry match and it doesn’t strike the fear of God in you. It is a nice predicament for Galway and Michael Daly too is very effective young player. It looks nice on paper but I don’t think Mayo will panic and feel they have the cover to cope with anything that is thrown at them.”
That’s a faith shared by Stephen Rochford. Implacable calmness has been the Rochford form line since he took over what is the most challenging management position in Gaelic sport. His demeanour didn’t change during Mayo’s uneven league performances or after their underwhelming win against Sligo last month.
“I believe it is a game that lads will look to step up,” he said at Mayo’s press evening. “That has been their form . . . against big teams they are able to deliver big performances,” he added before offering a clue as to the key battle areas.
“In modern football it is hard to look past the middle eight. And that is typically if you can get a fair handle on the source of ball, you give your forward line a chance of converting and take the pressure off your defence.”
Galway have not beaten Mayo in Salthill for ten years. Local expectation is at high tide this weekend. There is an inescapable feeling that Galway are on the verge of taking ownership of this rivalry. When the minor teams of both counties met in late April, Galway came out on top by 3-15 to 0-11. It was Galway’s third successive win at that grade and was, if Mayo needed it, a further sign that all periods of dominance are finite. A defeat for Galway here would be a setback but it is hardly insurmountable.
The bigger questions hang over Mayo. Winning this would make Mayo heavy favourites to reclaim Connacht and return to the All-Ireland series. It sets them up for another shot at September. A defeat will make their immediate future a lot murkier. The worst fear for Mayo fans is not that they lose to Galway again. It’s that this team’s exceptional tenacity and willpower may be weakening and that returning to another final from an early summer defeat will prove impossible.
“Not impossible,” says Casey carefully. “But certainly it will be harder. On any given Sunday this current Mayo team are capable of beating anybody. But producing elite performances three and four times in a row unfortunately has failed to happen in the past few years.
“ It’s not beyond them to have a run. But for the bragging rights alone and confidence levels, this is huge. I would imagine the disappointment last year led to a lot of looking in mirrors for Mayo. If they lose on Sunday, there will be disillusionment and people going: ‘Uh-oh that’s two in a row. They’re obviously a better team than us.’”
That argument won’t be definitively settled tomorrow regardless of the result. But the voices are louder than they have been for years in a championship tussle that feels like it’s up for grabs. And it’s a noise that the championship badly needs.