The long wait is over

GAA: Casey's Call

Progressing again: Mayo supporters will be hoping that Tommy Conroy can keep up the progress he showed last year. Photo: Sportsfile

Progressing again: Mayo supporters will be hoping that Tommy Conroy can keep up the progress he showed last year. Photo: Sportsfile

After 147 long days, Gaelic football is finally back. It's difficult to get your head around the fact that the last time we watched our Mayo team was in the All-Ireland final the week before Christmas - a lot has happened since, both on and off the field.

The news that captivated the whole country in January from a GAA perspective was the mass exodus of six of our finest sons, in what looked like a co-ordinated effort, but, I'm assured, was not.Six men who bled green and red and did everything that they possibly could for their county.

This is my first time penning a few words here since the All-Ireland and I can't but salute the valiant efforts put in by Donal Vaughan, David Clarke, Tom Parsons Seamie o Shea, Chris Barrett and Keith Higgins. Their absence from the Mayo dressing room will certainly leave a huge void, in terms of ability, experience and camaraderie; leaders all in their own different ways. All six couldn't possibly have given any more to the cause and the hope; the unknown hope is that some of our new fledglings will step up and be those players that drive on our quest for the Holy Grail.

Mayo find themselves in the unusual starting position of playing Division Two football this year for the first time in 24 years. What makes it even more weird, because of the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, is that we are in Division Two North, pitted against Down, Westmeath and Meath.

On paper, reaching a Division Two semi final and final is very achievable; two home games against Down and Meath in rounds one and three and away day against Westmeath sandwiched in between. We all know at this stage that nothing is straightforward with Mayo.

We know we can compete against the best but sometimes we also struggle against the average. The unwelcome news about Aidan O'Shea’s injury on Mayo's first collective training back on the field, certainly put a dampener on any initial excitement about the return of inter county football. I'm told it is not as serious as was initially thought.

James Horan and his management team have a few big questions to ask and answers to find in just a few short weeks. Does he go full-blooded trying to unearth a few players capable of making a difference for the bigger prize, at the risk of not winning games and ultimately achieving promotion? Or does he go with the tried and tested early to stamp authority on the Division?

With the greatest respect to Sligo and Leitrim, Mayo find themselves on the kind side of the championship draw and hopefully, if promotion back to Division One gets secured, the planning can start for a Connacht final showdown against either Galway or Roscommon at the end of July.

The beauty of Saturday's opener against Down is, we actually haven't a clue what to expect, or what personnel we may even see in a green and red jersey. We have nothing to go on. Mayo has to have had the highest number of championship débutantes in inter county football in 2020, seven by my counting, and some of them, Oisin Mullin, Eoghan Mcloughlin, Ryan O'Donoghue and Tommy Conroy in particular, left their mark and announced themselves on the big stage.

It's extremely important none of the above suffer from second year syndrome, where the initial enthusiasm of being involved at the highest level dwindles and performances suffer as a result in year two. It happens to loads of players unfortunately. Playing against Division Two opposition can only be good from that perspective.

Having covered the All-Ireland U20 final last December between Dublin and Galway and watching the Tribesmen impressively win the title, it did leave me wondering what if - considering Mayo had Galway at the pin of their collars in the Connacht championship, eventually losing on penalties.

The reason I mention that game is that a number of those u20 Mayo players ended up getting championship game time in the 2020 senior championship, lads that would probably not have matured enough if the regular season went ahead when it was supposed to.

Paul Towey was the star turn that day for the Mayo u20's, scoring 10 points in the most atrocious conditions. Paul however, was not one of those seven to make his championship bow in 2020, so hopefully he will be a key component for Mayo in 2021. I do know he has worked extremely hard in the off season to get himself ready to claim a jersey.

I have to admit, I was a little shocked at the amount of counties that broke strict covid regulations, collectively training when they were not supposed to be.

Dublin in particular were the ones, for obvious reasons, who commanded most criticism for their breach. When the news broke about early morning collective Dublin training, I put myself into another inter county manager's shoes and wondered how I'd react. I'd be furious; the best team ever to grace the game, six times in a row All-Ireland winners, trying to sneak a march on everyone.

I was baffled no other managers came on strong and publicly criticised the Dubs, demanding a more severe punishment for their breach. Then an old bible saying sprung to mind: “Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone”.

Let the games begin.

 

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