Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Mayo v Laois - a Hop Ball Game

The sun also RossesOne of the great platitudes in Gaelic Games is to say that there is only a hop ball between the competing teams. In the case of the upcoming semi-final between Laois and Offaly – a replay of the 1936 All-Ireland Final – it is certain fact. Both punters and investors will look at the 6/1 quoted by Paddy Power on the draw, and reach for the wallet in a reflex action – pausing only to lick the lips, of course.

Cast your eye where you will, it’s hard to see anything between the teams. It looks like a fairly even contest at midfield between the Ballina Stephenite alliance of Mayo, Ronan McGarrity and Pat Harte, and the Terrible Twins of Laois’ Timahoe, Padraig Clancy and this young man recently returned from Australia, Mr Quigley. He certainly looked a footballer against Offaly, but those two Stephenites aren’t too bad either, and all of the county Mayo will be lifted when news seeps out that another Stephenite is back in training and hoping to bring new resonance to the phrase “impact sub.” Indeed, An Casúr Ó Brádaigh, as he’s known in the Ballina Gaeltacht, could very well be making a claim for a starting spot, leaving Paddy Harte to join a forward unit that’s looked a little anaemic so far.

The Mayo forwards would be fine were it not for issues of personnel, position and tactics. Professor Morrison’s infamous “nut” formation is now beginning to assume the same albatross proportions as Brian McDonald’s car pushing training sessions, and the county would be deeply grateful if the forwards were let play Gaelic Football as understood from Dickeen Fitzgerald on down, and leaving the Freud and Jung two-man inside line stuff for some other day. In November, ideally. This means, of course, freeing Ciarán McDonald from confinement in the corner, and letting him at the cockpit controls of centre-forward. Disappointing news then for Ger Brady but as the days have lengthened so Ger Brady’s influence has waned, to the extent that it might be better to leave him on the bench, and see what those charging runs from deep might be like were he introduced with fifteen minutes to go and all to play for.

Conor Mortimer needs company on the inside line also and, while Michael Conroy might be the romantic option, Kevin O’Neill might be the more realistic. Trevor Mortimer is denied Mayo through injury so the hope would be that the Knockmore exile’s greater experience and nous, to say nothing of an appetite that must be whetted as sharp as the Count of Monte Cristo’s, and for much the same reasons, to outweigh O’Neill’s lack of pace.

The Laois forwards are one of the class attacks of the modern game, as has been stated in this place before, with Ross Munnelly a glorious throwback to the days when wing forwards shot and scored from under the stands, and not scrubbed in the dirt for ball like the wing forwards of another code. That said, it is hard to see Munnelly getting much change out of David Heaney so perhaps the fangs of the tenacious Mayo defence will reduce the Laois attack to Mayo’s level of mineral deficiency, and level up that particular encounter.

Thus leaving us to wonder where that hop ball will come from that will decide all. Goals have been an issue for Mayo for a number of years. They were an issue for Kerry this year, but Kerry seem to have got around that since, the hoors. Wouldn’t it be marvellous to see Billy Joe streak forward and crash one home like Eoin Brosnan has been doing lately for the Kingdom? Could that make the difference?

Or could the difference be on the sideline? We are aware, through Mickey Moran’s references, that the fecund brain of John Morrison teems with 200 solutions to any given problem, but we are also aware that Mick O’Dwyer has so many All-Ireland medals that he uses one to mark his golfball once he reaches the putting green. O’Dwyer’s record as a manager is beyond parallel, as none other than Páidí Ó Sé once memorably remarked. Advantage Laois, but fate may yet dictate that O’Dwyer’s influence may be limited, if he is banished to the stands for pitch incursions in prior games. A harsh punishment for one of the true greats of Gaelic football, but one that could be the hop ball that bounces Mayo’s way.

Whoever wins this quarter-final (whenever it is won – that 6/1 looks better and better) will be a worthy winner. Laois have been a adornment to the game in this cynical age, and Mayo – well dammit, Mayo were always stylish footballers, and it’s good to have them around. But style counts for little when the ball hops – at that stage, it’s pretty much at the discretion of the Fates.

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