All-Ireland SFC Quarter-Final: Roscommon v Mayo on Sunday in Croke Park at 4 pm. Referee: Joe McQuillan (Cavan)
Since the Connacht Final victory, it was written in the stars that Roscommon would end up playing Mayo in the All-Ireland Quarter-Final in Croke Park. There are a lot of sideshows and some very juicy stories associated with this huge championship game, but at the end of the day it boils down to the two teams and the players on the field. They are the only people that matter.
There is not much point outlining Roscommon’s championship record against Mayo, especially the record in recent years, as it would lead Roscommon people to doubt whether they should make the journey east at all. In fact, it is 2001 since the ‘Primrose and Blue’ beat their old rivals in the championship and an unbelievable 37 years since Roscommon last won a championship game at headquarters.
However, the beauty of championship football is that every year turns another page and every game takes on a life of its own. This year Roscommon confounded even their most loyal fans with a thrilling, energy-laden, decisive nine-point win in the Connacht Final against a Galway team that has since put 4-17 on Donegal.
Most of us who have been going to Roscommon games for many years cannot recall many better wins and suddenly this young Roscommon team is being looked upon in a far different light than they had been a month ago. The question many Roscommon fans are now asking is: If we can beat Galway, why not Mayo as well?
However, despite the view that this Mayo team might be slipping after seven years at the top, I am not convinced. The experience that they have accrued over the years is standing to them and their resilience, will to win and class is pulling them through game after game.
Kevin McStay will once again preside over meticulous preparation. In preparation for the Connacht Final he and his selectors spent almost 14 hours deciding on the match-ups for the game. They got that right and I expect that they will spend an equally long time on that task in preparation for Mayo. There will be a specific game plan, of that you can be sure.
Roscommon will have a special problem dealing with Aidan O’Shea. He is playing the best football of his career and is almost unmarkable, such is his prowess physically. Maybe the tactic will be to try to keep the ball away from him but a plan will be in place. I wonder who will be given the unenviable task of marking him?
I am not worried about the midfield battle. Galway were expected to dominate Roscommon in the Connacht Final and we saw what happened in that game. Again, the kick-out strategy will be crucial. Colm Lavin was spot-on in the Connacht Final and he will have to do the same against Mayo. Enda Smith can shine once again and Tadgh O’Rourke will have to step up again, as he did in Salthill.
I do not share the opinion that the Mayo attack is weak. They scored 0-27 last weekend and Cillian O’Connor, Diarmuid O’Connor and Andy Moran are all playing really well, with Jason Doherty and Colm Loftus very effective subs. The Roscommon defence will have to be on their toes and they must guard against giving away any soft frees within 45/50 metres, as Cillian O’Connor will punish them every time.
Roscommon’s big hope lies further up the field. Cork (and Derry) showed in recent games that there is a weakness in the Mayo defence and in the full-back line in particular. When Cork ran at Mayo last Saturday they were in trouble and the Rebels could have had at least two more goals. If the Roscommon attack can get enough ball they can make the Mayo defence pay.
It was very interesting to hear Kevin McStay say on Sunday last that, having looked at the game very closely, he did not feel Roscommon played that well in the Connacht final. They played well and scored heavily in the first 15 minutes and in the final 15 minutes, but as he said himself, they “downed tools” in between. If they do that on Sunday, Mayo will take advantage. It will take a 70-minute performance from Roscommon for them to have any chance.
Good start important
The Connacht champions need to get a grip around the middle of the field and they must make a good start. If Mayo go five or six points up it is unlikely that they will be beaten. We will not know until the game reaches the second half whether the extra-time that Mayo have had to play in two of their recent games has taken a toll on their legs.
Mayo have the decided edge in terms of experience, ring craft and know-how, and they have been on the big stage so many times before that it will not phase them one bit. They will also be supremely confident of taking out Roscommon.
But it is time for new stars and a new era. We saw a glimpse of it in Pearse Stadium a few weeks ago. If this young Roscommon team can bring the same intensity and energy to the table as we saw in Salthill, and if we can get enough ball into Diarmuid Murtagh and company, then Roscommon can announce themselves on the national stage with another win against the odds. To beat Galway and Mayo in the same year would be a huge achievement. To beat Mayo in Croke Park would be one of the best championship wins in decades.
Mayo are favourites and deservedly so too. But these young Roscommon players have no fear and are a very ambitious lot. It would be a surprise were Roscommon to win, but not the shock of the year. If Kevin McStay’s men are in the game with ten minutes to go they can go all the way and win it. What a day that would be.
Match odds: Mayo 4/11 v Roscommon 11/4; Draw 8/1.