Saturday, Mayo v Down, Croke Park, 5pm (Ref: Maurice Deegan, Laois)
Latest from the medics and management… The big news from the Mayo camp is that Aidan O’Shea has not managed to command a starting berth as manager James Horan has announced an unchanged side from the one that defeated Sligo in the Connacht final. There had been speculation that O’Shea was poised to start his first game in over three months for the county after shaking off injury problems and making a major impact when introduced in that provincial decider. But the Breaffy player is set to be kept in reserve again.
MAYO SF: David Clarke (Ballina Stephenites); Kevin Keane (Westport), Ger Cafferkey (Ballina Stephenites), Keith Higgins (Ballyhaunis); Lee Keegan (Westport), Donal Vaughan (Ballinrobe), Colm Boyle (Davitts); Barry Moran (Castlebar Mitchels), Danny Geraghty (Ballintubber); Kevin McLoughlin (Knockmore), Cillian O’Connor (Ballintubber), Alan Dillon (Ballintubber); Enda Varley (Garrymore), Andy Moran (Ballaghaderreen), Jason Doherty (Burrishoole).
Down have made just the one change with Kevin McKernan returning to the heart of their defence at centre-back. Kevin Duffin is the player who is omitted while there are several positional changes. Conor Garvey switches to left corner-back, Darren O’Hagan goes into the other corner and Aidan Carr moves from the half-back line to the half-forward line, with Conor Maginn changing wings. Niall McParland switches from right corner-back to right half-back.
DOWN SF: Brendan McVeigh (An Ríocht); Darren O’Hagan (Clonduff), Dan Gordon (Loughinisland), Conor Garvey (Mayobridge); Niall McParland (Glenn), Kevin McKernan (Burren), Brendan McArdle (Annaclone); Ambrose Rogers (Longstone), Kalum King (Bryansford); Aidan Carr (Clonduff), Mark Poland (Longstone), Conor Maginn (Bryansford); Eoin McCartan (Burren), Conor Laverty (Kilcoo), Brendan Coulter (Mayobridge).
Checking the odds…Mayo are 4/7 favorites with Down available at odds of 15/8. The handicap betting has Mayo (-2) available at 11/10.
Clues from the form guide…Similar to the Cork side that defeated them in the Division 1 league final on April 29th, Mayo’s form is difficult to read because of the lack of evidence. Two games in 14 weeks, including a demolition job on Leitrim, is an example of why the championship structure needs to be overhauled. Amidst inactivity fears, Mayo can at least be glad of the stern examination they faced against Sligo in the Connacht final. And in a bad game of football and on a day where they were not near their best, they can be heartened by the fact that they found a way to win the game.
Down have similar cause for positivity as they bounced back in fine fashion from their Ulster final defeat to Donegal to get the better of Tipperary last week. Achieving victory and preserving their interest in the 2012 championship was the sole objective given the quick turnaround they faced. But that 11-point hammering against Donegal is too recent for there not still to be concerns over their capabilities. Down and Mayo do not have a rich history of championship meetings but there have been underage collisions with Down winning All-Ireland minor finals against the Connacht side in 1999 and 2005, and an All-Ireland U21 semi-final in 2009.
The game breakers are…Mayo’s midfield has been an area of undoubted strength this season, principally through the marvelous form of Barry Moran. The Castlebar Mitchels player is in the frame for an Allstar right now and having Aidan O’Shea as an option to spring from the bench strengthens James Horan’s hand further. Their defence has undergone a makeover since their last championship outing in Croke Park last August but Kevin Keane, Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle have all slotted neatly into place.
There are problems in their attack though with the Connacht final bringing those sharply into focus as they only registered three points in the first-half and only three of their starting forwards scored from play. Alan Moran and Alan Dillon continue to be their leading lights but they need support with Cillian O’Connor finding defenses harder to break down in his second season while Jason Doherty and Enda Varley have yet to catch fire.
Down’s Mark Poland. Pic: INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan
The Ulster final clearly proved how Down’s defence can be prised apart and while they did well to shut out Tipperary for the majority of the first-half last Saturday, there were still warning signs after the break and Mayo will pose a greater offensive threat. Dan Gordon’s commanding form is a bonus in that regard while Darren O’Hagan is also showing up well and they need the returning Kevin McKernan to impact. Ambrose Rogers is in excellent form at midfield and his battle for supremacy with Barry Moran will be both intriguing and telling. As ever in attack Benny Coulter is the go-to guy but the importance of Mark Poland and Conor Laverty to the cause has become more pronounced of late.
Gazing into the crystal ball…In the aftermath of the Ulster final, Down’s season was in a troublesome state and their campaign did not look likely to be prolonged. To their credit they picked themselves back up to beat Tipperary and were assisted by a draw that is more favorable than if they had to play Cork or Dublin. Get Gordon and Rogers shining in their respective sectors, get Poland and Coulter enough ball to shine up front and they have a chance.
But Mayo should still be good enough to dispose of their challenge. Free from the often claustrophobic surroundings of provincial football, they should thrive in the spaces of Croke Park which can bring out better play in their attackers. And if the game descends into a dogfight, they have a defence that is in a miserly mood, a key substitute like Aidan O’Shea to spring into action and sway the game, and the all round resilience that Horan has imbued in them to win games like this.