Ever since Joe McQuillian blew his final whistle in Croke Park last August and brought Mayo’s 2009 season to a shuddering end at the hands of Meath, all minds have been set firmly on the start of the national league and Mayo’s next crack at an All-Ireland run. The FBD league has run its course to a final spot against Galway at the end of the month, but Sunday’s game against the old enemy is where it all really begins again. While the lights may have been extinguished on this fixture by planning issues, there should still be plenty of fireworks on the field when the sides go head to head on Sunday in a game where both sides have a lot of questions to answer about each other.
John O’Mahony is going into his fourth year back in charge of Mayo since taking the reins once again, while Joe Kernan will be taking charge of Galway for the first time since he made the long trip from Armagh west of the Shannon to throw his lot in with the Tribesmen. The Crossmaglen man has his side, by all accounts, flying and they breezed through the group stages of the FBD league with ease in January but he will know himself Mayo will be a very different prospect from any challenge he’s faced so far with the maroon and white.
New chapter and new faces
This Sunday will also mark a new chapter for Mayo football with the news that James Nallen has retired from the inter-county game. It will be the first time in over 15 years that the talismanic Crossmolina man will not be involved in the side during the season, since Nallen slipped back into a reserve role over the past couple of seasons; filling that key position on a permanent basis is something that O’Mahony will hope to nail down as soon as possible. Knockmore’s Trevor Howley is in pole position but probably would be better deployed on the wing. Tom Cunniffe has been hampered by a long term injury for the past year, so maybe it’s a chance to give Shrule-Glencorrib’s Kieran Conroy or Westport’s Mayo u21 defender Lee Keegan a run out in the role in the cut and thrust of the league. At full back Mayo welcomed Ger Cafferkey back to the role last weekend against Roscommon, having given Alan Feeney the nod there in the opening two games. While Cafferkey impressed on a number of occasions last season, it could be time that O’Mahony gave Feeney a consistent run in the role during the league and maybe tried the Ballina man in the corner, which in turn could free up Keith Higgins to move further out the field to a wing half back position he looks born to play.
The midfield sector continues to be a problem for Mayo, in the quarter final defeat to Meath last season David Heany partnered Ronan McGarrity in Croke Park. With Heaney no longer part of the panel, a more physical foil to McGarrity’s athletic fielding is needed. Seamus O’Shea started the last game and, after struggling with injury for the past number of seasons, he would be worth a look over a prolonged period in the middle, while Ballaghaderreen’s Barry Kelly, who has been a big performer on the club scene over the past couple of years, is also involved in the mix. It’s time Mayo found their best possible combination.
Who will lead the attack
Up front Mark Ronaldson has been Mayo’s go to guy in regard to scores so far this year and the mercurial Shrule-Glencorrib man will make up one third of the full forward line alongside Aidan O’Shea, who continues to grow into this level of football with each game. The panel for the league also sees two new faces enter the fold in the form of Enda Varley and Alan Freeman, after their third level duties. Varley played in last weekend’s game against Roscommon and has been a constant high scorer on the third level circuit with UL over the past number of years, while Freeman showed enough for IT Sligo over the past month to get the call. Two other new faces who will be keen to impress during the league run are Castlebar pair Neil Douglas, who was in great form for both club and with Mayo’s u21s last year, and Ger McDonnagh. This level of a step up will be a huge test for the two young men from the county town.
While there are numerous possible line ups that could appear on the field on Sunday afternoon, O’Mahony will probably go with a fair bit of experience in most positions, as he knows that home wins will be vitally important for Mayo in the league this year as they try to retain their division one status.