When Noel Connelly used to come face to face with Kevin Walsh in the white-heat of championship action in their playing days, Tuam Stadium was the battle ground. Next Sunday they'll renew their rivalry in Salthill. But Mayo's old torture chamber of Tuam Stadium is where Connelly has his fondest memory of getting one over on Galway. "I suppose the one that's more special for me is the Tuam one in 1997, when the hoodoo was there for so many years and there was so much talk of it. Back then going to Tuam and winning it was like nearly winning the championship outright. To get that winning feeling in Tuam after all the talk and stuff, that was special," Connelly said this week, when asked about his own playing memories against the Tribesmen.
With the countdown now well and truly on for the big game in Connacht, Mayo are ready and fighting fit for the challenge ahead, with only Evan Regan definitely out of contention and a few minor niggles to shake off. "We're getting back to where we want to be, we're almost at 100 per cent. A couple of small niggling injuries, Michael Conroy is coming back from an injury, Donal Vaughan has a slight calf injury, Cillian is getting back from injury — he played 35 minutes last weekend and 15 minutes with his club."
The good news for Mayo supporters is the return to action of Cillian O'Connor which will be a big boost. The Ballintubber clubman could play a major role in the game, having not lined out for the county in a competitive game since their league match in Derry back in the spring. O'Connor has taken massive steps on the road to recovery in recent times Connelly explained. "Cillian has done well, he's altered his treatment. He went to a consultant in London and changed his medication and rehab and has responded really well. At his stage he's looking really good to play 40 or 45 minutes of the game, and hopefully over the next ten days if he keeps improrving as he is, he'll take part in the full 70 minutes if possible. It's looking good."
The starting line-up for the game is already well in progress, the former Mayo captain said, with only a handful of places still to be nailed down, which should be sorted out this weekend. "There's good competition there, I suppose we'd have the best part of our team nailed down, we have maybe three or four places there that there are question marks over, and this weekend we will nail those down. But that's what you need, you need new guys coming in, young fellas that will add emphasis to the team and bring it forward, and we've done that and you can see it in the training sessions, that they've lifted the level of the intesity and professionalism in the group."
The Mayo panel was cut down last week with both Kenneth O'Malley and Michael Forde being let go. The decision to let the Ballinrobe goalkeeper go from the squad was the toughest choice the Mayo management team have had to make so far, Connelly explained. "We've had three fine goalkeepers on our squad since the league started, anyone of them would get on any other team squad in the country. We were blessed to have those, but going forward with the numbers that we were carrying on the panel and for training sessions there was always one being left out, or getting 20 minutes or so. The decision had to be made, it was a tough one, the toughest one we've had to make since we took charge, but it have to be made. It was disappointing for us to have to tell him, and more disappointing for him, obviously, to have to take it. He's a proud Ballinrobe and Mayo man and he really, really wanted to represent his county, but look, these are the decisions we have to make, it was a tough call."
Taking over a team that has won four Connacht titles in a row and reached two All Ireland finals is a pressure situation, but that was not something that he or his joint manager Pat Holmes didn't know they were taking on when they took the job, said Connelly. "Obviously, they did really well over the last four years, but at the same time, we still haven't won a championship, and every year the best team get the trophy and we haven't been the best team. Obviously it brings its own pressure. These lads have been together for four or five years, they are very ambitious and very experience and very hungry for more success and I don't see it being an issue."
It's been a long break for Mayo without a competitive game since they ended their league run against Donegal. Getting quality challenge games has been tricky, but last weekend they took on Cork, but one or two more would have been nice to have got in, the Hollymount-Carramore man said. "It's quite difficult, in each individual county you've club championships going on; you've them trying to get a round or two in before their championship and it doesn't suit them. We would have liked to have got one or two more, but they just weren't there for one reason or another, but getting the likes of Cork as a challenge for us was huge in the build-up for the Galway game."