The last time Mayo made the trip to Cork in the National Football League, they came out of Páirc Uí Rinn with a slender one point win and one foot in a league semi-final and consigned the Rebels to division two football for the next season. A lot has changed in the past two seasons since then for Mayo. Only five of the team that lined out that night started for Mayo in their last National Football League game against Monaghan; Liam O’Malley, Keith Higgins, Conor Mortimer, Andy Moran, and Alan Dillon. Mark Ronaldson came on as a sub three years ago as he did against Monaghan. Kenneth O’Malley, who was between the posts that night, is still involved in the panel as is Pat Harte, and the injured duo of Peadar Gardiner and Aidan Kilcoyne who also made an appearance in that game, the likes of James Kilcullen, Enda Devenney, Ger Brady, and Aidan Campbell who all started have fallen by the wayside, along with Marty McNicholas who kicked 0-2 that day after coming off the bench. David Heaney and Kevin O’Neill have both retired from the game.
Since then Mayo have gone on to claim a single Connacht senior championship, never getting further than the quarter final stage of the All Ireland series, while Cork have gone on to become one of the most dominant teams in the country, putting together back to back Munster titles in the past two years and appearing in two All Ireland finals since then only to see arch rivals Kerry pip them at the post both times.
The Rebels are guaranteed a spot in the league decider this term win, lose, or draw, despite Mayo currently sitting on top of the division one table, with Dublin the only other side to have a chance to make the final. With the final pairing being decided by head to head results, Mayo could finish level on points with Dublin, and having a better scoring difference, only to miss out on the final spot because they lost to Dublin in McHale Park. So Mayo have to pick up at least a point on Sunday to ensure that they will line up against the same opponent in the final on April 25, without having to rely on Tyrone doing them a favour and not letting Dublin beat them in Healy Park in Omagh, and setting up a potential huge pay day for the GAA with Dublin facing Cork in a national final in Croke Park.
Mayo were dealt a blow last weekend when Enda Varley pulled up in a club league game for Garrymore in their 1-12 to 2-5 win over Kiltimagh with a hamstring injury. Varley, who has taken his chance to impress this term after getting a prolonged run in the side, is Mayo’s top scorer in the league and will be to the side, he will be given time to be ready for the game according to John O’Mahony. “Enda is doubtful after the weekend, and we’ll wait until throw in to name the team. We also have Ronan McGarrity back, he played half a game with Ballina last weekend and he took part in training with us at the weekend, so we have to see how he’s coming along for Sunday.” Mayo have picked up wins in their three away games this season against tough sides like Kerry, Derry, and Tyrone, and O’Mahony knows Sunday will probably be the biggest test. “It was always going to be the hardest game if we were looking for points to avoid relegation or now looking for a place in the league final. Cork over the past few years have looked like being the side who were going to challenge the top sides like Kerry and Tyrone, they won division two last year and got to the All Ireland final, and they’ll be looking to claim another national honour before the championship.”
With Ronan McGarrity back in the fold and the likes of Barry Moran, Aidan Kilcoyne, and Tom Cunniffe all back training with the squad, Mayo’s injury list is clearing up just as the championship looms. “We probably are better off than we were the last few years, but with club games coming now you never know what can happen. It was a relief that Keith Higgins isn’t as bad as first feared and we still have Peadar Gardiner pencilled in for the Sligo game, so it is looking good” said O’Mahony.
There will be no surprise additions to the league squad before the end of the competition the Mayo manager informed the Mayo Advertiser, but there are still a number of players being looked at. “Billy Joe Padden was back with us last weekend, but we also had Eoin O’Reilly from the u21s with us, and a number of other players at times. It’s all forward planning for a final 30 for the championship and deciding on the squad for that.”
Cork for their part have only lost once in the league, like Mayo, they were felled by a Tyrone side who have only managed to pick up two wins in the league so far and are scrapping it out at the bottom to avoid relegation. And after looking so impressive last year in the championship until Kerry held their nerve better in the All Ireland final they are looking like potential All Ireland winners already. Mayo will have to shape up right across the park to get the better of the likes of Daniel Goulding, Colm O’Neill, Donnacha O’Connor, Alan O’Connor, Paul Kerrigan, and Pearse O’Neill.