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Cork will test Mayo’s mettle

Sean Rice
Sean Rice

Cork will test Mayo’s mettle

Munster champions to provide acid test

FRANKLY, we feared it would be much less than this. A scrap for survival was the height of our expectations. To have elbowed into contention for the final was out of the question.
Battling heart has helped Mayo negotiate a hazardous league journey. It’s been their one trump card. When technical ability was thin, they lived on will power, and it heaved them over the line.
Mental strength is inherently intermittent in Mayo performances. In this league, however, their work rate has been more intense and sustained. The question is how long will the effort last?
Next Sunday they travel to Cork for the final game of the league series. If they win, they play Cork again two weeks later in the final. If Tyrone draw with or beat Dublin, Mayo still qualify . . . irrespective of the outcome of their tussle next Sunday. But if they lose and Dublin win, Mayo are out.
Mayo are still a work in progress. Wins over Kerry and Monaghan are evidence only of the inconsistency that has plagued Mayo football over the years. Hard work counterbalanced their flaws — and it was good to see it — but afterwards you were never quite sure whether it was a new Mayo or an old one brushed up.
They go to Cork without Keith Higgins, and his loss is immense. The injury he shipped against Monaghan is not as bad as first feared, but he won’t be back for Sunday, or for the final should they get through.
Higgins was seen as the ideal foil for Cork’s most dangerous forward, Daniel Goulding.  No replacement adequately fits the bill and the selectors have a big decision to make.
Problems at full-back also face them. While the choice of Kieran Conroy proved ideal for the Kerry game, he did not repeat that performance against Monaghan. Maybe Ger Cafferkey will be ready to resume, following a bout of self-doubt.
Alan Dillon is also expected to have recovered from his dead leg problem. And Ronan McGarrity may also be ready.
Although Cork fell to Tyrone, Mayo’s record against the southern capital is poor. How they measure up against the likes of Goulding, Pearse O’Neill, Donnacha O¹Connor, Paul Kerrigan, Colm O’Neill and the rest will define their progress.
First blood for Ballina
A LITTLE flare up at the end said it all. Experience had taught Ballina and Charlestown valuable lessons about the importance of gaining early league points as a protection against storms ahead.
And because the game was balanced on a knife-edge for three-quarters of an hour, the tension spilt over in the final seconds.
It wasn’t serious and when it died down time was up. It had been slogged out in a spirited and sporting atmosphere up to that, and both sides had obviously prepared well for this opening game.
Charlestown were much the better side in the first half, although they led only by a single point at the interval. They were not at full strength, however, but there was enough life in the old guard to suggest they were still a force.
That all changed after the break when Ballina found a higher gear. And while the return of Ronan McGarrity to active duty will have been broadly welcomed, his was not the essential part in Ballina’s winning formula.
In fact he was replaced early in the second half as a precaution. Whether he is fully ready to be considered for selection against Cork remains to be seen.
After an unimpressive first half, Brian Ruane, who partnered McGarrity, was the biggest influence in Ballina’s recovery. Pat Harte, who moved out from the front line to take over from McGarrity, provided essential assistance and together they shrugged off the authority Sean Morris had wielded earlier.
The strong wind had helped out also, but in neither side was anyone so prominent as to suggest he should be automatically included in John O’Mahony’s squad.  A stranger would be hard pressed to separate the existing county members from the rest.

Mitchels man gets in at number five
NAMES like Eamon Walsh, Willie Loftus, Henry Gavin, Ger Feeney, Kevin Jordan, Johnny Carey, Vincent Nally, Joe Earley, Frank Noone, Pat Holmes, Noel Connelly, Micheal Collins, Alan Roche, Peter Butler, P.J. McGarry, and many more, won’t mean a lot to the younger generation.
But all of them measure up well with players of recent vintage . . . including Peadar Gardiner, Pat Walsh, Tom Cunniffe etc when one comes to choosing the best right-half back over the past fifty years.
I have managed to pare the list of seventy down to three: Eamon Walsh, Ger Feeney and Henry Gavin. From Charlestown, Walsh had a stint with Sligo before crossing the railway divide back to Mayo, and in the five years of his stewardship from 1960 was lively and fearless, earning widespread respect for his indefatigable work rate.
In winning an All-Ireland minor medal in 1971, Ger Feeney also won a glowing compliment from broadcaster Micheál O’ Muircheartaigh: ‘níl sé mór ach tá sé go han tapaigh.’
He captained Mayo to an under 21 Connacht title, and the following year was right-half back on the All-Ireland winning side.
His first of some seventy appearances for Mayo was in 1972 and for the following six years he never missed a league or championship match for the county. He was a replacement All-Star in 1975 and won the ‘player of the tour’ award on that All-Stars trip to America.
Henry Gavin’s inter-county career spanned over two decades. He captained a Connacht minor winning team, won his only All-Ireland medal — with St Jarlath’s College, which he also captained — in 1974, and also holds a brace of Connacht U-21 medals.
Gavin made his senior debut in 1975, got to a national league final in 1978, and was a member of the breakthrough team in Connacht in 1981. Four years later he led the side to another title over Roscommon at Hyde Park.
Gavin will be remembered at the end of that final for the honour he paid the great Dermot Earley, who had played his last game for Roscommon, in carrying him shoulder high from the pitch, with some of his colleagues.
Walsh, Feeney and Gavin set high standards. Feeney was unfortunate to emerge at a time when Mayo’s football fortunes hit the lowest point.  Precocious and confident, he shone under pressure.
Gavin was more reserved, but strong and highly effective on the break, and in one-to-one challenges was invariably successful. He was also part of a renaissance in Mayo football.
It’s a toss of a coin between Feeney and him. Both were special in lean times, but I¹m giving the nod to Feeney . . . a rare blossom in a long, dark Mayo winter.


Just a thought …
Roscommon’s relegation to Division 4 of the Allianz League is difficult to fathom in the light of the Connacht U-21 title won by the county over Sligo last weekend.