James Horan ahead of the Super 8s clash with Donegal.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

WHEN ROSCOMMON WERE preparing for Mayo in the 2017 All-Ireland quarter-final, the last thing they expected was to see Lee Keegan trotting out to pick up Enda Smith at midfield. 

They were ready for a number of different contingencies in terms of markers on Smith, but the prospect of the wing-back lining out at centre-field hadn’t even crossed their minds. 

Keegan had 1-3 from play on the board by half-time. Smith was pushed into full-forward for the second-half and while it did quell Keegan’s attacking forays, Roscommon’s most important player was kept under wraps by the Westport ace.

It’s one example of the number of left-field selection plays Mayo have made in recent years. Aidan O’Shea pitched up at full-back to mark Kieran Donaghy later in the same season, while the previous September, Rob Hennelly replaced David Clarke in an ill-fated move before the All-Ireland final replay.

Of course, all three calls were made by previous boss Stephen Rochford. 

Over the years, James Horan has shown less of a tendency to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Maybe most surprising decision of his second stint in charge arrived last weekend when Paddy Durcan was employed at wing-forward to track Ryan McHugh. 

Durcan had never played in the position before for Mayo but it turned out to be a masterstroke by Horan. The Castlebar Mitchels clubman missed the opening two Super 8s games through injury so Donegal were hardly expecting him to start, let alone track their diminutive playmaker in an unfamiliar forward position. 

McHugh’s influence on the game was completely nullified and he was restricted to 11 possessions over the 70 minutes. Durcan even got himself up the field to kick three points, exposing McHugh defensively.

You can be sure that the next time Donegal and Mayo meet in championship, Declan Bonner will have a plan for when McHugh finds himself tracked by Durcan again.

The deployment of Keegan on Michael Murphy was more predictable and after he had just 10 touches in the first-half, Donegal duly pushed their skipper into full-forward. They recognised that the smaller Keegan would be more susceptible under a high ball. It had the desired impact.

Murphy kicked a point and was fouled by Keegan for a penalty after receiving a high angled delivery into the edge of the square. Mayo moved Stephen Coen onto the Glenswilly man, finally freeing him of Keegan’s shackles. 

Lee Keegan shoots on goal against Donegal.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The difference between the two instances was Donegal had a fair idea that Keegan would mark their talisman, while the Durcan move to half-forward was far less predictable. 

The question for Horan heading into today’s game is: what bold plays will he come up with that will flummox Dublin? It’s far easier said than done. Jim Gavin’s famed attention to detail means the All-Ireland champions will have most eventualities covered. 

Dublin have proven time and again they’re masters at dissecting an opponent’s gameplan and taking away their strengths. They comfortably dealt with Tyrone’s defensive strategy in the past couple of seasons to such an extent that forced Mickey Harte into a complete rethink of his tactical plan. 

Gavin will be well aware that Horan may be planning to put Durcan on their flying wing-back Jack McCaffrey, who is in Footballer of the Year form. He’ll know there’s a good chance Aidan O’Shea will spend some time at full-forward – where he’ll most likely be picked up by Philly McMahon with Cian O’Sullivan sweeping in front. 

Dublin will be expecting Keegan to pick-up Ciaran Kilkenny. In that instance, the Castleknock ace may play closer to goal. Hennelly will attempt to beat the press with his long kick-outs and Dublin will be ready for that too. They won’t go full-court press on Hennelly’s restarts without leaving some cover behind the midfield.

The trick for Horan is to try something that Dublin won’t be expecting. As a group, Dublin will be mentally prepared for most potential developments on the field. An inner confidence comes with the level of opposition analysis the Dublin players are subjected to. 

If Mayo can throw a cat amongst the pigeons that leaves the Dublin players looking to the sideline for instructions, then they’ve got a real chance. 

Mayo have already come through so much to get this far. They’ve survived another taxing qualifier journey, safely navigated the Super 8s despite suffering a heavy trouncing in Killarney on the opening weekend.

Colm Boyle watches on as Jason Doherty lies on the field after tearing his cruciate.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

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They’ve overcome injuries to David Clarke, Matthew Ruane, Seamie O’Shea, Tom Parsons, Durcan, Keegan, Aidan O’Shea, Fionn McDonagh, James Carr, Donie Vaughan and Diarmuid O’Connor at various stages this summer. Key forward Jason Doherty is the latest to go down, suffering the dreaded torn cruciate last Saturday which will see him miss around nine months of action. 

We’ve known long before this season they’re a resilient bunch.

In their last 14 meetings against Dublin in league or championship, Mayo are winless. They’ve suffered 11 defeats and drawn three games. Yet no side ran Dublin closer during their four-in-a-row run and the Westerners will bring that confidence into this encounter.

Dublin have beaten Mayo by a single point in three All-Ireland finals since 2013.

Kerry are possibly the only other county outside of Mayo with no inferiority complex when it comes to taking on the Dubs.

For the first time this season, the safety net has been removed on Dublin. They haven’t encountered many difficulties so far, while Mayo have enjoyed several do-or-die wins to reach this point, most recently last weekend’s defeat of the back-to-back Ulster kingpins. 

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Mayo’s shooting efficiency was a tepid 43% against Donegal, while they converted just 15 of their 28 scoring chances from play against Meath. They’ll need a conversion rate north of 75% to stand a chance of beating Dublin, who have become the most ruthlessly efficient team we’ve ever seen in front of the posts.  

Mayo actually match-up quite well against Dublin at the back. They’re happy to go one-on-one in defence and they’ll back themselves athletically against the formidable Dublin attack. 

The big issue for Mayo will come in the final 20 minutes. The majority of talk around the Dublin squad this week has surrounded Gavin’s bench. The forwards he’s likely to introduce as subs this evening? Take your pick from Kevin McManamon, Cormac Costello, Diarmuid Connolly, Paddy Small, Paddy Andrews, Bernard Brogan, Sean Bugler and Eoghan O’Gara.

Cian O’Sullivan tackles Aidan O’Shea during their 2019 league meeting.

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Only four of that lot, at most, will even make the matchday squad. Given the strength of Dublin’s replacements, Mayo will need to pack a similar punch off the bench. Doherty’s season-ending injury reduces Horan’s options, with Kevin McLoughlin the obvious candidate to replace him on the half-forward line.

After that, Horan must chose between Darren Coen and Andy Moran for a starting place. The latter is more likely to have an impact than Coen if introduced in the third quarter – not to mention the lift he’d give the travelling Mayo support.

If Mayo could get at least a half out of both Ruane and Diarmuid O’Connor it would be a major boost to their chances. And the potential return of Tom Parsons, who is reportedly moving well in training, would give them another much-needed kick in the closing stages.

They may not be able to match Dublin’s bench, but if Mayo’s finishers could pack their own punch it would give Gavin some defensive issues to think about.

Dublin’s freshness and Mayo’s accumulative fatigue could be a major factor in the final quarter.  

And if the men from Connacht are going to do the unthinkable and end the Drive for Five, Horan will need to go off-script with something his opposite number won’t anticipate.

Otherwise, Mayo face the prospect of giving another herculean effort, only to suffer a gut-wrenching loss in the final quarter.

We’ve seen that movie enough times already.

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