London v Mayo, Elverys MacHale Park, 2pm (Live in the Clubhouse) followed by Monaghan v Donegal from Clones at 4pm
Of all the unlikely story lines the 2013 Hurling and Football Championships have thrown up, none has captured the public’s imagination quite like London’s march to the final of the Connacht Football Championship.
After bulldozing through the walls of history, beating Sligo in the quarter-final to register their first championship win in 36 years and then Leitrim after a replay to reach their first-ever provincial decider, Paul Coggins’ unlikely lads face their biggest test yet.
It’s the ultimate David v Goliath tale - the first-time finalists against one of the superpowers of the modern era, a Mayo side looking to claim a Connacht three-in-a-row for the first time since they managed that feat with their storied side of the early 1950s.
While even the most convincing clairvoyant wouldn’t dare claim to have foretold London’s arrival on the big stage, they have been knocking on the door for three years now and have been one of the main beneficiaries of the recession in Ireland.
The prologue to this unlikely tale was in fact written back in 2011, when, in Coggins’ first game in charge, London forced Mayo to extra-time in a Connacht quarter-final before eventually losing by three points.
That game is often referenced as a key moment in James Horan’s rise to the top, and should the Westerners’ ever reach the Promised Land under the Ballintubber man, it will no doubt be spoken of in the same vein as former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson’s famous FA Cup reprieve against Nottingham Forest in 1990.
While Horan has some way to go before being mentioned in the same revered tones as the recently-retired Scot, under his guidance, Mayo have taken a stranglehold of the Connacht Championship. Despite struggling with injuries to some key players this summer, they have quite simply blown away their opponents en route to Sunday’s final.
They enjoyed their biggest win over Galway since the early 1900s in the quarter-final and then demolished Roscommon in the semi-final. They had 10 and 11 different scorers respectively in those games, and the destruction of Roscommon, two years after they had struggled to beat them in the Connacht final, was all the more impressive given the way they coped with the loss of Cillian O’Connor in the build-up to the game.
O’Connor orchestrated and amply demonstrated Mayo’s high pressing game that day in Salthill and had a hand in all four goals, two of which came as a result of turnovers forced by Mayo forwards. After missing the Roscommon game with a shoulder problem, he returns to the bench on Sunday, with Alan Freeman continuing at full-forward after a stand-out performance on the edge of the square the last day.
With Andy Moran (he came on as a late sub on each occasion) and Michael Conroy also out of both of those games, the strength of Horan’s squad – and most especially his attacking options - has been tested to the limits and they have passed with flying colours. Moran returns to the full-forward line on Sunday, while Keith Higgins has moved out from corner back to No. 6 for the injured Donal Vaughan. Goalkeeper Rob Hennelly has also been dramatically recalled to the squad after a two-year absence due to injuries to regular goalkeeper David Clarke and his understudy Kenneth O’Malley.
London manager Coggins has no doubt watched videos of the Galway game back in mid-May with some trepidation. The warning signs are there: if London move the ball out of defence as ponderously as Galway did that day, their big day out could soon turn into a nightmare.
London’s replay win over Leitrim will go down as the greatest day in their history, and while nothing should be taken away from that remarkable achievement, it was put into perspective a little when Leitrim subsequently shipped eight goals in the Round 2 Qualifier defeat to Armagh.
London’s squad is made up of players from 19 different counties, including three Mayo men, while there are also three London-born players, Seán Kelly, Philip Butler and Greg Crowley. Crucially, 11 of the players that started against Sligo had played in the 2012 defeat to Leitrim, a level of continuity Coggins’ predecessors could only have dreamed of.
Against Sligo, and in the replay against Leitrim, London built up big leads and then hung on for dear life in the closing stages. That’s not a reflection of their players’ fitness because by all accounts they are the best prepared side ever to cross the Irish Sea; instead, it is probably a wholly natural response from players dealing with a barrage of new experiences and emotions. Playing in front of a crowd expected to be in excess of 15,000 will once again test their resolve.
Coggins has named an unchanged side from the one that made history against Leitrim, with midfielder Mark Gottsche (knee) once again their only player to miss out.
For Mayo, this game will be treated as another routine day at the office. Horan will strip the occasion of its romance and remind his players of the ruthlessness they have shown in getting to this point without a scratch.
But this is London’s day of days, the Everest they never dreamed of scaling. Should they reach any higher, into the great unconquered mountains of their imaginations, it will quite simply be the greatest upset in the history of the GAA.
Mayo: R Hennelly; T Cunniffe, G Cafferkey, C Barrett; L Keegan, K Higgins, C Boyle; A O’Shea, S O’Shea; K Mcloughlin, A Dillon, R Feeney; A Moran, A Freeman, D Coen.
London: D Traynor; P Butler, S Curran, D McGreevy; S Hannon, S Mulligan, A Gaughan; C Doyle, P Geraghty; G Crowley, D Dunleavy, C McCallion; E O' Neill, L Mulvey, C Magee