Life in general and sport in particular are all about “what ifs”. In the run-up to Mayo's crucial league game against Donegal on Sunday, I can't help but think of another what if. What if Corofin had beaten Castlebar Mitchels last November in the Connacht club final, how would Stephen Rochford have coped with the pressures of managing two high profile teams; with great difficulty, I think is the answer. Despite being robbed of the services of the Castlebar contingent for the first five rounds of the league, because of their run to the All-Ireland club final, the Mitchels have done Mayo football a huge favour in beating Corofin and allowing Rochford to concentrate on matters Mayo. Try to imagine what it would have been like managing both teams; virtually impossible. You would probably cope during the week where you'd have training with both teams on alternative nights but it's the weekends that would constitute the big problem.
Roche would literally have been on a football pitch seven nights of the week. The Mayo manager's job, which is practically full time, means all of your Saturdays and Sundays are for the cause, between fitness testing, endurance training, tactical training, team meetings, meetings with selectors, and, in Mayo's case, dealing with a massive injury list would surely have left no time for any other concern. I wouldn't imagine Corofin would have been best pleased if his entire weekend was spent with Mayo, which it would have had to be. I imagine Mayo folk wouldn't have been too pleased if his time was been spent with the Galway club, while his Mayo team made an uncertain start to the league. As I said, it was all a “what if" scenario but we should be grateful to Castlebar for not putting Rochford in that particular predicament.
Another tough examination for Mayo
Mayo travel to Ballybofey facing a red hot Donegal who looked super slick so far in this year's campaign. The mini break is coming at the wrong time for them as it may be the cause of them losing their impressive momentum. The opposite can be said for Mayo, the three week break is coming at the right time, allowing fitness levels to improve while also getting players off the treatment table and on the pitch. Mayo made significant improvement from the Cork game to the Dublin game but still ended up with nothing to show for it. Donegal stand proudly at the summit of division one and will still want to be there come Sunday evening. There is nothing they would enjoy more than turning over one of their fiercest recent rivals, while sending them closer to relegation at the same time. Donegal have scored very impressively in this year's campaign notching 3-15 away from home against Down and annihilating Cork by double scores last time out by 2-14 to 1-07, (remember the Cork team that put Mayo to the sword in round one scoring 1-18 in the process ).
Defensively Mayo looked sound against Dublin but the problem was up the other end where scoring only 0-7 will win you nothing. It's getting the balance right that is key. Keeping it tight at the back while also offering support to the inside line to make sure the score board is ticking over. In the absence of Cillian O'Connor the free taking issue has to be resolved as it could ultimately be the difference between survival in the division and relegation. Contrary to what a well known pundit said about using the injury crisis as an excuse and that fringe players need to step up, it has been demoralising to have so many on the sideline that would ultimately affect performance levels and the quality of the team.
Putting in the hard yards
I expect Mayo to start conservatively against Donegal before going for the jugular. It has been well noted that Aidan O'Shea didn't play much in the full forward line against Dublin but the amount of times he, Tom Parsons, and Diarmuid O'Connor dispossessed a Dublin player was phenomenal, although players carrying into the tackle and losing posession thereafter undid a lot of their good work as Dublin got a number of scores from such turnovers. These are the little tweaks Rochford will try to get right for Sunday.
Gone are the days that Donegal try to win games by 0-8 points to 0-7, they attack meticulously from everywhere. Ryan McHugh, Frank McGlynn and Anthony Thompson are finding the target regularly from their back line, while midfielder Odran McNiallis was top man last time out scoring 1-04 against Cork. Michael Murphy won't miss too many frees from inside 50 metres so cautious tacking is a prerogative. All these little facts make for an interesting spectacle to see how Mayo counteract their opponents while also offering more threat up front. The bookmakers aren't giving Mayo much hope offering them at 7/4. I feel this game will show what Mayo are made of Stephen Rochford needs a performance and a result to match, a win maybe on the cards but a draw would do for me. It's time to kick the season off.