It’s going to be something very different for Mayo on Saturday for a number of reasons.
It will be the first time in over two decades that they will be starting out a National League campaign outside of the rarified atmosphere of Division One and it will be the first time in a long, long time, that the likes of David Clarke, Seamus O’Shea, Keith Higgins, Chris Barrett, Tom Parsons and Donal Vaughan won’t be in contention for a place in the side after they all retired from the inter-county scene earlier this year.
While they will be missed, it also offers the opportunity for the newest crop of up-and-coming talent to put their best foot forward, alongside those who have been in the set-up for the past number of years and who haven’t nailed down a spot in the starting 15 to lay down serious markers of intent.
The strength of talent in Mayo’s younger ranks was demonstrated with Eoghan McLaughlin, Oisin Mullin and Tommy Conroy, all being nominated for Young Footballer of the Year last year, with the Kilmaine man picking up the award.
Speaking to the local media back in March, Mayo manager James Horan picked out some of the young players that Mayo were looking at for this year, saying then: “We’re looking at Enda Hession, he’s going very very well. Jack Carney as well is still u20, he’s very strong, he’s still developing. Aidan Orme from Knockmore was very, very strong for his club, Colm Moran from Westport came back last season and did very well.
“Luke Doherty from Ballina had a very good club season in the role that he played, he’s a very athletic player, Conor Igoe is a very very strong player with his club for years, so we’re looking at him. And many, many others; Johnny Maughan from Castlebar is back and fit.”
When they are added to the mix with the three nominated for Young Player of the Year last year, as well as others he mentioned in that interview, like Ryan O’Donoghue, Mark Moran, Fionn McDonagh, Eoin O’Donoghue, Jack Coyne, Padraig O’Hora and David McBrien - there are plenty of options for Mayo supporters to get excited about - along with the well established names that played their part last year.
Mayo will also be hoping to bolster their team with the return of key men, Brendan Harrison and Jason Doherty, from injury, after both of them missed last year's championship run.
It all gets under way on Saturday afternoon behind closed doors in MacHale Park, when Down come calling.
This year's league has been mixed up with the four divisions split in two on geographic lines with two groups of four in each division.
One thing we do know, is that no matter how they get on, Mayo will not be playing in a league final this year. If Mayo get out of their group, they will face off against a team from the Division Two South section in the semi-final.
But they will be unable to play the final of the competition, as it is scheduled for the week before Mayo open their Connacht Championship camping away to Sligo and the GAA have said that teams will have at least a two-week break before their championship opener.
So if Mayo make that semi-final game and win it, there will be no final, but they will be promoted back to Division One for next year, alongside the side that comes through from the other semi-final.
That leaves just a maximum of four league games for Mayo to get tuned up before they enter the straight knock-out bear pit of championship football in June.
It doesn’t leave that much time or games for experimentation for Horan as he looks to mould his side into the shape he wants for championship action. It does mean that whoever gets a chance to show their credentials, they will have to hit the ground running if they are going to nail down a spot in the side for championship time.
Mayo’s last meeting with Down came in the championship in 2019 in Newry in the championship qualifiers, a game that Mayo were given plenty of by the Mourne county men, before pulling away. Their last meeting in the league came in 2016, when Mayo came out on top also.
Mayo will want to get back out of Division Two as soon as possible and getting off to a winning start against Paddy Tally’s men will be key to that.
With just a few weeks of training behind them, it might be slow going at the start, but with plenty of players looking to impress for Mayo if given the chance.