Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Connacht Final Will Observe the Immutable Laws of Physics

Neutrals who are interested in adding that certain spice to their enjoyment of this weekend’s Connacht Final could do worse than invest a thoughtful tenner on the draw at the tempting price of 15/2. Every way you attempt to make a case for one team or the other, a corollary more or less instantly presents itself. It’s like a perfect GAA representation of Newtonian classical physics, where every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Mayo’s midfield advantage versus Galway’s more economical use of possession. The promise of Mayo youth against the All-Ireland winning experience of Galway. The Mayo backs, the Galway forwards. One steps out, one steps in again. If Croke Park are already distressed with Roscommon and Wexford drawing and screwing up their schedules, you can imagine how they’ll feel if they hear the Connacht Final is to replay in Caisleán a’Bharraigh on Saturday week.

The talking point in Mayo coming up to the game has been the possible absence of Ronan McGarrity through injury after sinister work in a club game. A bitter pill indeed for McGarrity if the worst-case scenario proves true, and it would be hard to blame him for noting the irony that he is never so popular as when not actually togged.

Ronan McGarrity has been a fixture on the Mayo team for five years when available for selection, but all you hear about him is grousing. Can’t kick, basketballer, townie, soft lad. And then when he’s missing, now because of a broken cheekbone or two years ago because of cancer, there’s suddenly a great big hole where that soft cosmopolitan basketballer with no feet used to be. The misfortunate McGarrity could be forgiven for ruefully reflecting that if only he could manage to get kidnapped by the Taliban or caught in an accident at a nuclear processing plant he might finally win an All-Star.

Mayo are still expected to edge midfield, as Galway have struggled there in recent times and Mayo have more options. But of course you can win midfield and still lose the game, as happened Kildare on Sunday. Down the years, Galway forwards have proved better at making the most of possession – that is to say, registering scores – than Mayo. As such, Galway not require the same level of midfield dominance that Mayo do.

Galway’s formline coming up to the Connacht Final has been difficult to understand. They looked magnificent in the monsoon against Kerry last year in Croke Park, the game where Michael Meehan came of age in a performance worthy of his natural genius. Galway started the league where they left off in the Championship and then suddenly their form dropped off, drawing with Derry and losing to Mayo in Tuam. A few weeks ago the nation was treated to the very unusual sight of Galway needing a last minute goal to finally see off Sligo. Aristocrats haven’t been under such pressure since Robespierre, Marat and Danton formed a rather devastating inside line for Paris Sarsfields.

The worrying thing from a Mayo point of view is that while form goes up and down, class and quality are constants. If scores are level on seventy minutes and P Joyce gets the ball within sight of the posts he can break Mayo hearts. He’s done it before. Cormac Bane destroyed Mayo on his own in Salthill two years ago. Armstrong, Meehan, Nicky Joyce, Conroy – there isn’t a glugger among them. And not all of those fellas are even guaranteed starts. The seams of forward gold run deep in the land of the heron choker.

It’s interesting that the games that John O’Mahony has lost against Galway have been down to Galwaymen seizing the day. Padraic Joyce in Castlebar last year, Bane in Salthill two years ago. Mayo travel to Salthill this year in the interesting position of having an inside line that can potentially match Galway for firepower. The opportunity is there for Aidan Kilcoyne or Aidan O’Shea or Barry Moran to seize the day and announce their presence in a way that no Mayo forward has since John Casey did in the almost-miracle year of 1996. And that’s a very heady prospect.

Optimism has risen in Mayo after Roscommon got such a terrible hiding in Castlebar, and suddenly your correspondent understands what people from other counties mean when they talk about Mayo fans getting carried away. Because potential doesn’t always pay off.

One of John O’Mahony’s pet phrases from his time in Galway in 1998 was that the opportunity of the lifetime only lasts for the lifetime of the opportunity. Aidan O’Shea looks like he could be wearing green above the red for the next decade, but life only exists in the now. Sometimes tomorrow never comes. You have to deliver today.

If Mayo win their first Connacht title since 2006 then the year will be a success and the pressure will be off John O’Mahony whatever happens in the rest of the summer. Should Mayo not win the All-Ireland – and it’s entirely possible that they won’t – there will be grousing, but a win in Salthill means that Mayo will have won something, and whoever does eventually beat them will have to be pretty hot stuff. The faithful can live with that.

But for Mayo to win Mayo’s young guns have to find their marks. Because Galway have a heady enough combination of stone killers, wily old foxes and out and out superstars to punish them if they don’t, men willing and capable of leaving Mayo beached once more by the seaside wondering about what might have been.

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