Not to long ago the list of Mayo’s walking wounded looked like it could not only derail James Horan’s stated aim of going for league title, but could have made the first step in achieving that goal, being in with a chance of making the semi-final, very difficult. After Mayo lost out to Tyrone in Omagh a few weeks ago, Horan pointed out that he was short some 20 players due to injury and club-commitments. But the past few weeks have seen that number come right down with only Alan Dillon and Chris Barrett on the long term list, and Cillian O’Connor very close to a return to action, according to the Mayo boss after last weekend’s victory over Kerry in MacHale Park. The Castlebar Mitchels contingent are still concentrating on club duty ahead of St Patrick’s Day.
Last Sunday also saw the return to action of both Seamus O’Shea and Donal Vaughan for the first time since the All Ireland final, their return has given Horan a couple of extra hands to play as Mayo face into the final furlong of the league campaign with four games coming up in the next five weeks.
This Sunday’s opponents, Westmeath, always looked like the easiest two points that would be picked up in the league, with the midlands county the perceived weakest of the eight counties in the top division this year. Westmeath are currently winless at the bottom of the table alongside Kerry, having been well beaten by Cork and Derry on the road, with Dublin running out four point winners in their only game in Cusack Park so far this year on the same day that Mayo lost to Tyrone.
Paul Bealin’s side were well beaten by Derry on a score of 3-16 to 0-12 in Celtic Park last weekend. Westmeath relied very much on John Heslin to keep the scoreboard ticking over for them, with the St Loman’s man and former AFL prospect kicking seven points for the Lake County. Westmeath also find themselves stuck at the bottom of the table despite having a better defensive record than Mayo, conceding on 3-36 (45 points ) while Mayo have conceded 5-47 (62 points ) in their outings so far.
As for Mayo, last weekend’s win over Kerry was spearheaded by Alan Freeman’s impressive display in the full-forward line, where he grabbed 1-5 in his first start since the All Ireland final. The Aghamore man’s display saw him pick up the man-of-the-match award. Jason Doherty also got his first start of the league and the Burrishoole man took his chance well, finishing up with 1-1 for the day, but also getting involved in a lot of play around the field, having started the game in the half-forward line.
The return of Keith Higgins to his more accustomed defensive position added some extra solidity to a rearguard that had conceded 4-34 over the previous 140 minutes of football. While Freeman took most of the plaudits, the work of Lee Keegan both in defence and busting forward was one of the key factors in the Mayo’s win against Eamon Fitzmaurice’s side. The Westport man has become a pivotal figure for Mayo in recent times, winning two All Stars in the past two years along the way, it would be easy to forget this is only his third season as a regular starter for the county senior team.
A win on Sunday will have Mayo on a very good footing to make sure they are playing division one football next year and leave them with three games left to go and try to make it into the top four of the division and set up a league semi-final and crack at their first national senior title for the county since 2001.