So now we know. In truth, we’ve probably known for a few weeks now. It was written in the stars that Roscommon would end up playing Mayo in this year’s All-Ireland quarter-final in Croke Park on Sunday next at 4 p.m..
Thankfully the inevitable wasn’t protracted last weekend. Galway’s demolition of Donegal saw to that, meaning that a draw wasn’t required to decipher Sunday’s pairings.
The narrative leading up to championship games against Mayo rarely changes. Mayo expect to win, and usually do with plenty to spare. It’s more of a mental thing with Roscommon. Sixteen years of torment has moulded a depressing template that needs to be changed on Sunday.
But this has a different feel to it. Roscommon aren’t going to MacHale Park. Mayo aren’t coming to the Hyde. Instead, Croke Park, just about recovered from U2 last weekend, is preparing for an invasion from the west. “A Beautiful Day” for the Rossies or a case of “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”?
Rest assured, Roscommon aren’t without hope. They’re Connacht champions and deservedly so. Galway’s stunning performance against Donegal last Saturday has only added fuel to the theory that Kevin Walsh’s men “didn’t turn up” for the provincial final. Yet Roscommon had their homework done in Salthill. They got their match-ups right and let their footballing ability take care of their result. A similar approach, and a little bit more, will be needed on Sunday.
If one turns the clock back to the sides’ last championship meeting at a damp Hyde Park in 2014, Andy Moran’s arrival from the bench turned the tide in Mayo’s favour. But, crucially, it was the first time in a number of years that Roscommon had stayed with Mayo and taken them to the wire. Yet only a handful of Roscommon players from that narrow defeat will be involved on Sunday. Mayo’s number is likely to run into double figures.
In other words, this is a new Roscommon team with none of the psychological baggage of the past. Many of these players have beaten Mayo regularly at minor and U-21 level over the last decade. It has to count for something. The sides’ league meeting in March will have no bearing on Sunday’s game as we now know that Roscommon were purposely nowhere where they needed to be in terms of their fitness.
Mayo have brought their supporters on an emotional rollercoaster through the qualifiers since their Connacht semi-final loss against Galway. They’ve taken on water during the matches against Derry, Clare and Cork. But, crucially, Mayo always find a way, except in All-Ireland finals.
Being taken to extra-time by Cork on Saturday last will help the Rossies’ cause. But Roscommon’s chances of causing another upset next weekend will be defined on how they limit the influence of Aidan O’Shea, Cillian and Diarmuid O’Connor, and Lee Keegan. Andy Moran always plays well against Roscommon, so his contribution will need to be lessened too.
But, on the evidence based on what we’ve seen, Mayo’s powers are waning. The greatest irony of all would be if it was indeed Roscommon, the neighbours they always beat with a swagger, were the team to take them down and loosen the grip on their All-Ireland dream.
The flip side is that this is the draw that Mayo wanted. None of their supporters will contemplate losing to Roscommon because they feel as if
it’s the way in the world in the west. The 11th Commandment — thou shalt not be beaten by that shower.
Mayo’s decision to stick by their older players is based on the belief that they’re so close to winning the championship. Out of the team that played Cork in 2011, 11 players started against the Rebels in Limerick on Saturday last. But the signs of being asked to go to the well too many times, one feels, can’t be ignored for much longer.
The attributes that enabled Roscommon nullify Galway for last tracts of the Connacht final will be needed again. Enda Smith and Conor Devaney will be “marked men”. Nevertheless, the gameplan will be the same — get the ball as quickly as possible into the forwards because Diarmuid Murtagh and company have the beating of Mayo’s full-back line. Mayo’s discipline hasn’t been hectic in the championship to date, so that same intensity that physicality we saw in Salthill needs to be unleashed once more.
It was always muted that it would be left to a young, emerging team to halt Mayo’s All-Ireland gallop. Roscommon tick many of those boxes, but can they reach the heights they scaled in the Connacht final?
They certainly intend to. A day or two of winding down after the Connacht final, Roscommon returned to training on the Wednesday evening after their ambush in Salthill. Diarmuid Murtagh has recovered from his ankle injury, and Cathal Compton is back training.
Kevin McStay will drill into his players this week that there will never be a better chance for Roscommon to take Mayo’s scalp. His young players won’t be lacking in belief but Sunday’s chance may be a year or two too soon.
The basic expectation is that Roscommon will be competitive and take Mayo to the wire. Another ambush cannot be ruled out, but it’s probably a year or two too soon for another landmark record to tumble. Mayo’s never-say-die attitude and experience still holds a great deal of clout in today’s GAA market.
But, irrespective of the result, Roscommon must re-inforce the notion on Sunday evening that they’re the ones with the brighter future.
HERALD VERDICT: Mayo by two points