Keegan primed to track Murphy
By John Harrington
Alan Dillon believes Mayo defender Lee Keegan will be given a man-marking role on Donegal captain Michael Murphy in Saturday’s crunch All-Ireland SFC quarter-final clash.
Keegan has a well proven reputation as the best man-marker in the game, and is also a talented enough footballer to be comfortable tracking Murphy wherever he moves on the pitch, from midfield to full-forward.
Donegal captain Murphy is arguably playing the best football of his career this year, and former Mayo star Alan Dillon believes it’s vital his influence is curbed if the Connacht team are to pull off the victory they need to qualify for the All-Ireland SFC semi-finals.
“Murphy plays a roving role and you just got to track him,” said Dillon when speaking ahead of Wednesday's AIB GAA Roadshow in the Breaffy House Resort.
“He’s their go-to man, he was putting quality ball into the forwards against Kerry and the forwards knew that it was going to come early and fast when Murphy was on it.
“I’m not sure who James is thinking but the likes of Lee Keegan comes to mind, and the likes of Ryan McHugh is so dynamic on breaking ball… he’s like their point guard when Donegal are coming out of defence, he’s so cool and composed and very clever on the ball, waits for the openings.
“He touches the ball probably more than any Donegal player and he needs to be watched for the 70 minutes. Mayo probably need to look at themselves and see where they can utilise their strengths.
“It will be a huge battle in around the middle eight and whoever comes out with the most primary possessions will have more opportunities. It’s a mouth-watering challenge for both sets of players and managements.”
Mayo’s hopes of coming out on top in that ‘middle eight’ area of the park have been boosted by the return to fitness of Paddy Durcan and Keith Higgins who are both expected to play against Donegal.
Matthew Ruane is also close to a return from a collar-bone injury, while team captain Diarmuid O’Connor is also making good progress from the fractured wrist he suffered in training five weeks ago.
Because of the nature of the injury he’s been able to continue training hard behind the scenes, and if his wrist is feeling strong Mayo might be tempted to give him some game-time on Saturday because it’s such a make or break game.
If he is fit for selection, Dillon believes his Ballintubber club-mate can make the vital difference in a match of fine margins.
“He’s exceptional,” said Dillon. “He gives Mayo that go-forward, he has huge ability to cover that middle third and he has been a miss.
“You take the likes of Matty Ruane who was one of Mayo’s best performers in the national league, Diarmuid O'Connor and Paddy Durcan were also missing last weekend… not many teams would be able to cope with those three missing, bar maybe Dublin at this stage.
“Diarmuid is making progress but I’m not sure how close he is to the Donegal game. It will be interesting and there’s not much coming out of the camp. We all expect Paddy Durcan and Keith Higgins to be back on the pitch so that will be a positive.
“That strengthens James Horan’s hand and it’s something we probably didn’t have in previous years: that strength in depth.
“It will be very interesting to see what starting line-up he goes with. There will be big calls in terms of match-ups with some of the Donegal key players and that’s what makes it really intriguing.
“On the other hand you have Stephen Rochford, and that depth of familiarity and knowledge of the Mayo squad and how players like to conduct themselves in these games — it will be intriguing.”
Donegal have shown the better form so far in the All-Ireland Quarter-Final series, but you would never write off a team with the character of Mayo in a winners take all situation like this, especially as they have the advantage of playing at home in what will be a raucous MacHale Park.
How does Dillon see the match going?
“I think it will be really tight, there won't be much space given and Donegal will make it compact and counterattack aggressively," he said.
“Mayo need to be patient and dictate the pace of the game. They didn’t manage the game in Killarney very effectively and Kerry got that momentum and scores on the board early in the first half — it was over at half time really at 15-6.
“Mayo’s game management will need to be very strong, the kickout retention will be a huge aspect. They will have to nullify Ryan McHugh, Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty and if they can curb their influence, it will go a long way towards Mayo getting the result they need.