Mayo will give a championship bow to four new players on Saturday evening against Sligo. Coming into the side for their first starts in championship action are Belmullet's Chris Barrett, Breaffy's Seamus O'Shea, Aghamore's Alan Freeman, and Garrymore's Enda Varley in a new look Mayo side. There are five changes from the team that lost to Cork in the National League final, with a fit again duo of Keith Higgins coming into corner back for Liam O'Malley and Ronan McGarrity replacing the injured Alan Dillion. Tom Cunniffe will replace Trevor Howley at the lynchpin centre half back position, with O'Shea moving to centre half forward.
The selection of the full forward line is where the real talking points will be, with Aidan O'Shea and Mark Ronaldson dropped from the starting 15 in favour of the debutantes Varley and Freeman, with the Aghamore man getting the nod at full forward and with Conor Mortimer retaining his place in the corner. Aidan Kilcoyne and Trevor Howley were both ruled out of the game with injuries, but other players who picked up knocks in recent weeks have also not made the cut including Pat Harte and Barry Moran, but of most concern to Mayo would be the loss of former All Star Alan Dillon. The Ballintubber man’s loss will be a huge blow to Mayo on the half forward line. The three men selected on the 40' are all extremely hard working, but bar Andy Moran, Mayo could find it hard to come by scores from this division. A lot will rest once again on Conor Mortimer to lead the attack, but Varley did put in an very good league campaign and has a good eye for goal, while Freeman has been playing well in challenge games since the end of the league and put in a very good shift against Dublin in Hollymount recently where he kicked three points from play. The dropping of Aidan O'Shea to the bench is sure to cause many conversations between Mayo football supporters between this morning and tomorrow night’s throw in, the teenage Breaffy man, who caused such a stir coming into side last year, has failed to reach the same high standards so far this season, but he still will give Mayo a very potent threat from the bench if required.
A lot of eyes will be on Mayo's defence tomorrow, with Peadar Gardiner failing to regain his place in the side after recovering from injury. Chris Barrett gets the nod ahead of him and slots into the corner back position. Tom Cunniffe takes over the number six jersey after finally getting over a couple of injury blighted years. The Castlebar Mitchels man has been tried out and impressed in a number of challenge games in that position since the league final, and will have a lot of eyes on him to see how he performs.
There may have been two divisions between Mayo and Sligo in this year’s National Football League, and the Yeats County men haven't beaten Mayo in the championship for the best part of a decade. But there is not one informed football follower in the county who thinks that tomorrow night’s challenge in the shadow of Benbulben is going to be an easy task for Mayo. The evening before Mayo crashed to heavy defeat to Cork in the division one final, Sligo were claiming their second National League title in a row by seeing off Antrim, one of last year’s most improved championship sides, in emphatic style in the division three decider. While division three football is a long way from what Mayo encountered as they made the journey to places like Derry, Omagh, Cork, and Tralee before coming away with the spoils, Sligo have been on an upward curve since the man that was one of the main driving forces behind John O'Mahony's success with Galway, Kevin Walsh, took over the reins.
Hardened Mayo followers would have seen Sligo run Galway very close in the same venue as tomorrow’s game, before choking at the death, if they had hung around after the Mayo minors’ demolition of Galway in the championship last year. While Sligo's performance caused a major tremor in Connacht, it was their gutsy performance, but ultimate failure to kick Kerry out of the championship in Killarney last year, that brought their progress to national attention. In all honesty looking back on last year’s championship, apart from Cork who knocked Kerry out of the Munster championship but were steamrolled on the big day in Croke Park, no side came closer to kicking Kerry out of the championship than the men in back and white. Tomorrow evening in the tight confines of Markievicz Park, Mayo's first battle of this year’s Connacht championship gets under way, and it's not going to be any sort of east ride.
Mayo team to play Sligo on Saturday, June 5 (5pm throw-in ): David Clarke (Ballina ); Chris Barrett (Belmullet ), Ger Cafferkey (Ballina Stephenites ), Keith Higgins (Ballyhaunis ); Donal Vaughan (Ballinrobe ), Tom Cunniffe (Castlebar Mitchels ), Kevin McLoughlin (Knockmore ); Tom Parsons (Charlestown ), Ronan McGarrity (Ballina Stephenites ); Andy Moran (Ballaghaderreen ), Seamus O'Shea (Breaffy ), Trevor Mortimer (Shrule/Glencorrib ); Conor Mortimer (Shrule/Glencorrib ), Alan Freeman (Aghamore ), Enda Varley (Garrymore ).