Donegal date for McStay’s men

On the charge: Jordan Flynn in action for Mayo in their last trip to Donegal back in 2020. Photo: Sportsfile

On the charge: Jordan Flynn in action for Mayo in their last trip to Donegal back in 2020. Photo: Sportsfile

Mayo will make the long trek to MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey for the latest leg in their 2023 adventure on Sunday afternoon.

The surroundings will be plenty familiar to at least one of Kevin McStay's backroom team, with Stephen Rochford having spent a number of seasons as the Donegal coach under Declan Bonner, before returning home as part of McStay's management team.

Donegal has not been the happiest of hunting grounds for Mayo, having never picked up a win against them in the league on their home turf, losing five times and drawing four - with one of those draws coming from our most recent visit there in 2020 in the opening round of the league before the world came to a shuddering halt.

But those times are behind us now and both counties are facing into new futures. Mayo under McStay and post Lee Keegan and Donegal now under the guidance of Paddy Carr and also without their greatest ever player, Michael Murphy who retired last year.

On paper this is a top of the table versus bottom of the table clash, with Mayo currently out in front of the rest on eight points from their five games and the only team guaranteed of not being relegated to division two; and Donegal who are rock bottom at the moment on three points - which came from their opening day win over Kerry and a draw in round four against Galway.

With championship coming up around the corner very quickly, it will be interesting to see will Kevin McStay go all out to wrap up a spot in the league final for Mayo for a second year in a row or will he mix things up safe in the knowledge that division one football is secure for next year and begin to taper his side's progress towards the meeting with Roscommon next month.

Last time out he shuffled the decks, but didn't really weaken his side much by bringing in Cillian O'Connor, Paddy Durcan and Tommy Conroy for their first starts of the season. All three will have needed the game time and it also allowed him to give the likes of Aidan O'Shea and Ryan O'Donoghue some downtime after their efforts in the four games before that.

Competition for space in the Mayo forward line in particular is fierce with any six from eight or nine players all in contention for a staring place in the championship and none of them will want to be sitting on the bench this close to the start of the main event for the year. So far Mayo have used 28 players in the league with the likes of Rob Hennelly and Padraig O'Hora yet to see any game time. Even with the retirement of Lee Keegan and Oisin Mullin's departure to Australia, the squad looks in as good a health as it possibly can be.

But they will need that squad depth if they are to go deep in the championship, if Mayo make it all the way to the All Ireland final they could be playing in 13 games in the next 19 weeks and that depth will be tested to the very limit.

While it's a heavy load there is good reason for McStay to keep giving game time to the likes of Jack Coyne, David McBrien, Sam Callinan, Donnacha McHugh, James Carr, Fionn McDonagh, Bob Tuohy and Jack Carney to ensure they are battle hardened and tested for what will be coming down the track.

As mentioned before, the likes of O'Connor, Conroy and Durcan need to get game time to get themselves back to the level that everyone knows they can reach and be effective for Mayo when they will be needed the most.

Sunday's game against Donegal will give McStay another chance to see what the shape of how he wants his team to look like come championship, but he is also acutely aware that everyone and anyone could be needed if Mayo are to achieve the ultimate goal.


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