In recent decades there have been a number of inter-county teams that have made real eye catching progress. Dublin, Tyrone, Armagh, Kerry and Cork are the obvious selection in this regard and they, more than most, have brought a new dimension to the whole area of team sacrifice and all year round physical preparation. In fairness, Mayo football has also moved up a gear or two and if nothing else we are a team that few will ever take for granted. But I get the impression that we are just about hanging on to the coat tails of the top three or four teams in the country right now. On the evidence of the matches I have witnessed so far this year, I need some convincing from Sundays encounter with Leitrim that we deserve to be talked about in the same breath as Dublin, Cork and, believe it or not, Donegal. I watched the Ulster champions play Derry last Saturday and those of you who saw Derry’s inept performance will agree that they (Derry ) are a team in serious decline. But it was the performance of Donegal that was the main talking point of the encounter. They played a terrific brand of open flowing football that suggests they have stepped up a level from last year. It should be a fascinating Ulster semi-final between themselves and Tyrone in a week’s time. But I am digressing!
Back to Mayo this Sunday. I am conscious of being as respectful as I possibly can to Leitrim, but, in all honestly, they really have no chance of beating Mayo here in McHale Park. Yes, they are brave and spirited and will put up a challenge to Mayo for a period, but the reality is that Mayo are at a different level than Leitrim. This Mayo side have a real professional set up right now. I was in the Mayo dressing room last Sunday evening and noticed a large photograph of the entire squad and back room team on the wall which was taken during their recent training camp in Portugal. I did manage eventually, and with some assistance, to identify all the Mayo footballers in the picture, but I genuinely could not identify half of the back room team. I am not exaggerating when I suggest that there would be an issue packing the entire entourage onto a 52 seater bus if the team had to travel for a match. Now don’t get me wrong here, I have no truck with any of these people, I am just making the point that the likes of the Leitrim’s of this world just do not have the same kind of resources to put into the preparation of their senior team. On this point I read an article recently where Kildare manager, Kieran McGeeney, suggested that, now more than ever, success and silverware have become the preserve of the elite as preparation costs mean the poorer counties cannot compete on a level playing field. Bearing all this in mind it seems that there can only be one winner come Sunday. Allied to that, you also have to recognise that Leitrim’s football playing population is so much smaller than Mayo’s. While a recent spate of injuries and retirements has taken its toll, the spectre of emigration has haunted Leitrim more than most counties, not to mention the fact that several of the players have been forced to different parts of the country in search of work.
The Mayo team was announced earlier this week. I genuinely don’t think it caused too many sleepless nights to the management. There will undoubtedly be bigger tests ahead when team selection will require greater scrutiny. The team manager has made three changes from the side that started the Allianz Football League final v Cork on April 29, with Danny Geraghty, Alan Freeman and Jason Doherty all coming into the team. Geraghty replaces Jason Gibbons in midfield, while Conor Mortimer and Mickey Conroy make way in the forward line for Doherty and Freeman. Cillian O'Connor has been named on the forty, with Andy Moran down to start at full-forward. Midfielder Aidan O'Shea, who has not played since April 8 because of a rectus sheath injury, misses out once more.
There are three championship debutantes, with Westport men Kevin Keane and Lee Keegan both getting their chance in defence, while Geraghty is also a newcomer.
Mayo (SF v Leitrim ): D Clarke, K Keane, G Cafferkey, K Higgins, L Keegan, D Vaughan, C Boyle, B Moran, D Geraghty, K McLoughlin, C O'Connor, A Dillon, A Freeman, A Moran, J Doherty.
There are invariably talking points when a team is announced for a championship match. The main talking point was the dropping of Conor Mortimer from the team. I got a call from RTE radio sport on Wednesday evening looking for a comment. They were wondering if there had been a row in the camp?? To be honest, I wasn’t surprised that he wasn’t picked as he was dropped for a few league matches earlier this year when I genuinely felt his form was good enough to merit selection. There is no doubt that competition for places in the Mayo attack is intense, but Mayo's all-time top scorer Mortimer missing out on a starting place could possibly have something to do with the form of Alan Freeman and Jason Doherty. Mortimer’s commitment to the Mayo cause cannot be questioned as he travels down from Dublin to Castlebar weekly for training and rarely, if ever, misses a training session. I heard he performed particularly well in the final trial A v B match last Sunday when he scored six points (4 from play ) so that would suggest that there is nothing wrong with his form. It is true that management can focus negatively on a player for reasons only known to them. I feel this might be the case here. Incidentally, I was in the gym on Wednesday evening when I conducted my own piece of research into Conor Mortimer’s position in the current squad. The straw pole was split down the middle as to whether he should start on Sunday. I would have selected him.
Midfield is invariably the engine room of any side and Mayo’s pair for Sunday is an interesting one. Barry Moran has been in outstanding form in recent weeks and his selection isn’t a surprise. Obviously, due to Aidan O’ Shea’s enforced absence through injury and brother Seamus just back from injury, the other slot was up for grabs between two or three. I believe Ronan McGarrity’s form has improved immeasurably since his return to the senior panel. He was particularly good for 40 minutes in the final trial match last Sunday. Jason Gibbons has always put in a decent shift when selected and I would have thought he would have got the nod to start. However Danny Geraghty is the chosen one and knowing Danny, he won’t let the side down for effort.
Unfortunately, very few questions will be answered about Mayo when we open our campaign next Sunday. Football people who love to make comparisons regarding this year’s outfit versus the 2011 squad will have to wait for one or two more tests to answer that question.