Starting gun blows on Saturday with commencement of championship

GAA: Casey's Call

Eyes on the prize: Ryan O'Donoghue will be looking to have another impressive championship season with Mayo this year. Photo: Sportsfile

Eyes on the prize: Ryan O'Donoghue will be looking to have another impressive championship season with Mayo this year. Photo: Sportsfile

The league is only over and in the blink of an eye, the championship is upon us.

It's hard to believe that by tea-time on Sunday evening, seven teams will be eliminated from the football championship; no back door, no escape route, no safety net, no replays, no margin for error.

The championship that we, as players, only ever experienced back in the day, is back for a second consecutive season because of the Covid-19 pandemic; knock-out football at its finest.

In normal circumstances (what's normal any more? ) you'd find yourself getting giddy the week of the championship, be you a supporter, a player or even part of the management set-up; anticipation, excitement, the nervy feeling that comes with knock-out championship football.

Unfortunately, for a lot of us Mayo folk, what happened in Ennis two weeks ago has all but evaporated that giddiness and excitement.

I'm always (well try to be ) a glass half-full kind of person, looking for the smallest little reason to stay positive and encouraged for what lies ahead.

I promised myself I wouldn't be the grim reaper of Mayo football, but Cillian O'Connor's horrible Achilles tendon injury has put a damp squib on the start of the championship for me and, I'm sure, for the larger Mayo clan around the globe.

He won't be missed on Saturday against Sligo or against Leitrim in the semi-final, but thereafter, we will realise just how important he is to the Mayo cause.

Before last week's article went to print, I was made aware of the extent of his injury. I saw first hand how badly he limped from behind the goal in Cusack park, his leg locked, an agonising look etched across his face.

As a person who had their Achilles tendon taken off the bone and put back on in 1999 (to solve a different problem ), I have some idea of the severity of an injury in that area.

Mine never recovered properly and ultimately, it was the cause of my early retirement as an inter county footballer, as I lost my pace and was unable to sprint properly thereafter. While I was recovering, my tendon felt like an over-stretched bungee cord with little or zero flexibility.

Cillian O'Connor, to be fair, will be in way better hands than I was back then and the developments in medical treatment and recovery since then have improved one hundred fold.

His surgeon is an Achilles specialist who has learned from the very best, so we know he is in the best of hands. But the grim reality is that it will easily be 2022 before we see the benefits of his medical team's expertise. It will be a tough road back for Mayo's all-time leading scorer.

For me, he is the player that Mayo simply can't do without. I thrive on seeing Mayo players holding/breaking records, winning personal accolades. I was so proud watching Lee Keegan and Andy Moran winning footballers of the year in 2016 and 2017. I'm proud that Cillian O'Connor is the country's all time leading scorer in the championship.

This year, he would have made himself virtually untouchable in that regard. He would have filled his boots against Sligo and Leitrim and probably kicked between seven to ten points in a Connacht final. He's capable of getting up to 2-7 in any game he plays.

His haul of 4-9 against Tipperary in last year's All-Ireland semi final is is a testament to that and will never be matched. The scoring record in a single game previous to that was the 5-3 scored by Johnny Joyce of Dublin in 1960.

Cillian, again, was the country's ace marksman in 2020, scoring a massive 5-40, but yet some of the critics still reckon we don't have a marquee forward – give me a break.

His brother Diarmuid's injury, although not as serious, will still leave him a major doubt for the championship. If his hamstring has torn, he too won't add to his championship appearances either in 2021. The games are coming too thick and fast.

The O'Connor brothers will leave a huge void in our team and diminish our chances of claiming silverware. Their injuries will of course open the door for others who may not have been as prominent this championship season.

The knock-on effect is of course that guys who wouldn't have played at all may probably get game time. Paul Towey's name seems to all of a sudden have been catapulted into the limelight as successor to Cillian, especially from a free-taking point of view. On his day, Towey can be lethal. If given his chance, I hope he takes it with both hands.

Sligo have had a dreadful few months, losing all but one of the four games played in this year's league. In their division four shield final (a final for the bottom teams of division four ) they shipped a hiding from Wexford on a scoreline of 2-15 to 0-09.

This was a Wexford team that had lost both their division four games against Carlow and Waterford. It gives you some indication of the calibre of Saturday's opponents.

James Horan can afford to experiment on Saturday if he so wishes. Players however want a jersey for the start of the championship, no matter who the opposition.

Mayo will win this one by double digits. The 1/100 odds in the bookmakers tell us all we need to know. A lot of the new guys still have to prove themselves; complacency will not be an issue.

 

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