Billy Joe Padden
LET’S cut to the chase.
Sunday’s win up in Clones last weekend changes everything from a Mayo perspective in terms of the National League.
The plan would have been to take it as it comes, try out some players, and try and pick up some points as they went along.
But beating Monaghan means that if Mayo can follow that up with a win at home to Kerry next Saturday night, then they’re in a very strong position.
Mayo were the only team that won away from home in Division 1 last weekend, and it’s a huge victory for the whole group — management and players.
I have a feeling that both teams went into last weekend’s game in pretty similar shape, with their preparations geared towards championship, and the hard slog still to come.
Because Monaghan are not used to tailoring their season that way — remember how they were jumping out of their skins in Castlebar this time last year? — a lot of their players are not used to grinding out a result when they’re not in tip-top shape.
Mayo are a different animal.
These group of players are old hands at digging out wins in high-pressure situations, they’ve shown over the years that they can go anywhere and get what they need.
Mayo are used to going away from home, without key men, and coming out on top.
For guys like Stephen Coen, Shane Nally, Jason Gibbons and Neil Douglas, days like last Sunday allows them to show that ‘This is what being part of a Mayo squad means’.
You step in, you step up, and you help the team move forward.
With the Super 8s on the horizon later this summer, there’s no doubt that all the All-Ireland contenders are going to need bigger and better squads than ever before.
When I saw the Mayo team that was going to start against Monaghan, my first thought was: ‘That’s actually a stronger team than I thought it would be with all the injuries’.
It was a pleasant surprise to be honest, and there’s definitely a sense that the squad has more depth than maybe we thought initially.
As a Belmullet man, I’m really excited about the prospect of seeing Eoin O’Donoghue get some game-time this spring.
And it’s always a positive when a young guy who’s making his first start is in the mix for man of the match, like he was last Sunday in Clones.
O’Donoghue fits the right profile for the kind of guy that Stephen Rochford will be hoping can step up this season.
He’s an All-Ireland under-21 winner, he’s young, fit, ambitious and a very good footballer.
At the other end of the spectrum, I have to admit I was surprised when word came through that Andy Moran was going to start.
We all know that he wants to play every game, and it suits his mental approach to the season, but I know from experience that wear and tear can catch up with you when you’re into your 30s.
But maybe Stephen Rochford is looking to blitz the first few matches, get four points on board as quickly as possible, and then he can experiment a little more and give the likes of Andy a break.
Speaking of the manager, he will have slept soundly on Sunday night. That win lifts a lot of pressure this week.
And yet, on the flip-side, if this bottom was to fall out of Mayo’s league campaign after winning the first day out, and they were to be relegated, then it would be a complete disaster!
As the saying goes, ‘Who’d be a manager?!’
Kerry remain the litmus test for hopefuls
NOWADAYS if you’re a Mayo footballer there are two teams that will tell you exactly where you stand in the greater scheme of things. One of them are the All-Ireland champions, and the others are Kerry.
So we’ll be a lot wiser about Mayo’s back-up options next Saturday evening, and the big thing to watch out for is how the young guys and new recruits adapt.
Plus, if Mayo win then they will go to Galway in great shape.
Another aspect of next Saturday night’s game that intrigues me is Mayo’s home record at MacHale Park in recent years.
It hasn’t been good, for one reason or another, and it would be great to start making ‘our home advantage count’ like that big sign out the front of the stadium says!
You can be sure that Kerry will have targeted this game for two points, especially in light of the way that Mayo physically dominated them at Croke Park last summer.
Kerry’s deficiencies were ruthlessly exposed by Mayo in both of those All-Ireland semi-finals last August so it’s no surprise to see that Eamonn Fitzmaurice has taken action.
He’s going to bring the biggest, strongest and most athletic team that he can muster to Castlebar next Saturday.
So the onus is on Mayo to match that, and better it.
This is the acid test for guys like Eoin O’Donoghue, David Drake, Stephen Coen, Shane Nally, Evan Regan and Conor Loftus. They need to go out and get the better of their opponents, because when Mayo go into big championship matches next summer, it will be the likes of Kerry that will be there waiting for them.
There is a real edge to the rivalry now between Mayo and Kerry, which makes next weekend’s match one to really look forward to. We’ll know more when it’s over too.