The start of the National Football League on Saturday evening will see thousands flock into MacHale Park to see the new season get under way properly. The league is often seen as time for guys to be given a chance to impress in the early rounds and stake their claim for a place later on in the year. But is this really the case?
We took a look back at the starting line ups for Mayo's opening league games over the last four seasons to see. Over the course of those four seasons, under three different management teams a total of 34 players started the league opener, with just two players starting all four. They being Lee Keegan and Kevin McLoughlin, another five started three of those games, Robbie Hennelly, Ger Cafferkey, Colm Boyle, Keith Higgins, and Jason Doherty. Another 10 started two of those games and 16 started one league opener each.
Of the 34 players who have started the season opener 28 of them would be considered to have been championship squad regulars throughout that whole four year run, with Shane McHale, Caolan Crowe, Adam Gallagher, Richie Feeney, Cathal Freeman, and Mark Ronaldson considered on the fringes of the panel later on in the year.
Last year's game against Cork saw five players start their first league opener over those four years, Brendan Harrision, Caolan Crowe, Shane Nally, Tom Parsons, and Conor O'Shea. Harrision went on to nail down his place in the team and ended up with an All Star after being involved with the squad and having got game time over those years. Parsons has been part of the Mayo senior set up for a long number of years, bar a brief stint out of the squad under James Horan. Conor O'Shea is another who has been in Mayo squads for a number of years. Nally had a very impressive league run last year coming back into contention with the county after a number of good years with his club, and the former Mayo minor captain has plenty to offer at this level, while his clubmate Crowe has plenty of potential but has not really got going at the inter-county grade yet.
Of the players who started two of the league openers over this four year run, a good number of them are nailed down panel members most people would expect, Kevin Keane, Chris Barrett, Jason Gibbons, Seamus O'Shea, Donal Vaughan, Aidan O'Shea, Diarmuid O'Connor, and Evan Regan fall into that category. Same with Andy Moran, David Clarke, Stephen Coen, Patrick Durcan, David Drake, Cathal Carolan, and Alan Freeman who have all started one league opener over this run.
One oddity, of all the players who have started a league opener over the past four seasons, one name which is missing from the list is Mayo captain Cillian O'Connor. The Ballintubber man has never started Mayo's first league game so far in his career as as an inter-county senior footballer, but that is expected to change this weekend.