Thirteen years on from a bounce of a ball hopping over the bar and a one for all brawl in front of the Hill, Mayo will renew acquaintance with Meath in the championship looking for their first win over the Royal County since the heady summer of 1951. When the final whistle is blown on Sunday, the initial headlines will probably go to the forward who puts the ball over the bar for the winning score or kicks a handful of points over the 70 minutes. But no matter how good the front six are all victories have their foundation on those whose primary job is to stop the other side from putting the size five over the black spot or into the back of the net.
Three of Mayo's rearguard sat down with the Mayo Advertiser last week, ahead of this weekend’s last eight clash. Andy Moran, who has been knocking over points for fun in the club championship but lining out at wing back for the county, Keith Higgins who grasped the chance to reclaim his place after a winter off against Roscommon, and Trevor Howley who has shaken off injury worries earlier this year to cement his place in the lynchpin number six jersey. All three are chomping at the bit to get Mayo back into the last four for the first time in three years.
When Mayo last made their way into the semi-final Andy Moran was plying his trade both with club and county as an attacker, but this year has seen the Ballagh' man take up the challenge of holding fort further back the field and he has taken to the new role with relish, even though he admits that it was John O'Mahony who moved him up the park in his college football days.
“It's funny, Johnno was the guy who moved me out of the backs, we were playing a colleges game in Carrick-on-Shannon and he moved me out of wing back to midfield, that was my start in progressing forward. I was about 15 at the time, and then I was always playing in the forwards. If he had left me there I could have been wing back for Mayo for the past few years, but it could have been a whole lot different.”
Moving back the field has been a new challenge for Moran and he has been learning on the fly, but between the national league and the training field Moran has got to grips with his new position very quickly, because he admits he had to. “During the league I marked a lot of good footballers so I did think I adjusted fairly quick, round here you’re marking flying machines like Mark Ronaldson in A v B games so you have to learn quick. Some days you do get a scalding so you have to learn quick from it. I presume I'd always think I'd be good on the ball, but getting into a defensive structure and learning the trade - defenders think a lot differently from forwards and getting used to hearing the shouts from the other lads and from the goalkeeper.”
Some may remember Moran had a brief cameo as a goal-scoring half back for Mayo in 2006 when he came off the bench in the All Ireland semi-final against Dublin to kick start what culminated in a dramatic one point. But it wasn't an exactly orthodox half back position he was taking up, Moran admits. “I came on for Jimmy (Nallen ) that day, I don't know if I was playing wing back or centre half back that was just more backs to the wall stuff and all-out attack, I don't know if I did much defending that day.”
Getting back into the fold
After spending the winter south of the equator, Keith Higgins was a late arrival back into the Mayo squad this year and he missed out on the trip to New York due to Christy Ring duties with the hurling side. The Ballyhaunis man made his comeback in the facile win over Roscommon in the Connacht semi-final and isn't going to move over easily now he's back in the side. “When I came back the fitness levels may not have been the best compared to other years at the start. When I came back I had to work hard, even coming up to the Roscommon game I didn't expect to be starting, I thought Donal or Kevin might have got the nod when Liam got injured but I was delighted to get back into the side and now the pressure is on to keep up my performances, because there are six or seven other lads pushing very hard for the six defenders’ spots in the team. On any day any one of those players can claim that spot.” The early championship wins over New York and Roscommon failed to see Mayo get seriously tested before they went into the Connacht final against Galway and Higgins was disappointed that they almost let the Nestor Cup slip through their fingers. “New York was always going to be a no-win situation for the lads who went over, if you went over and won by 100 points or two points there was nothing to be really gained out of it. The Roscommon game, no one could have seen that coming. We were gearing up for a very tough game against Roscommon, while the Galway game they have their own life compared to any other game and there was always only going to be a kick of a ball between us at the end. We needed a tough game like that and hopefully it will stand to us now.
“We didn't need to get ourselves in that position against Galway, we were seven points up and we really should have driven on and closed the game out, but these things happen. Galway were always going to come back and with that wind behind them and us probably sitting back at bit too much invited them on. You have to look at the positive, that we won the breaking ball in the middle of the field and we took it on and got the score to win the game at the end.”
Holding the middle ground
Filling the boots of one of the legendary figures of Mayo football and a man who is still in the panel was never going to be an easy task for any player. But Knockmore's Trevor Howley has slotted into the centre half back position like an old pro when the chance came to him. Howley and Castlebar man Tom Cunniffe were the two heirs apparent to James Nallen's number six shirt, both men have had their injury battles to face over the past year or so and since overcoming his last long term injury Howley has grasped the chance that has come to him. “When I was sat down and told it was a four to six month injury I had, it was very hard to get your head around that at the start. But from then on it was about getting myself right again. But fair play to the doctor and the medical team involved with Mayo, they looked after me well and I was able to get back at it. The support I got from family, friends and the players was crucial also because when you’re going through bad times and you’re there scratching your head, the phone or the little talk helps hugely. After injury coming back you weren't sure of your position, but thankfully I have got it out of the way and then playing A v B games and challenge games, I started getting fitness and sharpness back. The competition is huge and having that strength is great, everyone on the bench feels they are as good as who's out there playing, that's the main thing from it, getting everyone playing at the top of their game.”
Having a number of vastly experienced players in the dressing room to give advice is something that Howley is very grateful for this year. “The depth and strength is huge, having the likes of Dave Heaney and James Nallen in the dressing-room is huge, them talking to you and giving you their advice from the wealth of experience they have is great to have. Going to matches when I was a young fella and watching James Nallen play for so many years, I idolised him. And to talk to him in the dressing room and talk to him about players he has marked in the past, it's unbelievable to have that there beside you.”