Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Mayo Championship Preview 2012

Mayo have been to six quarter-finals in eleven years. They have won three of them, and then won two out of three resulting semi-finals.

That record puts Mayo in the elite of the country. Twenty counties that have appeared in the quarter-finals since the Qualifiers were introduced in 2001. Fourteen of those twenty have gone on to the semi-finals, nine have gone on to the All-Ireland Final and six have won it, with Meath, Mayo and Down the only counties to not close the deal having gone that far. Meath and Down both won in the ‘90s, and the lustre still lingers. Mayo are cut no such slack.

Those five finals lost over eleven years mean that for the Mayo public only Sam will do. This is the county’s most sustained spell of success since the 1950s, if not even the 1930s. But the teams of the 1930s and 1950s sealed the deal in September, and that makes a difference.

Which is bad news for James Horan. Getting to the semi-final last year and beating Cork was no mean achievement. If he wins the All-Ireland he’ll never buy his own porter again in the County Mayo, but if he just goes one better than last year, winning a semi but then losing the final, it’ll be seen as worse as not having got out of Connacht at all. It’s what they call a lose-lose situation.

It’s also Horan’s curse that both Galway and Roscommon have been knocked out of the Championship before Mayo kick a ball in anger. Mayo will be the very last team out of the traps when they face Leitrim in Castlebar this Sunday. The presence of either Galway, sprung from the long grass, or Roscommon, young Turks eager to restore their county’s fallen reputation, would help concentrate Mayo’s minds on business.

Instead, they face two counties that have five Connacht titles between them – two for Leitrim, three for Sligo. Mayo beat Cork because Cork were complacent last year and now stand in real danger of being beaten themselves by not taking the opposition seriously enough.

Leitrim were disappointing last year against Roscommon and, to the best of my knowledge, have yet to win a game in the Qualifiers (although they did scare Meath one year in Carrick). That said, they have a solid freetaker in Emyln Mulligan who can turn the screw on Mayo if they get sloppy at the back. Some people think that a good challenge is what Mayo need. Mayo actually need to destroy Leitrim, as quickly and as ruthlessly as possible, if they mean business for the year.

Sligo are a profound danger in the Connacht Final. These are golden years for Sligo football – a quarter-final place in 2002, where it took all the might of the eventual Champions to beat them, their third Connacht title on a wet day in 2007, and 2010, the one that got away and the one that, if it doesn’t haunt Sligo in every waking minute, it ought to.

Sligo’s goal for the year should be to win a quarter-final on the August Bank Holiday weekend. This Sligo generation deserves that. If that quarter-final place comes at Mayo’s expense in the Connacht Final, so much the sweeter. For Mayo, losing two Connacht Championship games in a row to Sligo is unthinkable – just as Sligo thought losing to Roscommon in 2010 was unthinkable. Bad things happen when you take your eye off the ball.

And all that being said, Mayo are still worthy favourites to win the Connacht title and do well in August – the form line is clearly there. Not only that, but it’s entirely possible that this could be The Year for Mayo.

The defence is as settled as it’s been since the 1990s, with not only quality in every position but choices should an accident occur. Aidan O’Shea has come into his kingdom as Mayo’s Football God, and the half-forward line has some of the best players on the team.

It’s the inside line that could break Horan’s heart. Last year, it failed to quite deliver on its promise and, in his efforts to rebuild it this year during the League, the full forwards seems to have slipped away. It’s still possible that it could gel as the Championship rolls out but Horan, and the county, would sleep better if the wearers of shirts 13, 14 and 15 were as obvious now as the single digits are.

What Horan and Mayo have to remember is they don’t have to be perfect. All-Irelands aren’t withheld in years where a certain standard isn’t reached – they’re handed out every year to the team that was just that bit ahead of the rest at five to five on the third September. The single best thing Mayo could do is to give themselves a break, believe in themselves and let their football do the talking.