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Mayo must target good start

Sport

LEADING THE WAY Mayo’s Andy Moran is bidding to win his 9th Connacht Senior Championship medal this summer. Pic: Sportsfile

Column
Billy Joe Padden

IT will be seven weeks since Mayo’s National League campaign ended by the time they run out at MacHale Park next Sunday to start another summer.
Apart from seeing the county lads in action for their clubs over the last few weeks, hard information about players’ form and fitness has been hard to come by.
But the main reason to be optimistic about the months ahead comes from the fact that this Mayo team has, more often than not, played their best football in the championship in the last six seasons.
Of course it was a different story back in 2010, the last time that Sligo ambushed Mayo in the Connacht championship and we left Markievicz Park with our heads spinning.
I was part of that Mayo panel and, without knowing the inner workings of the current set-up, I think it’s safe to assume that things like collective responsibility and leadership in the group has improved dramatically over the last seven years.
We just weren’t up to it that summer and I honestly can’t see this Mayo team producing a ‘non performance’ in a championship game any time soon.
It’s probably no harm that Mayo go into Sunday’s game as raging hot favourites and knowing that a decent performance will be good enough to get the result.
Of course that won’t be the message coming from Stephen Rochford and management, or the senior players, but that’s the reality. Mayo won’t need to be at their best to beat Sligo, whereas they would have to be there or thereabouts against the likes of Galway or Roscommon.
This team has become adept at producing displays where they’re operating at 70% or 80% and still winning games; just think back to the Fermanagh, Kildare, Westmeath and Tipperary games last year.
But one target that Mayo needs to hit is a good start, one that they build on and drive on from, because this is the sort of match that needs to be closed out as quickly as possible.
Sligo shouldn’t be given any encouragement.
They’ll be pumped up by the prospect of silencing the ‘noisy neighbours’ and taking a big scalp. As underdogs they’ll want to hang in there early on and get a grip on the game.
That’s why Mayo need to take control from the get-go because, if they don’t, it can be very hard to turn things around halfway through the day.
The Connacht Final of 2015 provides the ideal blueprint for Mayo to beat Sligo next weekend; use their physical power and experience and athleticism to dominate the middle third, and give the forwards the supply they need to do their damage. Keep it simple and take care of business.
Finding motivation shouldn’t be a huge problem for Mayo; winning their first three games and winning a Connacht championship has to be their driving force right now.
A lot of guys are going for their sixth provincial medal with the likes of Andy Moran and Alan Dillon chasing their ninth.
That has to be a huge incentive.
In terms of how Mayo set up, I firmly believe they have to be thinking in terms of their long-term strategy. They should start as they mean to go on.
Based on the last two league games, for me that means playing with an extra defender or two in the starting team and relying on our running game to do what we do best.
Management have a huge amount of half-back options in the panel so I think we should utilise that by getting four or five of them on the field, and tailor the game-plan around them.
We need to install the plan for August and September now.
That way we’re going to be hard to break down out of possession, and attacking out of that area remains the strength of the team in my opinion.
And whether we like it or not, Sunday is the day Mayo have to start planning ahead for Galway, Roscommon, and the others. Anything less than a six or seven point over Sligo would be a disappointment for me. How we go about getting that result is what I’m looking forward to seeing.

Nothing beats the excitement of championship
IT’S on weeks like this that I really miss playing for Mayo.
All the hardship in training is done, the sun is shining, and the unmistakable whiff of championship is in the air.
It’s such an exciting time to be a county footballer, to be a Mayo footballer, especially for this current squad who know in their heart of hearts that they are still All-Ireland title contenders.
It’s the excitement of getting ready to play championship that I think I miss most since I retired from county football.
That adrenalin rush that comes from preparing yourself for the competition of making the team, or getting into the match-day squad. It’s all about the football and your form, and trying to get the best out of yourself when it matters most.
Even now, I’d like to think that if I could be transported to May in decent shape, I’d nearly come out of retirement for one more spin on the Mayo merry-go-round!
The thought of the championship beginning again refreshes you after the slog and grind of the National League when no two games are the same. It can be a lottery between training schedules, teams targetting matches, and the bad weather.
But with championship, every team are playing on their merits, everybody is going 100%. It’s the true test of a team.
Sometimes it can be hard trying to match your personal ambitions with the collective goals of the group; that’s just human nature. Most players are wired that way.
But this Mayo squad has managed it better than any other Mayo team in my lifetime anyway.
And that’s why they have come closer than any other Mayo group to that elusive All-Ireland. The dream lives on.

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