#TheToughest Choice: Who's going to win the All-Ireland quarter-final, Mayo or Tyrone?
Two giants of Gaelic Football collide, but only one can stay standing.
They say that the Football Championship doesn’t come alive until August and it’s hard to think of a more mouth-watering quarter-final line-up in years than what’s in store at GAA HQ this weekend.
You have to go back to 2010 for an All-Ireland final that didn’t feature one of Dublin, Donegal or Mayo, while the other side in action on Saturday, Tyrone, could be on the brink of becoming Mickey Harte’s third great team following their Ulster Championship success.
The next step on their road to doing so is overcoming a battle-hardened and vastly experienced Mayo team in the first of the quarter-finals at Croke Park.
Will the Red Handers maintain their momentum and prevail or will Mayo banish the inconsistency that has dogged their season so far and prove that there’s plenty of life in the old dog yet?
Conor Heneghan says: MAYO
In the immediate aftermath of Mayo’s win over Westmeath on Saturday, I wouldn’t have given them much hope of beating Tyrone this weekend.
Despite a seven-point victory, Mayo’s performance after they went 12 points up at the end of the first half was nowhere near good enough and cause for huge alarm. Not just alarm but frustration too; it petered out so much it nearly felt like a defeat in the end!
Westmeath’s Championship performances in the last two seasons have illustrated that they’re perhaps better than Division Four, but there’s no way a team with Mayo’s experience and aspirations should have let them make a game of it, especially in the manner in which they did.
I never quite felt – even when Westmeath cut the lead to three points – that Mayo were in danger of losing the game, but a repeat of the second half performance for even some of the game on Saturday and Tyrone could cut them to ribbons.
Time being the great healer that it is, however, I’m more sanguine about the Westmeath win and am finding (perhaps even inventing) reasons for optimism from a Mayo perspective the closer we edge towards the weekend.
Not that it should excuse Mayo’s dramatic dip in performance levels, but, on reflection, it can be very hard to maintain focus with such a huge lead and there were hallmark signs of complacency from Stephen Rochford’s side from the end of the first half onwards.
Kevin McLoughlin’s lazy handpass that led to a goal chance for Kieran Martin immediately after James Dolan’s goal, for example.
I could be imagining things but I seem to remember a kick-pass hitting Cillian O’Connor square in the face from about ten yards away in the second half. Crazy stuff.
And from a management point of view, the withdrawal of fearless leader Colm Boyle, yellow card notwithstanding, was a clear indication that they were already thinking of the next day out midway through the second half.
Nobody needs to tell the Mayo players that, barring a few devastating 20-minute bursts throughout the qualifiers, what they’ve delivered so far won’t be up to scratch.
They’ve set and lived by the highest standards in the last five years and while form can’t be turned on and off like a light switch, there’s surely a big performance in there somewhere.
There has to be, right?
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) July 30, 2016
Blind optimism from a Mayo man it might be, but I’m banking on Mayo raising their performance levels to suit the opposition and having something new up their sleeves for when they take on the big boys, starting with a very formidable Tyrone side.
With such a quick turnaround, Mayo players themselves and management should be hammering home the positives this week.
Tyrone, impressive though they’ve been, have won one Ulster title in the last five years. In the same period, Mayo have been in the semi-final every year, have been in two finals and have brought the last two All-Ireland winners to the absolute brink in All-Ireland semi-final replays.
This is undoubtedly a step up for Mayo this weekend but make no mistake about it, it’s a step up for Tyrone too.
Care not about how they got there, Mayo have arrived at where they expected to be and while it’s been far from perfect, the same could be said for Tyrone in 2008 and Kerry in 2009 to name two teams who have won All-Irelands through the back door.
To match the achievements of those great teams, some of Mayo’s biggest players, quiet thus far, will need to step it up, but there are some positives.
Andy Moran is flying. Cillian O’Connor showed signs that he’s coming back to his old self. The last-minute goal against Westmeath could be just what Aidan O’Shea needed to spark him into life.
Tom Parsons is back. Chris Barrett is back. And *crosses all fingers and toes*, Diarmuid O’Connor will be fit and re-iterate why he’s turning into one of the best players in the country.
If the Green and Red continue in the same vein as they have to date this season, then Saturday could be a long day at the office.
If they can somehow turn it on, they’re a very dangerous animal indeed.
Here’s hoping the latter rings true this weekend.
Conán Doherty says: TYRONE
You can't just stumble into a quarter-final and decide to turn it on whenever you want.
Not against Tyrone. Not against this Tyrone team.
Mickey Harte has assembled an animalistic side. They step onto the field and there's something so primal about them. For 70 minutes, all that matters is winning ball and hitting scores and they will do anything to achieve both.
It's aggressive, it's automatic, and it's bloody relentless.
Tyrone might've beaten Derry and Cavan but they have done so frighteningly. They were damn well impressive in both ties and, when they smelled blood, they put the pair to the sword with downright savagery. They didn't let up like Mayo have done in all their games. They played 'til the last with pure conviction. Mercilessly.
It stood to them in the final. The argument that they weren't as head-turning against Donegal is bizarre. They were contesting an Ulster final for God's sake, against a side who've featured in the last six deciders and they still got over the line in spectacular fashion. With nerve, with fitness, and with beautiful talent.
Tyrone are more convincing than the Connacht men have been because every single one of their players knows exactly what he's doing. Harte has been working on a system that perfectly compliments all of the individuals they have at their disposal and now they're reaping the rewards. Now they go out onto the pitch and it's simply a matter of playing out the same role every week - the role they're all best at.
Good managers get the best out of their players. The best managers get the best out of their best players and Mickey Harte has Sean and Colm Cavanagh, Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly, Tiernan McCann and Niall Sludden performing better than anyone in the country, not because they're on form - but because it's systematic. It's not left to chance.
With Mayo, as dangerous as they are and as scary as they can be in attack, too much of it looks like it's being made up as they go along. That's great for the viewer but it's not going to wash against Tyrone's nastily uncompromising defence. It's not going to hold the most sweeping team in Ireland at bay when they decide to flood forward.
Trying to hold Tyrone is like trying to hold back the tide. They eventually find a way through. Even Donegal know that.
And you can't just go in hoping that things come together on Saturday. You can't leave anything to chance.
Dublin v Donegal and Mayo v Tyrone previewed in The GAA Hour with Colm Parkinson, Barry Cahill, and Michael Murphy. Subscribe here on iTunes.