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Defeat to Galway will either make or break this Mayo team

GAABy Sean McGoldrick
Paul Conroy, left, and a joyful Enda Tierney celebrate beating Mayo
Paul Conroy, left, and a joyful Enda Tierney celebrate beating Mayo

On reflection we shouldn't have been surprised! Given the football history between the two counties it was inevitable that Mayo's unbeaten run against Galway in the championship would eventually end.

Once asked by a journalist about the fabled rivalry, John 'Tull' Dunne, a Godfather like figure in Galway football, was reputed to have said 'young man, if you need an explanation for something so obvious, I doubt you will understand it.'

On Saturday night Mayo were aiming for their fifteenth consecutive win in the Connacht series and their sixth win on the spin over their next door neighbours in the championship. It was if the Galway players collectively decided to cry halt and do something to restore their damaged pride.

Galway boss, Kevin Walsh, in particular, would have been offended by the notion that Galway could not beat Mayo in championship football.

Better still, he has a track record of plotting successful ambushes. He did it against his native county when boss of Sligo in 2010.

The issue was that nobody saw the ambush coming – least of all the Mayo players and management. And, of course, Walsh made sure that indirectly at least he played down his team's chances.

One suspect now that his much publicised remark that more than 40 players had declined his invitation to join the squad was hyperbole but it served its purpose. I doubt if there was a single Galway person outside the squad who really believed they could stop Mayo reaching their sixth consecutive Connacht final.

Unquestionably all this talk seeped into the psyche of the Mayo squad who opted to road test a new playing system featuring Kevin McLoughlin as the sweeper and former All Star corner back Keith Higgins as a roaming corner-forward.

Presumably this was designed to give Aidan O'Shea more space at full forward but the All Star failed to make any impact on the contest. Puzzlingly Mayo never tried to breach Galway's blanket defence by kicking the ball long into their target man.

Given that a third of the Galway team were making their championship debuts Mayo would have lacked specialist knowledge of their opponents.

Much was made of the fact that Galway's new goalkeeper, Bernard Power was only the second choice keeper in his own club, Corofin who, ironically, were managed by Mayo boss, Stephen Rochford to win an All-Ireland club title.

By the end of a tumultuous evening it was Mayo keeper Robert Hennelly who looked the rookie. Ultimately his miscued kick-out in the 55th minute, which was snaffled by Man of the Match Thomas Flynn and dispatched to the net, turned the game on its head.

What will concern Mayo, however, was that in their moment of crisis not one of their players stood up and showed the kind of leadership required to turn the game back in their favour.

Flynn's goal levelled the contest but there was still 15 minutes of normal time remaining. Mayo are playing on home soil, in front of a sympathetic crowd and yet there was no response.

And this from a group of players who had got rid of their joint team managers, Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly last autumn. A penny for their thoughts today,

Galway actually outscored the home side 1-5 to 0-1 in the last 20 minutes – so their win was thoroughly deserved

The overall poverty of the Mayo effort is reflected in the fact that they didn't scored from play until the 31st minute and their first forward to score from play was Stephen Coen - and his point came deep in injury time at the end of the first half.

Against the wind Mayo were more ineffectual up front – their only point from play in the second half came via Jason Doherty in the 39th minute.

By contrast Galway's rookie corner forward Eamon Brannigan hit three wonderful points from play and as a unit the visiting forward scored seven points from play compared to two for their Mayo counterparts.

Additionally, Galway's excellent midfield partnership of Thomas Flynn and Paul Conroy scored 1-2 from play and dominated the Mayo pairing of Tom Parsons and Jason Gibbons – who was replaced by Seamus O'Shea at the end of the first quarter after damaging his shoulder.

Galway still has come distance to travel before being considered All-Ireland contenders – they are 22/1 to win Sam compared to 10/1 for Mayo – but this victory means that the Connacht championship can no longer be considered a foregone conclusion.

This result will either make or break Mayo. Perhaps a run through the qualifiers is just what they need.

But having taken ownership of the team last autumn by outing the team management the senior players must now show leadership on the field.

Otherwise, the Mayo project to secure Sam is doomed for another generation.