League title up for grabs on Sunday

GAA: National Football League

Out in front: Mayo's Chris Barrett with Kerry's Paul Murphy at the National League Finals launch in Croke Park earlier this week. Photo: Sportsfile.

Out in front: Mayo's Chris Barrett with Kerry's Paul Murphy at the National League Finals launch in Croke Park earlier this week. Photo: Sportsfile.

Heading to Croke Park to face Kerry used to be the thing that would fill Mayo supporters with a sense of dread in their stomachs - but since James Horan's first stint in charge of the Mayo team, things have swung in Mayo's favour.

The end of his first year in charge back in 2011 - did see Mayo wrap up their interest that year with loss to Kerry at the All Ireland semi-final stage. But since then, Mayo have not been defeated by Kerry in GAA HQ (the 2014 All Ireland semi-final replay defeat of course happening in Limerick ) - in 2012 Mayo won a league semi-final against the Kingdom after extra time in the Jones Road venue, that was followed by the drawn semi-final in 2014 and another draw in the 2017 All Ireland semi-final, followed by a victory in the replay of that game.

If Mayo manage to make it five unbeaten games from five against Kerry on Sunday - with the game having to finish on the day, with two ten minute periods of extra-time, followed by another two five minute periods of extra time and finally penalty shoot-out to decide the outcome if the teams are still level - they will pick up their first piece of senior inter-county silverware since their 2011 National League victory against Galway. There is one person in the Mayo squad still plying their trade with the Mayo seniors since then - with David Clarke an unused sub goalkeeper in that victory.

This will be Mayo's first appearance in the league decider since 2012 - when they lost to Cork 2-10 to 0-11 and Mayo still have nine players who lined out that day in contention to start come Sunday - with David Clarke, Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, Kevin McLoughlin, Andy Moran and Jason Doherty all getting serious game time during the league already this season, while Jason Gibbons, who also started that final seven years ago, getting his first game time off the bench last weekend. Of the other players who started that final and are still involved today, Cillian O'Connor would be a definite starter, all things considered, if fit, while Ger Cafferkey was playing some great football for Mayo, including a man-of-the-match award for his showing against Cavan in round three, until injury against Dublin in the following round has seen him curtailed to the sidelines to recover.

Having such experienced hands on board is something that Mayo will need on Sunday and later on in the championship, but James Horan has not been afraid to mix things up this year and has placed a lot of trust in the next generation of leaders in the green and red, with Fergal Boland (two starts and two sub appearances ), Brian Reape (three starts and three sub appearances ), Conor Diskin (two starts and on sub appearance ), Fionn McDonagh (five starts and one sub appearance ), James McCormack (one start and three sub appearance ), Michael Plunkett (three starts ), Ciaran Tracey (two starts and two sub appearances ), Matthew Ruane (five starts and one sub appearance ), all playing major roles in Mayo's progressing to date in the league.

His faith in these players was borne out last Sunday when he opted to leave Andy Moran, Lee Keegan, Keith Higgins and until an injury to Plunkett - Colm Boyle out of his match day 26 against Monaghan, in a game Mayo needed to win to ensure they had at least a chance of reaching this Sunday's League showdown.

Mayo bounced back from their mid-league blip - where they were beaten badly by Dublin - and let Galway get up off the canvas when it looked like they had victory in their hands in Castlebar, in rounds four and five, to see off this Sunday's opponents in horrific conditions in Tralee two weeks ago; and then Monaghan last weekend, to add those four points to the six they had already collected, following wins over Roscommon, Tyrone and Cavan in rounds one to three.

Their opponents on Sunday topped the division with six wins from seven, their only black mark, that loss to Mayo on the day before St Patrick's Day. They wrapped up their regulation league run with a comprehensive 2-17 to 0-13 win over Roscommon last Sunday in Hyde Park - while the victory was good for their confidence ahead of the league final, it also featured the return of David Clifford to action in green and gold for the first time this year, with the Fossa man chipping in with five points on his return; while the man who has been stealing the headlines for Peter Keane's side in his absence, Sean O'Shea, kept up his good run of form, kicking 1-5 over the 70 minutes.

Many would argue that Kerry are the team who could potentially stop Dublin's drive for five All Ireland titles this summer, with Keane taking over a squad of quality, talented, players that have won the last five minor All Ireland titles. Incidentally Mayo are the last county to claim a minor title since Kerry started to dominate the grade. But for Mayo, this Sunday offers them a chance to lay down a serious marker of intent for the year ahead - while a league medal is not the same as an All Ireland one - if the experienced members of this group don't ever manage to climb that particular hill, a league title is probably the least they deserve for their efforts over the years for Mayo.

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