Mayo's championship aspirations for 2022 will be put to the acid test as they take on Monaghan in a mouth-watering clash on Saturday in Hastings Insurance MacHale Park in a round one qualifier.
For those that cannot attend, the game will be going out live on Sky Sports. It feels like a lifetime ago since Mayo were defeated by Galway in the Connaught quarter final which took place on the 24th of April, all of six weeks ago. When you consider the entire national league was run off in nine or so weeks, it really is a long time without a competitive game, especially in a season that is so condensed with the All-Ireland final taking place on July 24.
The Mayo GAA rumour mill was in overdrive last week with word doing the rounds of multiple players being injured and deemed unavailable and unfit to face Monaghan, with others rumoured to have walked away from the panel. Mayo manager James Horan felt it necessary to somewhat quash these rumours or “put out fires” as they call it and Mayo GAA called a Microsoft teams press conference and addressed these rumours with the Mayo media.
It was made clear that no player had walked away and that the panel was the same as it had been for the Galway game. It was also confirmed that Michael Plunkett was ruled out, Oisin Mullin had resumed training and that Ryan O'Donoghue was nursing a knock but was due to resume training in the near future.
We will have to wait until Saturday to see what team takes to the field to decide if this is the case, as I was informed some key personnel have had to sit out a lot of training sessions since the defeat to Galway - ultimately meaning their fitness levels have to be questionable. The bottom line is Mayo will need a strong panel and will absolutely need to have a number of those injured players back along with one or two that missed the Galway game to see this one through. Figuring out who's available is a guessing game at this stage.
Monaghan are going to be very difficult to beat, that's a given. I was in Clones for their Ulster clash against a disjointed Down but came away from that game clearly thinking they were going to win the Ulster title, such was their impressive showing that day. For such a small county population-wise, they really do punch above their weight in Gaelic football and are permanent residents in division one for the last few years.
They will relish coming to Castlebar and make no bones about it, they will feel their extreme physicality coupled with a few free-scoring forwards will be too much for Mayo to handle. Their manager Banty McEaneany will have them chewing iron when they arrive in Castlebar and also has the distinct advantage of having former Mayo coach Donie Buckley in his back room team. Buckley will have an in depth knowledge of where to and how to hurt Mayo.
A very notable feat from that game against Down is that their goal keeper and their entire full back line scored along with wing back Conor McCarthy, basically meaning that the scoring threat can literally come from anywhere. They will get stuck in from the get go, there will be no hiding places and if Mayo are not at it, it could be the end of our Championship for 2022. Jack McCarron has taken over the mantle of being the big Monaghan threat from Conor McManus.
McCarron is a very composed player, not the fastest to cover the ground but his forward thinking and speed of thought sets him apart. He seems to have all the time in the world when he gets on the ball. At the same time you'd be foolish to underestimate McManus, we all know his capabilities from watching him down the years.
He hasn't too many championship games left in a Monaghan jersey and he will certainly want to go out with a bang. It was well documented before the game against Galway about who the major threats were from a Galway perspective, but Mayo somehow still allowed them to wreak havoc. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure stopping McManus and McCarron will go a long way to beating Monaghan. This one may well go to the wire and is very difficult to call.
As expected, the Leinster and Munster finals were an absolute write off, almost embarrassing for Limerick and Kildare. We thought the Lillywhites were hell-bent on bridging the gap between themselves and Dublin but the gap is as big as it's ever been. I felt a little for Limerick who were put to the sword by Kerry, but let's face it, no other two teams in Ireland would be able to dish out hidings to Limerick and Kildare like Kerry and Dublin did. That's the worrying part for the rest of the country.
I was delighted for My old Tralee IT housemate Padraig Joyce after Galway secured their first Nestor cup since 2018. PJ was under pressure as Galway had lost the last three finals in a row and had also lost to the Rossies in the finals in 2017 and 2019, both played in Salthill; their full forward line put in an exceptional performance scoring 1-14 of their total. Shane Walsh was unmarkable on the day. Rory Gallagher will no doubt get the freedom of Derry after the Oak leafers won their first Ulster title since 1998. It is definitely the story of the year so far as they did it the hard way, beating Tyrone, Monaghan and Donegal in the final last weekend to win the Anglo Celt cup. It was a horrible game to watch but they won't care in Derry.