Posted by Shane Stapleton

The Connacht champions showed the sort of nervy start that eventually caught them out last year in the semi-final win over Tyrone

James horanWhen all else failed, Mayo still succeeded.

Yet the biggest thing to come out of James Horan’s side answering so many questions against Tyrone is more questions, and that’s the concern.

Dare they drop captain Andy Moran who still looks a distance off his very best since returning from a cruciate knee injury? Will they be able to fill the void left by Cillian O’Connor, both in terms of his open play and prowess from placed balls? Will they continue to afford the opposition a chance to win the game in the opening minutes?

In many ways, this mimicked the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin last year when Mayo were gifting chances that the then All-Ireland champions were unable to take. The Dubs were already two points up early on but it should have been more because chances were spurned after both Kevin Keane and Donal Vaughan gift-wrapped opportunities to the opposition.

Tyrone went 0-2 ahead inside five minutes and had created nine chances to four by the 13th minute, but weren’t pushing on. As manager Mickey Harte explained afterwards, you need to be well ahead when another teams hits its purple patch and that’s precisely what Mayo eventually found … as the Red Hands, and Dubs before them, continued to miss.

There were all similarities with last year’s final against Donegal too. It wasn’t so much a case of Mayo not racing out of the blocks, it almost seemed as if they were unaware that the gun had even gone off. Jim McGuinness’ side were 2-1 to zip ahead and Mayo were trying to pull the pants back up for the rest of the game. But now, as was the case back then, this Mayo team will not throw in the towel no matter what the setback.

You couldn’t call it a certainty, but there was a probability in how they were performing against Tyrone. They didn’t score from play until the 33rd minute — when corner-back Chris Barrett reduced the gap to 0-7 to 0-4 — but the openings were appearing.

Alan Freeman had worked himself into a goalscoring position, though that was brought back for a free that Kevin McLoughlin somehow missed (free-taking is something we’ll revisit). There were eight other occasions in which Mayo found themselves in scoring positions, but the shots that found a good home so easily against Donegal were finding the gutter.

In between getting their third point of the day through a Freeman placed ball on 14 minutes and Ronan O’Neill posting Tyrone’s seventh white flag on 32 minutes, Mayo hit a barren spell where they spurned seven good chances to reply. Three of those were frees and that’s one of the reasons that O’Connor could be such a huge loss for the final.

It’s been something of a strange year for free-takers, with the hurling championship showing how costly it can be when the stakes are high. Look at the All-Ireland hurling quarter-finals, when Joe Canning was relieved of the duties for Galway, while Eoin Larkin, Richie Power and Henry Shefflin all struggled for Kilkenny. The semi-finals will long be remembered for Limerick’s Declan Hannon failing where Clare’s Colin Ryan would not, and Patrick Horgan firing over for Cork as Dublin’s Paul Ryan passed up some chances he ordinarily would not. It’s the winning and the losing at times.

To refer again to last year’s semi-final, from the placed balls O’Connor was exceptional. His composure with four first-half conversions gave his side a great platform for victory in that game. He wasn’t just wearing injured Moran’s number 14 jersey, he was carrying the leadership qualities with it too. It might have taken him 45 minutes to score his only point from play but his total of eight can’t be understated. Nor can his loss now.

Of the nine placed balls taken once O’Connor left the field, just five went over. One of those was a shocker from his replacement Enda Varley, and you would question why the Garrymore man made an attempt from 45 metres after he had just hit two horrid wides from play.

McLoughlin is likely to be relieved of the duties after his miss from under the posts so Freeman, who converted each placed ball effort including a penalty, is in the box seat. To win an All-Ireland, you so often need a faultless kicker; consider 2010, when Daniel Goudling and Donnacha O’Connor sent over 0-9 of an 0-16 total from placed balls in a one-point win.

Tyrone will be cursing lady luck while Mayo, like last year, will be thanking a mistress that has turned her back on them many times in the past. An injury to Alan Brogan was disastrous to Dublin in 2012 because firstly he was due to start the game and pulled out, before coming on in the second half and quickly having to be replaced. Both were momentum changers. For 2013, read early losses to Tyrone of Peter Harte and Stephen O’Neill by the 29th minute. Having been 0-6 to 0-3 ahead at this point, the Red Hands lost the remainder 1-13 to 0-7.

Points from Lee Keegan, substitute Cathal Carolan and Aidan O’Shea in the space of two minutes around the hour mark put eight points between the teams, and ended any doubt about the result. These scores were like a bale of hay when all that was need to break the camel’s back was a straw.

Mayo have had a free-scoring forward line all year but on Sunday their defence outscored their attack from open play by 0-4 to 0-3. That won’t do in the final. Shoddy free-taking won’t either, a nervy opening won’t, and neither will carrying players who are still looking for a spark.

Will Horan persevere with captain Moran? The Ballaghaderreen man is an exceptional player but he just does not look sharp and, by his own admission before this semi, games are the only thing that will bring him on.

We suspect he will start and Horan would be fully justified in doing so because Moran is capable of winning a game on his own when sharp. With O’Connor unable to shoulder any burden with his injury to that very area, Moran’s class is needed more than ever. 

So too is concentration from the start.

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