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Kerry wait in the long grass for Mayo

Sean Rice

Sean Rice

Kerry wait in the long grass

MAYO folk have every reason to be cautious about Kerry. No county has suffered more at their hands, have had more brushes with embarrassment in championship encounters.
No sooner had Mayo football begun to rise above the ordinary than it was hurled back into the pits of oblivion ... bludgeoned most of the time by a Kerry cosh.
The litany of disappointments cuts to the quick. In the semi-final of 1981 the drubbing was 16 points; in the final of 2004, eight points, and two years later in another final the margin was 13 points. Only three short years ago, Kerry triumphed by a resounding nine points ... in a semi-final James Horan will not have forgotten.
In the build-up to the ’81 match, Mayo’s first in 12 years, Dublin journalist John O’Shea togged out with both teams in their respective training sessions in order to compare their levels of fitness. Having come off the training pitch at MacHale Park he concluded that Mayo were a long way short of Kerry’s condition and he could not see them winning. How right he was!
Amid all the devastation, though, there came one moment of glorious retribution when, in the autumn of 1996, John Maughan’s new Mayo swept the Kingdom aside by six points in the semi-final, heralding a new dawn in Mayo football.
Maughan, then a young army captain, had stunned the Gaelic world four years earlier by guiding Clare to a Munster final victory over Kerry, their second title and first in 75 years.
After his win with Mayo, Maughan’s standing soared. He brought a rising tide of hope to supporters. But when the county came face to face again with Kerry, in the final of 1997, expectations ran wildly out of control.
Kerry, waiting in the long grass, had noted the extraordinary degree of hype raging through the county and they caught Mayo off guard with a crippling jab to the solar plexus.
“Fitzgerald was the man who beat us,” said Maughan. “He scored ten points, one phenomenal effort from the sideline, in a performance that is still being talked about around the country.”
Normal service had resumed.
And it is the experience of that defeat that prompts him to caution against complacency next Sunday. The former Mayo manager said people were jumping too far ahead in talking about meeting Dublin in the final.
“It’s premature,” he said. “Kerry will not be easy. They have been improving incrementally. They have a good sideline and they have a sparkling full-forward line. I would be a little nervous going into that match.”
When they met three years ago, James O’Donoghue was a young rookie coming off the bench to replace Darren O’Sullivan. He is now their frontline pivot, having wreaked serious damage on Cork and Galway. In the absence of Colm Cooper, he is a wonderful acquisition. Together with Paul Geaney and Declan O’Sullivan, they form an awesome full-forward line.
“Against Cork, the Mayo full-back line was exposed somewhat, which was understandable since they were faced with a couple of brilliant forwards in Colm O’Neill and Brian Hurley,” said the former Mayo manager.
“Since O’Donoghue and Geaney are equally influential I would delegate to Tom Cunniffe and Keith Higgins the special tasks of policing the two Kerrymen, with Ger Cafferkey looking after O’Sullivan,”
He would also restore Donal Vaughan to the half-back line and replace him at midfield with Jason Gibbons, who had hit brilliant form before picking up an ankle injury a couple of months back.
Kerry were less than impressive at midfield against Galway. But they lost Bryan Sheehan in the opening minutes because of injury and his replacement David Moran did not compensate for the loss of Sheehan’s midfield ingenuity.
Mayo can be sure of another accomplished performance from Seamus O’Shea in that sector but we don’t know to whom James Horan will hand the second baton. Gibbons is a mighty midfielder. Hopefully he is ready to resume where he left off.
Otherwise it is on Vaughan, who had a brilliant final 20 minutes against Cork, hopes will rest. And with Aidan O’Shea patrolling the field from the ‘40’ it ought to be a Mayo stronghold, and it is vital to victory.
Nor, barring injury, is there much likelihood of a change up front. John Maughan would like to see Alan Freeman start at full-forward, but if Horan is true to form, Andy Moran will be there first.
And on the basis of their quarter-final performances so will Alan Dillon, Jason Doherty, Kevin McLoughlin and Cillian O’Connor testing to the limit a Kerry defence that has lost some of the lustre of previous years.
Mayo have come a long way since ’81. If John O’Shea were around now he would observe a Mayo more resilient, and more assertive than of yore, crusted, well-drilled, and confident ­ a team with leadership qualities in Keegan, Boyle, McLoughlin, Dillon, Moran and the O’Sheas.
Kerry have lost match-winners in Tomás O’Sé, Paul Galvin and Tom O’Sullivan who have retired, and Colm Cooper who is injured, since the teams last met three years ago. But if not the force of old, it is still Kerry, a Kerry in transition but with the tradition of 36 All-Ireland titles shoring up their pride and gritty persistence.
The quarter-finals would suggest that Mayo are the better side. And they should win. But masters that they are of the long grass psychology, Kerry are waiting to pounce. It is up to Mayo to ensure they are not caught unprepared.

Minors’ confidence is high
OUR gallant minors will set the scene at Croke Park, bidding to reel in the first of a double over the kingdom. Theirs has been a tale of magnificence these past two seasons, shaking off almost three decades of anonymity to bring the Tom Markham Cup to the county for the seventh time.
You wouldn’t have dreamed of an All-Ireland after watching them stagger over Roscommon in Connacht last season, but they grew in stature with every victory, and the manner in which they shrugged off the weight of history in the final was a tribute to their confidence and their management.
The character of the side in overcoming Galway in Tuam was again emphasised. No one gave them a chance of surviving at half time. Yet here they are facing a Kerry side that had a comfortable ten-point win over Kildare in the quarter-final.
It is considered Kerry’s best side in years and in Tomás O Sé they have a high-flying forward who is big and talented. Other big names are Cillian Spillane, Jordan Kiely and Briain Ó Beaglaíoch.
But they have to deal with a well-balanced Mayo whose confidence is high, and the skill levels of Barry Duffy, Seán Conlon, Gary Walsh, Matthew Ruane, Cian Hanley, TJ Byrne, Brian Reape and Fionán Duffy on a par with anything Kerry have to offer. Good enough to see them through.

Just a thought
IARNRÓD Éireann strikers have shown little regard for those wishing to travel to the All-Ireland semi-finals. Their refusal to run trains is a calculated affront to followers who have no other means of getting to Croke Park.

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