While election counts continue around the country, Mayo and Roscommon footballers will be meeting at MacHale Park to try to top the poll and qualify for this year’s Connacht Final against Galway. The odds strongly favour a home win, but Roscommon’s preparations have been very much under the radar and Anthony Cunningham’s men will travel with quiet confidence that they can be the first Primrose and Blue outfit to win in Castlebar in the senior championship since 1986.
So what are the prospects for this match? At the start of this year there were so many questions hanging over this Mayo side. Was manager James Horan right to come back? Was the defeat in Newbridge against Kildare last summer the end of this magnificent team? Had Mayo’s older players finally come to the end of their careers?
Unfortunately from a Roscommon point of view, the answers to those questions are that James Horan has added a fresh impetus to this Mayo team. He has added some new players too and the older experienced warriors are playing as well as ever. In fact, there is an argument to say they are playing better than ever in some cases.
Winning the National League has given them a huge boost and now they are once again on the trail of Connacht and All-Ireland glory. Many observers are of the opinion that Mayo are the only team capable of denying Dublin a fifth All-Ireland title in a row.
So where does that leave Roscommon? The league campaign ended in relegation, but there have been some encouraging signs from the Rossies this year. There is no doubt that the team is fitter and stronger and that the strength and conditioning work that has been done has clearly paid off. But the big question is whether Roscommon have the players to beat this Mayo team on Saturday.
The plain and simple truth is that Roscommon will have to play out of their skins and Mayo will have to have an off day if the visitors are to win. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility however.
Firstly, Roscommon’s kick-out strategy will have to be spot-on. In the modern game, primary possession is absolutely vital.
The Roscommon defence will have to tackle hard and fair and will have to try to tie down the Mayo danger men. James Horan has attempted to introduce a lot of pace into his attack and players like James Carr, Fergal Boland, Jason Doherty and Darren Coen will cause havoc if not marked tightly. Sean Mullooly, Conor Daly and Davy Murray will have a big task in the full-back line. It also looks like Diarmuid O’Connor will be back from injury and he would be a big addition to the home side.
However, the key battle in this game will be at midfield. The much-criticised Aidan O’Shea has finally found his best position, alongside the very impressive Matthew Ruane. Tadhg O’Rourke and whoever his partner is (Niall Daly or Enda Smith I presume) will have a huge task in this vital sector. O’Shea is the link man while Ruane motors forward. Anthony Cunningham and his selectors will have to come up with a plan to deal with the midfield area because it will be the winning and losing of the game.
Mayo’s most dangerous line is their half-back line, and the likes of Paddy Durcan, Lee Keegan and newcomer James McCormack love to get forward. The Roscommon attack will have to push up on this Mayo half-back line and try to stop them attacking, which is no easy task.
The Roscommon inside line will also be key on Saturday. Ultan Harney was deployed out the field against Leitrim and we will need him at his best again on Saturday. Conor Cox and Diarmuid Murtagh will have the job of getting the scores and if they get enough ball they will convert. It’s also likely that team captain Enda Smith will be back, and on his best day he can be a match-winner. I would like to see him deployed in the half-forward line where he can assist at midfield if required.
When the sides met on the opening weekend of the National League campaign there was only a point between them, but I am not so sure that we can use that clash as any kind of a pointer to Saturday. It was a game played in the worst weather I have ever seen at an inter-county game, and both sides were in experimental mode.
Roscommon have played in the last three Connacht finals (four, counting the replay in 2016) so the excuse of having an inexperienced team cannot be used. However, the rate of player turnover for a small county like Roscommon is absolutely massive. Of the Roscommon team that started against Leitrim, there were only four survivors from the team that started the 2018 Connacht Final against Galway, which is some change in less than a year.
Make no mistake, Roscommon are travelling with a chance of a win, but it’s an outside one. They will have to frustrate Mayo and deny them any space for over 70 minutes if they are to prosper. They will have to be in the game with fifteen minutes to go to have a chance. It has been thirty-three years since Roscommon fans have come back from Castlebar with a smile on their faces in the senior football championship. It’s a long, long time and I have written about that day in detail elsewhere in the paper this weekend.
Remember that in 1986 Roscommon were not given a chance either, yet they pulled off a famous win. In sport anything is possible. To win this game would be one of Roscommon’s best wins in many decades and would open up all sorts of possibilities for the team.
Roscommon will derive inspiration from Cavan’s big win against Monaghan last weekend and it proves that anything can happen in the championship ‘on the day’.
But one has got to be realistic too. James Horan is a very astute manager. He is too experienced to allow Mayo to be complacent and they will be ready for a fierce Roscommon challenge. I am expecting Roscommon to severely test Mayo but the home side will probably have too much firepower in the end.