By Daire Walsh
For the second time in just five campaigns, Mayo and Tipperary will face each other at the semi-final stage of the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship at Croke Park on Sunday (throw-in 3.30pm).
On that occasion in 2016, the Premier County put it up to their heavily-favoured Connacht counterparts, before a late Conor O’Shea eventually sealed a 2-13 to 0-14 triumph for Mayo. They went on to face Dublin in a drawn All-Ireland decider before losing out by a single point in a subsequent replayed encounter.
Whereas both sides progressed through the backdoor four years ago, 2020 has seen them reaching the penultimate phase as provincial champions. While it was five years since they last reigned supreme in the West, Mayo’s Connacht final over Galway wasn’t necessarily a major headline grabber – at least not in comparison to Tipperary bridging an 85-year gap in the Munster Senior Football Championship.
Though it is a well-worn cliche used by sports teams across a whole host of different codes, this year’s championship has shown there is wisdom behind taking it ‘one game at a time’. Adopting a set-up that was viewed by many (most notably Tomás Ó Sé) as a potential template to take on Dublin in the latter stages of the competition, Kerry struggled to break down a stubborn Cork side in the Munster semi-final and were subsequently hit with the sucker punch of a Mark Keane goal in the final minute of extra-time.
This victory sparked talk of a Cork renaissance and what the future might hold for the Leesiders, but Tipperary tore up the script in spectacular style. With Michael Qunlivan and Conor Sweeney registered 12 points between them – and Colin O’Riordan bringing his professional experience in Australian Rules Football to bear – they recorded a stunning 0-17 to 0-14 triumph.
The fact that this happened a day after the 100th anniversary of Bloody Sunday – with Tipperary wearing commemorative jerseys to honour the occasion – made it all the more special for David Power and his squad.
Remarkably, the same semi-final pairings from 1920 will square off once again over the course of this weekend. Tipperary faced Dublin in that year’s All-Ireland decider, albeit it actually took place in June 1922 – a week before the latter beat Monaghan in the All-Ireland semi-final of 1921!
Having guided his county to an All-Ireland minor football title in 2011, Power looked set for a frustrating introduction to the senior championship with Tipperary. While the 2-11 to 1-11 quarter-final win over Clare was an excellent springboard, Limerick were on course to get the better of them in a provincial semi-final on November 7.
Leading by seven points (2-6 to 0-5), the Treaty men looked set to hold on despite a surge from their opponents. However, a stunning Sweeney free on the left-hand touchline brought the game into extra-time and Tipperary eventually squeezed through by the slenderest of margins (1-15 to 2-11).
Outside of the brilliant attacking duo of Sweeney and Quinlivan, Tipperary also have excellent performers in the form of goalkeeper Evan Comerford, the aforementioned O’Riordan, Liam Casey, Robbie Kiely and Jimmy Feehan. In addition to that minor triumph of 2011 – against a Dessie Farrell-managed Dublin team – a number of players on this current senior set-up also played in the All-Ireland U21 final of 2015.
Ambition is clearly not an issue with this crop of Tipperary footballers and having played with such confidence in the Munster final, they will believe there is a chance their impressive run of form can be extended for another game.
While the injection of new blood such as Oisin Mullin, Eoghan McLaughlin and Tommy Conroy has given a fresh look to Mayo in 2020, there is still an abundance of experience in their ranks.
Goalkeeper David Clarke recently turned 37 and was substitute goalkeeper for his county’s All-Ireland final defeat to Kerry back in 2004. Chris Barrett, Patrick Durcan and Lee Keegan have been regulars in defence for a number of seasons, while Stephen Coen deputised for the latter when he was black-carded in the All-Ireland final replay four years ago.
Even if Conroy and Ryan O’Donoghue are relative newcomers in attack, the likes of Kevin McLoughlin, Aidan O’Shea and the O’Connor brothers – Cillian and Diarmuid – are regular faces at the business end of the championship.
Nevertheless, the impressive performances of Matthew Ruane (who burst onto the scene in last year’s National Football League) and Tommy Conroy in the Connacht final will have offered great encouragement to James Horan – now in his second spell at the helm of the green and red.
Between them, they contributed five points from play as Mayo did enough to overcome their great provincial rivals on a score of 0-14 to 0-13.
The expectation is that Mayo will reach their fifth Sam Maguire Cup showpiece in the space of nine years. If this transpires, and Dublin come through their semi-final showdown with Cavan, it will be the fourth time (not including the 2016 replay) that the two counties have clashed on All-Ireland final day in that period.
This brings its own pressure, but the positive thing from Mayo’s point of view is that they came away from Salthill on November 15 with plenty to work on. While 0-14 is a decent total, there were a number of opportunities in both halves to expand on this tally.
They were also playing a Galway side that were playing their first championship game of 2020, having received a walkover from Sligo in the earlier round due to an outbreak of Covid cases within the Yeats panel. Yet, the combined forces of Shane Walsh and Paul Conroy – who kicked a combined haul of 0-10 – kept Galway in contention and the Tribesmen missed chances of their own in a frantic end to the contest.
However, Mayo were convincing winners against 2019 Connacht champions Roscommon before that and while their All-Ireland semi-final record isn’t perfect, it stands up next to pretty much anyone else in the country.
Discounting draws, Mayo have eight wins and four losses in 12 games at this juncture since 1996. By contrast, Dublin have seven wins and six losses in the same period with five of those victories coming in the past half a decade.
If Tipperary are to come through, they will require massive performances from Quinlivan and Sweeney, while also looking for the rest of their attack to chip in with scores. O’Riordan’s fielding was exceptional in the Munster final and if they can get a midfield platform on Sunday it will make matters very interesting.
Still, Mayo’s ongoing quest to secure a first All-Ireland crown since 1951 is one of the most intriguing stories in Gaelic football and the smart money is on them returning to Jones’ Road on December 19.