The shadow boxing and experimenting has come to a close, with the end of the FBD League last Sunday for Mayo. This weekend Mayo will make the trip to Clones in the reverse fixture of last year's National Football League opener which was won by the Farney county men in MacHale Park. The top division in the National Football League is a high intensity environment — Mayo want to hit the ground running and they will be targeting a win in this game.
It would be very unusual to be drawing from a full deck at this time of the year, and it is no different for Mayo with Seamus O'Shea, Donal Vaughan, Lee Keegan, Chris Barrett, Keith Higgins, and Tom Parsons all starters from last year's All Ireland final defeat to Dublin, out of action for a number of weeks at least and some longer. Also last year's captain Cillian O'Connor is a doubt for the encounter — having not played any part in the FBD League, missing out on last weekend's victory over Sligo with flu — according to team manager Stephen Rochford. Two others who missed last Sunday's game due to different ailments were Danny Kirby and David Drake. Tallying all those up Mayo will definitely be without six of their starting team from last year's All Ireland final and potentially seven if O'Connor does not make it. Both Drake and Kirby came off the bench for Mayo in that game, leaving Mayo potentially without 10 of the 21 players who saw action on the field in the final game of the 2017 season.
Looking back at the team who started last year's league opener against Malachy O'Rourke's side, seven of the team who started that day and two who came off the bench were starters for Mayo last weekend against Sligo in Ballina. Of those seven, David Clarke, Paddy Durcan, Colm Boyle, Kevin McLoughlin, Jason Doherty, and Andy Moran all started in last year's All Ireland final, while both Diarmuid O'Connor and Stephen Coen came off the bench in the final — with Ballina's Evan Regan not getting game time in the final.
With so many familiar faces unavailable it offers a big chance for a number of players to stake a claim for a spot. With 46 players getting some sort of game time in the four games in the FBD League this month there are plenty there looking to put their hand up. Among them are a number of players who have been in and around the squad over the past number of years, such as Jason Gibbons. The Ballintubber man's excellent club form last year saw him called back into action by Rochford this year, with Seamus O'Shea and Tom Parsons out of action for the near future it offers him a big chance to put up his hand to nail down a spot in the middle of the park for the coming season. Shane Nally has looked like a guy who could get more game time than he does, lining out at midfield for his club he could get a chance there in the league, having previously been favoured as a wing back or a wing forward when given a chance by Mayo - breaking into that half-back line has proven very, very, tough but with Keegan, Vaughan, and Barrett all out of action at the minute it could be a big chance for him. Evan Regan got his first start of the year in last weekend's game against Sligo, the Ballina man looks to have all the parts you need at this level, but it has rarely come together for him in the green and red of Mayo. But if he gets a run of games and his confidence is up he could lay down a marker during the league.
There is a good batch of players from the victorious minor team in 2013 and the u21 team from 2016 who are looking to really nail down their places in this team, the only one to have a regular place in the starting 15 is Diarmuid O'Connor. Others like Stephen Coen, Conor Loftus, Brian Reape, Michael Hall, Eoin O'Donoghue, Matthew Ruane, Shaoize Akram, and Michael Plunkett will be looking to get some game time to impress in this year's league.
But as mentioned earlier there is no real time for experimentation in the top division with Mayo facing into games against Monaghan, Kerry, Galway, Dublin, Tyrone, Kildare, and Donegal all in a 56 day period. With four of those games on the road, and hosting big guns Kerry and Dublin among their trio of home games, picking up a win on Sunday will be a serious target to get the season off and running on the good foot, before Mayo face into a spin of three games facing Kerry, Galway, and Dublin three rounds on the trot.