All-Ireland Championship: Kerry’s front men will relish Mayo clash
Prior to Mayo taking on Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-finals it was suggested that the Connacht side’s defence might prove crucial in winning the game for them.
In the event, this is precisely how things turned out.
But if the Mayo rearguard thought they endured a tough battle against the reigning All-Ireland champions, then they will have to be prepared to toil even harder when they meet Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final on Sunday.
Jack O’Connor’s current side may not quite carry the level of authority and sophistication of their more illustrious predecessors yet they are imbued with levels of skill and flair that tend to surface when it really matters.
And being in the last four of the All-Ireland race really matters to Kerry.
To their great relief they will not be encountering Ulster opponents on Sunday and that in itself bodes ill for Mayo. The Kingdom have never been comfortable against sides like Tyrone and Armagh over the past decade but it’s a safe bet that players like Declan O’Sullivan, Colm Cooper and Kieran Donaghy in particular will flourish on Sunday.
Not that this trio carry all of Kerry’s hopes, of course.
The defence is still a vastly experienced unit — perhaps overly-experienced in the eyes of some given the indifferent form of Tom O’Sullivan and Aidan O’Mahoney — while the relatively new midfield pairing of Aidan Maher and Bryan Sheehan is gaining in confidence with each outing.
Mayo manager James Horan, like his Donegal counterpart Jim McGuinness, has worked a minor miracle since taking over at the start of the year.
Some bold selection decisions and the application of a sensible strategy not only helped his team secure their place in Division One of the National League with some comfort but led to the capture of the Connacht crown.
That titanic quarter-final win over Cork has further fuelled confidence yet realism underpins Mayo’s approach to Sunday’s showdown.
The players know their county’s track record at Croke Park over the past half-century is a virtual litany of sorrow, the bad days vastly outweighing the good.
That’s why extreme caution, discipline and absolute concentration will be their watchwords against a Kerry side buoyed by a great tradition and the desire to make it six All-Ireland crowns since 2000.
And it’s why too Mayo will look for a huge performance from their defence in which Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins and Donal Vaughan will bid to lead the resistance against the Kingdom while Alan Dillon, Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor can provide a cutting edge up front.
If they can keep their guard up, maximise their sniping opportunities up front and restrict Kerry’s scoring chances from frees, Mayo could conceivably take the game down to the wire.
However, Kerry’s guile, flair and grace are likely to prevail just the same.
Kerry: B Kealy; K Young, M Ó Se, T O’Sullivan; T Ó Se, E Brosnan, A O Mahoney; A Maher, B Sheehan; Darran O’Sullivan, Declan O’Sullivan, D Walsh; C Cooper, K Donaghy, K O’Leary.