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The bookmakers have it that it will be a clash of north against south for the Moclair cup come next month, and while that may be where the money is going, it would be a foolish man who is counting out the chances of the men from the west ahead of Sunday.
Three weeks on from the being beaten by Sligo in the preliminary round of the Connacht Championship, Mayo will roll up to the midlands for the first round of the All Ireland qualifiers. The first round of the backdoor competition, while not quite uncharted territory, is one that is still not too familiar to Mayo players and supporters. In fact Mayo have only entered the qualifier system at this stage once before, also under the tutelage of O’Mahony in 2007. That year a comfortable win over Cavan in McHale Park was followed up with a humbling inside the city walls of Derry by the Oak Leaf county in the second round.
Rumour has it that there will be a raft of changes for our match v Longford tomorrow in Pearse Park. I expect that management have examined every available option for this encounter. I would say it has been a tough couple of weeks for everyone involved since the championship defeat. Management will be fully aware of Mayo’s poor ‘back door ’record in years past. Both Westmeath and Fermanagh have shortened our summer on two occasions. In fact we have only managed to secure back to back victories when going through the back door on a single occasion, in 2002, when we saw off three teams in a row, beating Roscommon, Limerick, and Tipperary on that occasion.
Mayo will start their All Ireland qualifiers adventure in Pearse Park, Longford, next Saturday evening when they take on Glenn Ryan’s midlands men in the first round of the backdoor system. While the trip to Longford will be far from easy it could have been a lot worse with the likes of Armagh, Donegal, and Derry all in the pot with Mayo. Longford will be no easy pushovers for Mayo all the same, last season they ran the current All Ireland champions Kerry to four points in the same venue, keeping Kerry scoreless for the majority of the second half that day. Mayo will make the trip to Longford even though they were drawn out of the hat first last Sunday evening. GAA Central Council made a ruling that teams who played away in the first round of the qualifiers would play at home in the first round this year, even if they were the second team out of the hat. The Mayo County Board is sure to be disappointed with the fact that the newly renovated McHale Park has so far failed to host a championship match in 2010.
While the post-mortem on Mayo’s inglorious exit from the Connacht championship went on over the week and will go into the future, it’s back to basics this weekend for the inter county football panel when they rejoin their club mates for the first round proper of action in the Royal Theatre senior and intermediate championships.
Mayo will give a championship bow to four new players on Saturday evening against Sligo. Coming into the side for their first starts in championship action are Belmullet's Chris Barrett, Breaffy's Seamus O'Shea, Aghamore's Alan Freeman, and Garrymore's Enda Varley in a new look Mayo side. There are five changes from the team that lost to Cork in the National League final, with a fit again duo of Keith Higgins coming into corner back for Liam O'Malley and Ronan McGarrity replacing the injured Alan Dillion. Tom Cunniffe will replace Trevor Howley at the lynchpin centre half back position, with O'Shea moving to centre half forward.
Mayo continued their preparations ahead of their Connacht championship campaign opener against Sligo on Saturday week last Tuesday night when they played Kildare in a three period challenge behind closed doors in Longwood. It was Mayo’s fourth challenge game in 10 days, having previously beaten Cavan, Westmeath, and Dublin. Mayo went down by a point against the Lillywhites in a contest that was played over three 25 minute periods, with a side starting to look like it was taking shape for Saturday week’s game against Sligo. Tom Cunniffe continued at centre half back, flanked on either side by Peader Gardiner and Kevin McLoughlin. Kenneth O’Malley got a run out between the sticks for Mayo while Alan Dillon, who had been nursing an injury, came on to score a point. Donal Vaughn, another who picked up an injury in recent weeks, also made an appearance from the bench. Andy Moran was Mayo’s top scorer, kicking 1-4, while Conor Mortimer chipped in with five points from frees. The challenge game was the sixth in 10 days that many of the Mayo players had taken part in, including club games. They will get a break from club action ahead of the Sligo game with the club action in Mayo reverting back to the secondary league ahead of their championship clash and the start of the club senior and intermediate championship proper in a fortnight’s time around the county.
You can rest assured that you will never have to worry too much about midges at Belmullet’s magnificent new GAA facilities if last Saturday evening is anything to go by. In what could best be described in these parts as a ‘fresh evening’, I was shivering however in light clothing for the first half of the challenge match between Mayo and Cavan. Conditions did improve weather wise for the second half, but sadly that’s as far as the improvement went. The match rarely produced any excitement and Mayo in particular will have learned little from this encounter. I parked myself close to the Cavan dugout for the first half and was quite relieved I wasn’t in the shoes, or should that be boots, of my close friend Tommy Carr. And if what I witnessed last Saturday is a reflection of their true worth at this juncture, they will need every one of the days between now and the end of June to get their act together. Mayo on the other hand won the game convincingly, but Johnno and his selectors will have learned little. They will be pleased however to have seen Tom Cunniffe back playing and injury free. He did well in the number six jersey and I think that he could line out in this position for the championship opener, particularly as Trevor Howley offers options at corner back or on the half back line. Big Barry Moran caught the eye again when introduced and he is another who should be guaranteed a starting berth in two weeks time. Tom Parsons is beginning to put himself about. He played well, with a couple of eye catching high fetches. The midfield selection for Sligo will be interesting with three players, Ronan McGarrity, Seamus O Shea and Tom Parsons all presenting a case for inclusion.