Mayo got their 2021 championship off to a flying start after a facile 3-23 to 0-12 victory over a very disappointing, out of sorts and dispirited Sligo outfit in the Connacht quarter final.
The gulf in class was very evident from a very early stage. It was Sligo's turn this time to make a mockery of the team selection, making five changes from the team selected in the match day program. I wonder what the logic was behind that? Whatever it was, it didn't work.
Mayo were forced to make one change from their team after Bryan Walsh picked up an injury at training on Thursday night, after the team and substitutes had already been submitted. As a result, Mayo were not able to replace Walsh with another panel member and therefore only had 25 players togged out.
This game will be remembered for a few poignant reasons. The débuts of Enda Hession, Paul Towey and in particular Darren McHale, who helped himself to a very impressive 1-5 in his first championship outing.
For me, McHale starting was a bit of a curve ball by James Horan, seeing as he didn't feature very prominently in the league, only starting in the meaningless game against Meath and as a substitute against Clare in the league semi-final in Ennis. His inclusion was certainly merited but he genuinely couldn't have received a more pampered debut against a frail defensive set-up. I'm delighted for him but judgement is still very much reserved until the outcome of proceedings in a possible Connacht final against Galway or Roscommon. His confidence will have sky-rocketed but his card will be marked now, so I expect to see him receive a bit of special attention from the Leitrim defence in the semi final.
It was a toss-up between himself and Aidan O'Shea for the man-of-the-match accolade. I felt at the time McHale should have got it, but after watching the game again, O'Shea had a monstrous afternoon. On top of scoring 2-2 from play, his ball-winning, assisting and tackling was top drawer.
He really set the standards in the absence of Cillian O'Connor and certainly led from the front. Looking back through O Shea's scoring prowess over the last few years, he hasn't exactly set the world on fire from that perspective, only scoring four points in last year's championship and a single point against Down in the 2019 championship. He has already bettered that total after one game in 2021. Long may that continue.
It's very hard to pick any faults from last Saturday's mauling but Sligo's roaming full forward Niall Murphy finished the game with six points, five from play. That should not happen in a game that Mayo totally dominated. At times, no one seemed to be marking him as he drifted around the pitch. There lies the problem with zonal defending, At times, it means no one has direct responsibility for certain players. That definitely needs addressing.
Historic milestones worth celebrating
Twenty five or thirty years ago, players were often lucky if they got more than one championship game in a year because of the knock-out formula. If you were unlucky enough to get a nasty draw in the first round, your championship could be over after one game. It happened to us in 1998.
After going all the way to All-Ireland finals in 96' and 97', we lost a thriller of a game to Galway in the first round of the Connacht championship on May 24, 1998; season over after one championship match; no county football through June, July, August or September for Mayo.
The reason I'm mentioning this is the astonishing milestones that were reached in Markievicz Park last Saturday evening: Kevin Mcloughlin, making his 150th competitive appearance in a Mayo jersey (league and championship ); Lee Keegan playing in his 60th championship game for his county and captain Aidan O Shea playing in his 70th championship encounter for the green and red.
These are astonishing numbers by any standards, unheard of really. Yes, the back door, second chance saloon has helped greatly to create those numbers of appearances, but they are very impressive and testament to the dedication and longevity of those players. Not too long ago, you could have a stellar 10-year career for Mayo and not even hit 20 championship appearances during that time.
Not just silly playing rules that need to be looked at
As I'm sure you're aware, Enda Hession's début for Mayo came at a price for Maurice Sheridan and the Mayo u20's, rendering him now ineligible for that grade. It's a daft ruling really to deprive a player of lining out for his county in such an important competition.
As much as Hession will be missed at that level, you can't deprive a lad when it comes to representing your county senior team in the championship. Players and/or managers should not be put in that predicament when selecting the team. Look at the hassle it caused in Meath with Bernard Flynn stepping aside from the u20 hot seat, because all his good players were required by the senior management. That ruling needs to be abolished immediately to stop any more fallouts between managers and players. It's a classic case of punishing the good players.
On a positive note, I hear Diarmuid O'Connor's hamstring is not as bad as originally thought and he could be in line for a not-too-far-off return.
I'll be in Hyde Park on Sunday for the Roscommon and Galway semi final, running my eye over Mayo's potential Connacht final opponents. It's a tough game to call, whoever comes out of it will be battle-hardened for the final.