This weekend sees the 2017 Mayo League soccer season kick off, with 34 different sides lined up for competition this season. In the top division all eyes will be fixed on seeing whether anyone can finally step up and stop Westport United's domination of the league. Last season Ballina Town gave it a right good go, but came up short down the home stretch with John Brennan's men edging them out down the home stretch.
United will kick off this season in their new home at United Park in the town, and they will be looking to mark their first full season in this new fine facility with another league title. Brennan has lost the services of Martin Geraghty who has retired, but still has Phil Keegan, Danny Schaill, David Cameron and Joe Lawless to call on, as he continues to add some younger players into the fold like he has done over the past few seasons. Garry Cunningham, Pat Moran, and Darren Browne have all become used to winning league titles since they came into the side a number of years ago and will look to continue that trend this year.
The chasing pack
Last year's runners up Ballina Town, will have probably felt that last year was one that really got away from them when it should not have and Michael McNicholas will be looking for an instant response when they kick off the season this weekend. Ballina were brilliant at home last year and they need to be as good again this season, because as they learned last year there is very little room for dropping points at the top of the table. Over the winter, Michael Duffy returned to action in the external cup competitions and if the north Mayo hitman can find the back of the net with any sort of regularity it will be a big addition to Ballina's chances. Town will be looking to the likes of Jamie Cawley to continue his brilliant form from last season, while Benny Lavelle, Dylan McKee, Conor Quinn, and Ollie Feeney are others who can have a big say this year.
Is this the year that Castlebar Celtic return to the championship race? The Hoops have been in a bit of a transition period over the past few seasons, but they showed in the final few months of last season they could be putting together something very good in Celtic Park, finishing the season level on points with Ballyglass in third place. Ciaran Kelly has put in a lot of work over the last few seasons and with Celtic picking up the Connacht Gold Super Cup last season, they have a taste for success once again. There is a strong backbone of experience in the Celtic ranks with Stevie Ryan, Ger O'Boyle, Ioseph O'Reilly and Colm Nevin all well used to to the battle at this level, while Jordan Loftus, Jason Hunt, Liam Flatley, Stephen Cafferkey, and Levi Barrett are all players who can drive them on to success as the season progresses.
Looking to make a breakthrough
Ballyglass who finished level with Celtic on points last season might find it hard to break into the top three this term, but with a man such as JP O'Gorman leading the line up front, they will surely hit the net plenty of times during the season. Tom Connolly's side have been very impressive since they jumped back up to the top division a few years ago and they have taken the scalp of plenty of big sides over the last few years. Manulla finished last season in fifth place and kept up their run of success in cup competitions winning Westaro Cup for a second year on the bounce, but they will really be hoping to push on and make a dent in the league this term, it will be a hard task to break into the top three.
Further down the table at the end of last season, Ballyheane, Glenhest, and Claremorris' first objective will be to avoid making the drop down to the second tier and stay out of a nasty relegation battle. Both Claremorris and Glenhest managed to do that pretty easily last season, while Ballyheane showed plenty of heart and grit to make sure they kept their necks above water at the end. The two new sides in the Super League this season will be interesting ones, with Straide and Foxford United bouncing straight back up in impressive style as Premier Division Champions and Achill Rovers following them not too far behind. Straide and Foxford have serious firepower with Paul Moran and Paul Fitzpatrick knowing where the net is, but it is going to be a much tougher task finding the back of it in the Super League than it was last season.
Premier passions ready to go
Life in the second tier also kicks off this weekend with four games in the Premier Division down for decision, last season Iorras Aontaithe dropped out of the top flight alongside Conn Rangers and both sides are penciled in to meet in the Premier Division opener in Erris on Sunday. Bangor Hibs were unlucky not to make the breakthrough last season and they will be ones to watch in this division that has a very north Mayo slant to it, with Killala and Crossmolina also involved. Ballyhaunis Town are a side who have been on the rise for a few seasons now and this will be a test of the progress they have made, while Swinford, Westport United B, Fahy Rovers, and Kiltimagh-Knock United complete what is a very exciting division.
Mayo League Fixtures, Sunday March 12
Super League: Straide and Foxford v Ballyglass (12 noon ), Manulla v Westport (2.30pm ), Westport United v Claremorris (12 noon ), Ballina Town v Glenhest Rovers (2.30pm ), Ballyheane v Achill Rovers (2.30pm ).
Premier Division: Killala v Bangor Hibs (2.30pm ), Iorras Aontaithe v Conn Rangers (2.30pm ), Crossmolina v Westport United B (2.30pm ), Ballyhaunis Town v Fahy Rovers (2.30pm ).