It will be seven years this year since Mayo last claimed the Connacht u21 title. Since then Galway have gone on to claim two All Ireland titles at the grade and Roscommon have appeared in two All Ireland finals, while both of the Connacht minnows, Leitrim and Sligo, have appeared in provincial finals. In the last six u21 campaigns Mayo have managed just three wins out of nine games, all at the preliminary round stage, beating Leitrim in 2010 and 2015 and Galway in 2012 before they exited the competition at the next stage.
This year, Michael Solan has taken charge of the u21 footballers and is looking to do what Ray Dempsey, Tony Duffy or Niall Hefferenan have been unable to do in the intervening eight years and guide Mayo back to at least a provincial decider. The last Mayo management team to bring Mayo that far was last years senior management pairing of Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly, who in 2009 completed a four in a row in Connacht which was Mayo's 23rd title at the grade.
Tomorrow evening at 5pm, Solan's charges will take on Leitrim in Pairc Sean MacDiarmada in Carrick-on-Shannon and the expectation is that Mayo will be finally be able to bridge that seven year gap since their last provincial final bow. This year's crop of u21s are mostly culled from the All Ireland minor winning team of 2013, with Diarmuid O'Connor, Michael Hall, David Kenny, Stephen Coen and Matthew Flanagan, all players who have made the step up to senior level at various times in the recent past, with O'Connor, Coen and Hall in particular making the biggest impact at the top grade with Mayo.
Mayo took part in the inaugural North West Cup competition in January this year as a warm up for the championship, seeing off both Fermanagh and Sligo with ease, before being beaten by a single point by Donegal in the third round of the competition in Ballybofey. The same two sides met in the final of the competition that finished level after extra-time in the Sligo Centre of Excellence in a game that was played in terrible weather.
Since then it has been a series of challenge games that Solan has had to use to run the rule over his side in the build-up to this weekend's championship opener, which will either see Mayo progress to the final or leave the championship at the first hurdle.
In the North West Cup, Solan stuck mostly with the same back four with Matthew Flanagan starting three of the games in goal, while in front of him Ballagaderren's Seamus Cunniffe started three games at full back, with Eddie Doran and Ciaran Harrision starting in that line in three of the games, and David Kenny started two games there. In the half back line Sharoize Akram has got plenty of game time, while Michael Hally and Barry Duffy have also featured in that line regularly and Stephen Coen is back available for selection after his club duties ended last month. In the middle of the park Val Roughneen started in all four of Mayo's North West Cup games and Solan has a number of options to partner him with Matthew Ruane or Diarmuid O'Connor, both very live options for selection here. Michael Plunkett, Brian Reape, Fionan Duffy, Colm Reape and Liam Irwin are all talented attackers that Solan will probably look to during the game to get the scores that Mayo will need to see off the challenge of their hosts.
If Mayo get over this challenge it will set up a first Connacht final since 2009 against the winners of Roscommon and Sligo, who meet in the other semi-final, after Roscommon dispatched the challenge of a fancied Galway side last weekend in the preliminary round.