Just under a year ago Mayo travelled to Pairc Ui Chaoimh to take on Cork in the final group game in division one of the National Football League and came away with a 0-16 to 0-11 win and a place in the final of the competition. Only a few weeks later both sides squared up again in Croke Park and from the minute the ball was thrown in that day both teams’ seasons veered off in very different directions, Mayo’s ending on a Saturday evening in Longford eight weeks after that league final defeat and Cork’s on the final day with the ultimate prize.
But on Sunday, Mayo will once again try to put down the Rebels in the group stages of the National League. This time rather than looking to make it into the final of the league Mayo are looking for survival at the top table of league football. This is a new Mayo team with new faces and under new management from last year’s. James Horan, since he took charge, has been trying to shape the team in the image that he wants. He has given new faces a chance to prove their worth, and while the results have not been as he would have wanted, he and all Mayo football supporters know the real business end of the season starts in the championship. Mayo have leaked goals throughout the campaign so far and, as Horan has admitted, a lot of them came from individual errors either turning over the ball or not tracking the runners, and it is something that he has had his side working on flushing out on the training field. In their last game against Dublin when they conceded four goals inside the opening 20 minutes, his side showed great heart and fight to pull back a 14 point deficit early in the second half, before Dublin pushed on late on to claim the points on offer.
While sorting out the defence is a priority, in attack Mayo have shown a lot of hope for the future. Both Alan Freeman and Jason Doherty have shown that they have what it takes to be a handful for any defence in the country. If Mayo are to be without Ronan McGarrity in the middle of the park as it looks for Sunday (the team was not announced at the time of going to press ) it leaves Mayo with a big hole to fill. Jason Gibbons has been given a number of opportunities to impress so far this season along with Tom Parsons, but with James Kilcullen in the fray, along with Seamus O’Shea who is returning from injury having played the last couple of games for his club side, Horan has a number of options to try out this weekend. In defence the only two players who have started every game so far in the league have been Tom Cunniffe and Ger Cafferkey (with Kevin McLoughlin starting all of the games so far, but two of them were in the half forward line ), while Horan has given a number of starts to the likes of Chris Barrett, Cathal Hallinan, Peadar Gardiner, Alan Feeney, Richie Feeney, and Ruaidhri O’Connor. With Trevor Howley and Donal Vaughan both out injured up to this juncture, finding the right back six is something that Horan and his backroom team have been working hard on. If Mayo can build on the fightback they showed in Croke Park a fortnight ago and they can tighten up at the back, they will give the All Ireland champions a good run on Sunday. The Rebels will go in as deserved favourites, but if Mayo can show signs of improvement and put in a performance that shows they are moving in a positive way towards the summer, most supporters will leave the ground happy on Sunday even if Mayo do not get the two points up for grabs.
Hurlers look to continue upward rise
Murt Connolly’s Mayo senior hurling side kept up their good early season form when they saw off the challenge of Donegal in McHale Park last Sunday. Their 2-18 to 0-12 win over the Ulster men kept up their 100 per cent record in division 3b of the National Hurling League this season. Tomorrow they will make the short hop to Markievicz Park to take on the Yeats County men in their penultimate group game in the league. They will have to go without the services of Keith Higgins who is on duty with the senior football side for their clash with Cork in McHale Park on Sunday. Higgins returned to the fold last weekend for the hurlers and helped himself to a personal tally of 1-5 of Mayo’s total. However Connelly’s charges have coped very well without Higgins for most of the campaign already and will head to Sligo in confident mood. Along with last weekend’s result, Mayo have seen off Roscommon, Fingal, and Louth in the competition. Tomorrow’s opponents have played four games also but only managed to pick up one win from their games.
They will wrap up their league campaign on Sunday week when they, along with the footballers, travel to Monaghan to take on the Farney men in their final league game. Monaghan currently sit bottom of the table with no wins from the five games they have played, so Mayo will go into their last two games against the bottom two sides in the division as hot favourites to pick up four more points.