Would anything encapsulate the surrealism of this year more than Mayo winning this year’s All-Ireland and finally breaking their almost 70-year ‘curse’?
They have their man on the way in the front door of the White House, now for the more difficult leg of the double – getting one of their own up the steps of the Hogan Stand in the Big Blue House!
Are they good enough? We’ll know more after Sunday’s Connact decider in Pearse Stadium, Salthill. With the winner advancing to an All-Ireland semi-final against either Cork or Tipp, following last weekend’s shock eviction of Kerry, the path looks a lot clearer.
Mayo have been evolving effectively since James Horan took over the managerial reins once again and have the benefit of two championship games under their belt, while Galway are coming in a bit cold and arguably unsure of themselves.
Horan’s men returned post-Covid’s sporting lockdown in good physical shape and their injuries have cleared up. They have added depth to their squad and some of their new faces have acquitted themselves well in the two Connacht games to date.
Horan has to be admired for how he has tried to restructure his team/panel by freshening up his squad in an attempt to find answers to some old problems.
He has also shown the ability to look ‘outside the box’ and see what he can bring in from other codes to improve his players with Ballina basketball legend from the 1990s Deora Marsh and coach Terry Kennedy, who was also involved with club side Knockmore, coming on board to hone the Mayo squad’s movement, handling and spatial awareness.
All sound a bit familiar? Yes. The Dubs brought basketball coach Mark Ingle in for the very same reasons under Jim Gavin a few years back, while they also had a multi-sport player in Jason Sherlock as a coach/selector central to how they reshaped themselves after the defeat to Donegal in 2014.
Mayo are an evolving team and Horan took something of a calculated risk in the semi-final against Roscommon and it paid dividends.
The temptation, and to some degree the expectation, was that he would start more experienced players but he has kept the likes of Colm Boyle, Keith Higgins, Donal Vaughan and Tom Parsons (some of whom have been recovering full fitness after injury) in reserve in favour of less experienced players who presumably are the ones who showed greater form in the local club championship and now are attempting to bring that into their inter-county game.
Their work-rate, intensity and high press against Roscommon put manners physically and psychologically on their opposition and the Rossies never got going. They looked a beaten docket even during the opening half and never combined with any great potency.
Mayo will look to do the same against an undercooked Galway this weekend - employing the same tactics and turning the middle-third into something of a war zone, where they will feel they can carry an edge in terms of conditioning and match fitness.
Horan and his management team also showed good game-management in how they moved Aidan O’Shea in and out between full-forward and midfield and in the conditions that are likely to prevail in the exposed expanse of Pearse Stadium, having tactics for playing with and against the elements is a must.
In terms of style, Mayo are something of a mirror image of Dublin. They are not afraid to have a go and in Paddy Durcan have one of the most purposeful defenders in the country. Durcan is often the player to ignite his team and if they can liberate Lee Keegan from the full-back line, they have a very potent threat coming from out the field.
Galway’s early season form was very impressive and they looked like a team who had an awful lot of work done prior to the commencement of the league.
Then Covid-19 arrived on our shores and when the league restart got underway they looked a pale shadow of the team from the opening five rounds.
However, I wouldn’t read too much in particular into their heavy defeat to Mayo in Round 6 as there was an element of a phony war going on there, especially from Pádraic Joyce I think.
The talk earlier in the year was of them playing this expansive brand under new manager Joyce and being All-Ireland contenders – such talk is not as prevalent now.
The loss of Damien Comer, presuming he does not feature, is very significant. His ball-winning ability, particularly with the ‘mark’ rule, and aggression in possession is a big blow.
Add to that the fact that speedster Eamonn Brannigan is also a doubt and their forward line does not look as threatening.
Shane Walsh returned from injury against Dublin in the league but bar one great turn of pace soon after his introduction he, understandably, looked low on match fitness.
He is likely to be picked up by Durcan and as the Castlebar clubman showed last weekend against Roscommon he will give any direct opponent plenty to worry about heading in the opposite direction.
Sunday’s Connacht final will be Mayo’s first appearance in a provincial decider since they hammered Sligo in 2015 and if they are at the pitch of it from the outset, I think they will be lifting the Nestor Cup.
DUBLIN will be hoping to take another step to an incredible ten in-a-row of Leinster SFC honours when they face Laois in Croke Park on Sunday.
The question prior to last Sunday’s victory over Westmeath was: would there be any drop-off in their intensity and hunger?
The answer was a definitive no as they attacked the game with intent from the first whistle.
Laois, under former Kerry senior Mike Quirke, have to ‘have a go’ on Sunday, while the O’Moore County had joy back in 2014 in the opening when playing defensively against the Dubs, they led 0-10 to 0-8 at half-time, Dublin ran out convincing 11-point winners in the end.
If they set up like Westmeath did last week they will be picked off in similar fashion and with no backdoor qualifiers they will surely try to pose questions of Dublin at midfield and in defence.
In their league game against Fermanagh, the body language of the Laois players was not great. However, they came from six points down to hit 3-3 and save their Division 2 status.
Likewise in the championship victory over Longford last weekend when again they came from behind (they were six points down in the opening half) to finish strongly and advance to Sunday’s contest.
So they will derive some confidence from the manner of those victories and the resilience they showed late on.
They also got impact off the bench last time out with Michael Keogh, Seán O’Flynn and Ross Munnelly all scoring.
In Gary Walsh, who converted seven frees from seven attempts last week, Evan O’Carroll and Paul Kingston, they carry a decent forward threat.
However, Dublin are several steps up in class from anything they have faced this season.
After their victory over Longford, Quirke said that his full-back Mark Timmons would have played for ten years at full-back for Kerry if he was from there.
We’ll know more about that assessment after spending 70-plus minutes in the company of Con O’Callaghan (left).
The other Leinster semi-final, Meath versus Kildare, could be a great game.
Meath, while relegated this year from the league’s top flight after recording six defeats and a draw in their concluding game against Monaghan, still played some good football throughout those games.
And they were very competitive, with only Donegal putting any distance between themselves and the Royals.
Andy McEntee is building a team with a strong spine while their running game, primarily through Donal Keogan and Bryan Menton, is improving.
However, I fancy Kildare to win this one, once they don’t go missing and show sufficient heart to win a big championship game.
The Lilies have an exciting midfield partnership in Kevin Feely and Aaron Masterson and a strong attacking unit in Daniel Flynn, Jimmy Hyland, Ben McCormack and Paddy Brophy.
On Sunday, one of the newcomers, Darragh Kirwan, could be their match-winner.