No sooner had referee David Coldrick brought an end to yesterday’s semi final when supporters and neutrals began dissecting Mayo’s performance which has guided them back to the final for the first time since 2013, a performance which left the masses divided. In what was their 7th game in this year’s championship, they huffed and puffed their way through the 76 minutes and fell over the line 2.13 to 0.14. The two questions on everyone’s lips – Are Mayo going into a final in the ideal scenario of under performing in the semi, coming in as huge underdogs, knowing they have work to do ahead of the September 18th encounter? Or, is this team merely heading for an 8th final loss since 1989 because they simply have not shown any reason this year to prove otherwise.
Mayo are not the first team nor will they be the last to have these divided opinions cascaded on them. After losing to Galway in the Connacht semi and losing their stranglehold on the province, they have toured the country eking out victories against Fermanagh, Kildare, Westmeath Tyrone and now Tipp in what has been, in the main, uninspiring fashion. Nonetheless, during the winter months when they ousted last year’s management and replaced them with Stephen Rochford they would desperately have wanted to find themselves back in a final, and now they are. In past semi final victories when they have performed above and beyond what was expected defeating the likes of Dublin and Tyrone, before the players had had their post match showers, the hype train was full steam ahead only to be completely derailed in the final. This time because of their less exciting performances there’s no doubt the hysteria and pressure will be muted potentially allowing the players to breathe freely, plan properly and possibly ending the curse and 68 year wait.
They can be thankful to their stalwarts for getting them there, especially today when they played a team that seemingly had nothing to lose. Aiden O Shea showed once again glimpses that he’s peaking at the right time of the year with line breaking runs and numerous turnovers. The ageless Andy Moran spearheaded a forward line, notching 4 crucial scores on a frustrating day when the O Conner brothers never really cut loose. But most of all they’ll thank their ever reliable Keith Higgins. When they trailed by 3 after a dismal opening 25 mins, it was he, on his 50th championship appearance, who picked up the loose ball 80 yards from goal, soloed through and evaded every Tipp challenge before unselfishly off-loading to Jason Doherty to send Mayo on a purple spell where they outscored Tipp 1.07 to 0.01 in the run up to the break. Were it not for his energy, manic aggression in tackles and driving will, Mayo may have suffered one of their most unforgettable defeats. One further plus was their opportunity to show their versatility, changing the usual sweeper in Kevin McLoughlin with Barry Moran. Knowing now that they’ve two contrasting sweepers to chose from depending on the opposition will surely be of some comfort to the westerners.
On the contrary however, although winning the semi and getting to a final is, as most will tell you, “all that matters,” having good performances in the bank along the way that you can look back on to boost confidence heading into a final is also vital. If Mcloughlin had fired in that second goal chance before halftime, maybe we would have seen a different destructive Mayo but alas he missed and now Mayo will face into the final with very little surplus in their account. Their indifferent and patchy performances in games, cruising against Westmeath by 14 before squeezing home, relying on a dodgy penalty against Fermanagh to turn the tide and once again today, failing to show up for the first 25 and all of the second half surely cannot have confidence oozing from the squad. Even more worrying is the fact they haven’t faced a division 1 side since Spring so will surely have doubts as to where their true form is at.
Kerry and Dublin who coincidentally have avoided division 1 sides also apart from Donegal vs Dublin will surely gain great insight into their potential after their meeting, shore up the weaknesses exploited and emerge a better team come the final. Mayo now do not have that luxury. The questions unfortunately can only be answered in 4 weeks time. Which way is best to enter the final? Time will tell.
Finally, it would be wrong of me not to mention the fairy tale team of the summer, Liam Kerins’, Tipperary. Watching them in the first 25 minutes yesterday and for long periods of the second half, they looked like championship seasoned campaigners. They stayed true to themselves playing open expansive football tearing through the heart of Mayo. Unfortunately, they’ll know that the pre half time mistakes killed them and gave Mayo the breathing space that they never relinquished. Their normally razor sharp accuracy abandoned them and the harsh but correct black card to Robbie Keily and ridiculous red to Bill Maher haemorrhaged their squad’s reinforcements. Comparisons to the Fermanagh team of 04, Wexford ’08 and Kildare and Down of ’10 in achieving an unexpected semi spot is ignorant to the underage success this team has had over the past several years. Although wakening up this morning, feeling further than ever from an All Ireland final they’ll know they have the talent coming through to mount another attack next year and hopefully after their successful run may see a return of players into the squad from the hurlers bench and foreign soil. In the words of their fellow Munster man and Olympian Paul O Donovan, “Tiochaigh Àr Là.”