The Kingdom is there to be taken by Mayo

GAA: National Football League Final

Catch you Sunday: Oisin Mullin and David Clifford could renew rivalries on Sunday afternoon in Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile.

Catch you Sunday: Oisin Mullin and David Clifford could renew rivalries on Sunday afternoon in Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile.

Mayo go to Croke Park on Sunday, looking to claim a 13th National Football League title when they take on Kerry in the competition decider.

The Kingdom, like in championship football, are the standard-bearers in this competition with 22 wins throughout the history of the competition. The last time these sides met at this stage of the competition was just three years ago, when Mayo enjoyed a rousing 3-11 to 2-10 win over the Munster men.

But things have changed quite a bit since then in both camps, with Mayo moving through their transition phase of experienced players moving on, and new faces replacing them, with relative ease; while in Kerry, Jack O'Connor is back in charge for a third time and looks to be building a side ready to get over the line in championship action for the first time since 2014 - a relative famine for those in the home of the Puck Fair.

Of course the sides have met already this year in the rain and wind on an early March Saturday night in Tralee, where Kerry emerged victorious by the narrowest of margins to bring to an end Mayo's, until then, unbeaten run in the league.

Mayo lost the following week again to Tyrone on the road, but they dusted themselves down to see off Kildare in impressive style last weekend in their last on-the-road home game before they get back to the newly laid green grass on Hastings Insurance MacHale Park against Galway later this month, in their first home game proper of the season.

But, before that, all attention is on matters in Croke Park on Sunday afternoon, it's a chance for Mayo to test themselves against a side the neutrals have singled out as the best in the country at the minute, with Mayo not too far behind them. National silverware is nothing to be sniffed at also, there are only three competitions a team can win in a year and this is one that, while not having the lustre of Sam Maguire - still represents a significant achievement.

James Horan has been liberal in his allocation of game-time this year in the league, with all the major players and hopefuls getting plenty of time to show that they have what it takes to cut it at this level of competition. It will be interesting to see whether whatever team is named beforehand, will be the one that takes to the field.

With Galway coming up so soon after this game in the championship, avoiding any more injuries is something else that will be on Horan and his backroom team's mind.

Last Sunday, both Brendan Harrison and Diarmuid O'Connor had to leave the action early doors and Mayo will be hopeful that they can make it back. Rob Hennelly was also not available for the second week in a row, but it gave Rory Byrne another 70 minutes under his belt and he has shown that he is more than an able deputy in the games he's gotten so far this season. We have yet to see Cillian O'Connor in action in a green and red jersey this year, the Ballintubber marksman was with the rest of the Mayo squad in Carrick-on-Shannon last Sunday, and while this Sunday may be too soon for him to make his first appearance of the season, hopefully, he'll be ready for Galway in some shape or form. Others like Paddy Durcan, Fionn McDonagh and Bryan Walsh were also absent from the Mayo squad last weekend.

Kerry come into this one off the back of a defeat at home to Tyrone last weekend; having already secured their spot in the final the previous week, they could take the foot off the gas a bit, but they will still be stung by that loss to the side that knocked them out of the All Ireland semi-final last year.

Jack O'Connor has been fairly faithful to a settled looking side all year so far, with the goalkeeper position the one thing he looks to yet have fully decided upon. Their full-back line of Dylan Casey, Jason Foley and Tom O'Sullivan have been solid this year, while in front of them, Tadhg Morley lynchpinning the half-back line with Graham O'Sullivan and Brian O'Beaglaioch, looks to be a settled unit.

Diarmuid O'Connor seems to be their one nailed-on midfielder, with the likes of Jack Barry and Joe O'Connor being other options there. Up front is where Kerry hold a number of ace cards; David Clifford and how to stop him - is the one topic that every side that faces Kerry spends a considerable amount of time talking about.

Mayo put Oisin Mullin in front of him for most of the game in Tralee, with Lee Keegan picking him up in the latter stages - do they stick with that or try something else and unleash Mullin and his potential to do damage in the other end of the field? But even if you stop the Fossa man, they have Tony Brosnan in good form along with Adrian Spillanae, Darragh Moynihan, Paudie Clifford, Paul Geaney and Michael Burns to call on - while, come later, we'll see Sean O'Shea back in action. Lots for Mayo to have planned for this week.

But on the other side of the coin, Mayo are coming into the game in good stead. Ryan O'Donoghue has been brilliant for Mayo so far this year, leading the line, winning balls, getting scores and becoming a nightmare for any defender. Matthew Ruane and Jordan Flynn have formed a solid midfield partnership and look to be locked in for championship there. Lee Keegan has been doing what he's been doing for the last decade at the back and going forward. Aidan O'Shea has been tried in different roles, it will be intriguing to see where he lines out on Sunday if he gets the start. Padriag O'Hora and Michael Plunkett have got lots of game time, as has the likes of Jack Carney, Aiden Orme and having Jason Doherty back in full harness after his slight set-back following his return at the start of the league, has been massive for Mayo.

"It's only the league" is an often thrown-around phrase at the start of the year, but we're at the business end of the competition now and there is a national title up for grabs and putting in a good performance in GAA HQ with a date against an ever-improving Galway coming up, means that Mayo should go at this full-throated on Sunday.

 

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