UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL Mayo’s Chris Barrett and Eoin O’Donoghue tussle with Donegal’s Michael Murphy during the All-Ireland SFC ‘Super 8s’ game in Castlebar last August. Pic: Sportsfile
FOR the first time in 18 years the Mayo footballers are beginning a National League campaign as defending Division One champions. The fact that they are starting the defence of that title against last season’s Division 2 winners, Donegal, in Ballybofey next Saturday evening means that focussing the minds shouldn’t take much doing.
There is no shortage of recent history between the two groups of players and the memories of last August’s ‘Super 8s’ game in Castlebar will still be fresh in the minds of most of them.
This ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ derby has developed quite the edge since the 2012 All-Ireland Final and there are still a few battle-hardened survivors from most of their recent rematches knocking around in both panels.
Unfortunately, from a Mayo perspective, it looks like James Horan will be without a few of them next weekend. Chris Barrett and Seamie O’Shea have yet to rejoin the panel and resume training; Aidan O’Shea, who had some repair work done during the off-season, only returned from a holiday abroad last weekend; Cillian O’Connor has been rehabbing his hamstring; while Lee Keegan didn’t tog out for the recent FBD League semi-final defeat to Galway.
There are also a few of the newer guard believed to be carrying knocks and nursing bangs of various levels of seriousness with Ciaran Treacy, Tommy Conroy, Ryan O’Donoghue and James Carr all in that category.
Stephen Coen is also on Sigerson Cup duty with UCD tomorrow (Wednesday).
Meanwhile, Donegal manager Declan Bonner is also planning without some household names this week.
Paddy McBrearty has been abroad in recent months and isn’t expect to feature against Mayo while the likes of Jason McGee, Stephen McMenamin, Paddy McGrath and Oisin Gallen are currently sidelined with injuries.
All-Ireland winners Leo McLoone and Frank McGlynn also retired during the off season.
On the plus side the Ulster champions are hopeful that Eoghan Bán Gallagher will be able to tog out after being out of action since breaking his ankle in training last July.
Key men like Ryan McHugh and Michael Murphy are also fit and raring to go by all accounts.
The counties have faced off five times in the National League over the last seven seasons with Mayo winning twice (2013 and 2017), Donegal once (2016) and there have been two draws (2015 and 2018). The biggest winning margin in those matches was Mayo’s four point victory seven years ago.
Donegal have been installed as marginal favourites to mark their return to the top-flight with a win next Saturday evening, but that is probably down to their impressive home record at MacCumhaill Park as much as anything.
The Tir Chonaill men have only lost once in Ballybofey in league or championship since 2010 — a Super 8s defeat to Tyrone there in the summer of 2018.
One defeat in more than 20 matches over the course of nine seasons speaks for itself.
But in truth, next weekend’s game is being played on a clean slate given the fact that both squads haven’t played a game of consequence since last summer.
Of course the presence of former Mayo manager Stephen Rochford in the Donegal management team also adds an extra layer of interest with the homeside’s coach still looking for his first victory over his native county at the second attempt.
We won’t know what sort of match-day panel that James Horan has been able to assemble until it’s revealed later this week but the starting team is likely to contain quite a few of the stalwarts that lined out against Galway earlier this month.
The likes of Brendan Harrison, Colm Boyle, Paddy Durcan, Tom Parsons, Kevin McLoughlin and Diarmuid O’Connor are all likely to feature while Stephen Coen (assuming he comes through UCD’s game unscathed) and Fergal Boland should also be in the mix.
Matthew Ruane is also set to slot back into midfield.
It may also be an opportunity to take a look at some newcomers like Padraig O’Hora, Mikey Murray and Bryan Walsh who would certainly have their mettle tested.
Mayo are bidding to win their opening league match for the third season in a row next weekend. If they do achieve that aim they will certainly have earned it.
National League Division 1
Donegal v Mayo
Saturday, January 25
Ballybofey at 7.15pm
Referee: D Coldrick (Meath)
Did you know?
MAYO have only lost once to Donegal in eight league and championship meetings since the 2012 All-Ireland SFC Final.