Billy Joe Padden
I REMEMBER when I started writing this column, I used to say that Mayo’s priority should be to keep putting themselves in a position to be competing for All-Ireland titles.
Because if they kept getting to the last four, then they would eventually get over the line.
Well, next Sunday is Mayo’s ninth semi-final in 10 years.
If you had told me in 2010, the day I was part of the team that lost to Longford in the Qualifiers, that we’d be in nine of the next ten semi-finals, I’d have said Mayo were definitely going to win an All-Ireland or two in that period.
The one thing I didn’t know ten years ago, of course, was that Mayo were going to run into the greatest football team of all time.
And yet, when we look back at all the missed opportunities of the last decade, maybe the biggest two were the 2012 final that was lost to Donegal and the 2014 semi-final replay defeat to Kerry. Because I’d argue in 2014 that was arguably’s Mayo strongest ever team.
There’s no point in talking about what might have been, but nine semi-finals in ten years in itself is a phenomenal achievement.
And it’s something that Mayo should continue to aspire to — to keep putting themselves in this position. To be a top four team, year on year, is a huge positive.
All those semi-final appearances have been built on the achievements of some really good managers; Horan started the ball rolling so deserves a lot of the credit, and he’s back now and building a new team to continue this run.
But the most important thing is the players it’s been built on: Cillian O’Connor, Aidan O’Shea, Boyler, Lee Keegan, Keith Higgins — the big star names. But you add in Chris Barrett, Brendan Harrison, Jason Doherty, Seamie O’Shea, some lads who have retired like Barry Moran and Alan Dillon, have been key contributors to that level of consistency too.
Because three or four stars cannot sustain that level of consistency, you need players that can buy into the team ethic and get you where you want to go consistently.
The reason I think Mayo are going to win on Sunday is because of the pace and running power around the middle. It’s what they’ve always done well under James Horan, it’s what their strongest skills-set is.
When you look at the bench, I think it’s going to be difficult for Tom Parsons, Seamie O’Shea and Donie Vaughan to get involved now when they haven’t been already. Because the focus for Horan next weekend will be to try and play the game at a really high tempo.
To play the game at a tempo that Tipperary aren’t comfortable with, and to try and use their pace, power and mobility around the middle to counter some of Tipp’s strength and ball-winning ability there.
The Mayo bench will be important on Sunday, but I think Horan will want to bring energy and pace in from there. It will all depend on how those lads are going in training; the likes of Donie Vaughan has got pace and power to burn when he’s at his best.
So if he’s going well in training, he’s also a big option at Croke Park. The same goes for Keith Higgins who’s still fast and covers ground. James Carr’s pace and power would be suited to the open spaces. Fionn McDonagh’s athleticism would be handy.
And all that mobility will be required around the middle third over the next few weeks.
Experience and know-how could also be needed as well before Mayo’s season finishes.
No fans may help Mayo’s young guns
CROKE PARK will be empty on Sunday which I think will be a benefit to Mayo’s new young emerging players.
Because one of the key things I always noticed, and remembered, from my playing days, especially in my younger days, is that in a full Croke Park it’s so, so hard to communicate.
One of the benefits of having no supporters there is that it’s so much easier to talk to each other on the field. It will also be easier for the sideline to get their point across.
Sometimes it’s extremely difficult to do that in a packed, noisy, raucous stadium.
I think that will be hugely positive for Mayo’s young players, especially if they’re having a difficult or quiet few minutes and you need to get a message into them to refocus.
Sometimes the lack of a crowd can be more of an issue for the more experienced players.
In terms of getting ‘up for it’. Now I know there are people reading this saying, ‘You’re wearing the red and green jersey.
‘If you can’t get up for an All-Ireland semi-final wearing the Mayo jersey, you shouldn’t be togging out!’
But we’ve seen the best of Lee Keegan, for example, in some of those 80,000-plus Croke Park big days when he’s done superhuman things, and maybe he’s one of those players who needs the buzz that brings.
I have to say that I’ve enjoyed watching Lee play at Croke as much as any Mayo player over the last 20 years.
I don’t think the lack of a crowd is going to impact negatively on Mayo and I don’t think it’s that much of a benefit to Tipperary either.
Because if it was a 60,000 crowd, with 40,000 Mayo supporters there, I don’t think it would put Tipp’ up or down. They proved in the Munster Final that they’re a mature side in the way they dealt with the history, occasion, emotion and all of that.