In just over six weeks time the real deal will get under way when Mayo head to Sligo in the Connacht championship. But on Sunday all roads lead to Croke Park and a second joust with Cork inside three weeks. But this time national honours are at stake. It has been an impressive league run so far by Mayo, picking up tough away wins against Tyrone, Derry, Kerry, and Cork along with home victories over Galway and Monaghan. The only black spot on the copybook so far this term was the single point defeat to Dublin in McHale Park, but in the grand scheme of things Mayo supporters can have nothing to complain about so far this term. When the league started back on the first Sunday of February, most people’s expectations and hopes were that Mayo did enough to survive in division one. But since their blitzkrieg start against Galway, John O’Mahony’s men have barely paused for breath, as the faced down nearly all comers, with the exception of Dublin, a game they should have won, kicking 18 wides over 70 minutes.
And on Sunday they have a chance to pick up the National League title, before the real deal begins. It is not that long ago since Mayo were here before. In John O’Mahony’s first year back in charge of Mayo in 2007 Donegal were the opponents in Croke Park and emerged victorious at the ultimate stage of the league. But a lot has changed in the intervening four years, just a quick glance through the team sheet from that league final compared to their outing on Leeside a few weeks ago, shows how dramatic the changes have been. Only five who started the league final four years ago, were there when the ball was thrown in against the Rebels at the start of April. David Clarke, Liam O’Malley, Alan Dillon, Conor Mortimer, and Andy Moran were the men who remained. Trevor Howley who came on in the dying stages of the league final lined out at centre half back and Pat Harte who came on against Cork also started that league final.
Gone are the likes of James Nallen, David Heaney, and Kevin O’Neill, who have retired, while Michael Conroy, James Kilcullen, Enda Devanney, Ger Brady, Aidan Campbell, and Billy Joe Padden have all fallen by the wayside. Both Keith Higgins, Peadar and Aidan Kilcoyne also started that league final and are in the race to prove their fitness for the challenges that lie ahead.
On Sunday the stakes will be raised from what was witnessed in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on April 11, and John O’Mahony is far too canny a manager to let any of his players think that Cork will fold as easily as they did that day. Big performances will be looked for all over the park from Mayo players on Sunday, and the collective team spirit they have shown throughout the league so far will be a vital ingredient if Mayo are to come home victorious. A good start will be a necessity on Sunday, as if Mayo let Cork build up a head of steam early on, the wide open spaces of Croke Park could see Mayo get devoured by the Rebels. Mayo will have to hit the ground running and make sure that their work rate and tackling keeps up over the 70 minutes. Mayo’s half back line will be key to how the game goes, this line is so often one of Mayo’s better attacking units but can be prone to lapses of concentration when defending which will be punished by Cork if it happens. The surprise return to action of Peadar Gardiner last weekend for Crossmolina has added to O’Mahony’s options in that line, in fact John O’Mahony may have a number of decisions to make on a number of positions all over the park.
Ronan McGarrity has been back in training for a while now following his hamstring injury in the FBD League final, but it will be close on two months since he has played a top class game. A fully fit McGarrity would go back into the side, but will he be risked if not 100 per cent? Mayo will need to win the midfield battle on Sunday if they are going to have any illusions of winning the game. The partnership of Seamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons have been doing well since McGarrity was injured, and while Parsons has at times faded in and out of games the potential to be a real top class footballer is still there. O’Shea has taken a lot of plaudits after getting a sustained run in the side this season, and all of them fully deserved. He has brought power and directness to Mayo’s play which was absent in previous years, and he also gets through a lot of hard work around the fringes. If McGarrity is fit to play they could deploy O’Shea in the half forward line and use him as a third midfielder, which Mayo used to good effect at the start of the league. The return of Alan Dillon and Conor Mortimer has added spice to the competition for places in the forward division as it is, never mind if O’Shea is selected and there are only five spots up for grabs. Most minds would think that Alan Dillon, Andy Moran, Conor and Trevor Mortimer, and Aidan O’Shea are shoo-ins to start. If it is six natural forwards that Mayo goes for on Sunday, the battle for the last spot will go down to either Enda Varley or Mark Ronaldson. Varley missed the game in Cork after picking up a hamstring injury in the first round of club league games but did play a small cameo for Garrymore late on last weekend. Ronaldson started the year on fire in the FBD league and in early rounds of the league, but his retrospectively imposed red card against Tyrone saw him miss two games against Dublin and Derry. He did come back into the side against Kerry, and was the man who made way for Conor Mortimer to come on and steal the show in Tralee. He was named as a substitute in the following two games, but did start in Cork after Varley’s injury ruled him out. Whichever south Mayo man gets the nod, both are very capable of causing damage to the Cork back line.
When the ball is thrown in Mayo will be looking for big games and leadership from the likes of captain Trevor Mortimer (the sole survivor of Mayo’s 2001 league winning team ), Andy Moran, Alan Dillon, David Clarke, and Trevor Howley to lead the way on Sunday.
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