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Champions will test Mayo's mettle

Sean Rice
Aidan O'Shea in action against Tyrone

Champions will test Mayo’s mettle


Sean RiceSean Rice

SO fickle were the results of the last round that neither Mayo nor Tyrone can be certain they are out of danger. Six points ought to be enough for each to hold their place in Division 1, but the unexpected defeats of Kerry and Galway leave no room for smugness. Similar shocks next Sunday could spoil the party.
Mayo and Tyrone were in similarly parlous positions when they met at the same stage in the league in Omagh around this time last year. Both had won two games each, lost three and drew one. Although Mayo lost that final match by two points, they escaped relegation.
A couple of months later they met again in the championship qualifiers and Tyrone had a point to spare. It was their springboard to a third All-Ireland title. Mayo took the familiar trek back home to begin all over again.
So on Sunday they come face to face again, at McHale Park, each buoyed by their success in the previous round — although the victory of Mayo over Galway drew more wonder than that of Tyrone over Derry.
You would have to be in Tuam to appreciate the transformation in Mayo. We searched at half-time for some ray of light, but there was nothing to recommend them. This was their nadir, and there seemed no way back.
David Clarke’s bravery in goal in the first half set a precedent for their recovery. Clever changes by management also helped to fire Mayo after the break, and suddenly numbed by a couple of explosive strikes, Galway began to struggle nervously.
We’ll not redefine the parameters yet though. Heartening signs have deluded us before. But for the first time in their six league outings this season, the outline of a solid backbone was recognisable. For once, in the second half, Mayo looked good down the centre.
One good half does not compensate for the bad one, however. Tyrone will provide their usual tough test and it will take more than 35 minutes of football to surmount that obstacle. Because of the unpredictability of the other outcomes neither can afford to lose. A cracker, therefore, must be on the cards.
The success of the U-21 side may prevent John O’Mahony from including them on Sunday. Following their strong performances against Galway we would all like to see O’Shea and McLoughlin in action again but wiser counsel might advise against it unless Mayo plunge to similar depths as those suffered in the first half before recovering against Galway.
Ger Cafferkey has begun to fit into the defensive plan so well that he is likely to start and John O’Mahony may entrust O’Shea once more with the full-foward berth. But there is a danger of overkill especially in the case of O’Shea.
The teenager is on call for U-21, senior, college and club Breaffy, for whom he starred in a league match after Saturday’s victory. In all of those games he is a marked man, and the fear is that he will suffer from burnout before his full potential is realised.
Mayo has for a long time been in short supply of the qualities that the Breaffy man has to offer. He won’t be brushed aside easily. But excessive football at such a tender age is his enemy. The danger is unlikely to be lost on Pat Holmes or Noel Connelly.  But is anyone else listening?
Tom Parsons and Donal Vaughan are also certain to stake claims in the senior side for the championship, and with the imminent return of Keith Higgins from Australia keen competition for places, especially in defence, will provide the selectors with a surfeit of choice.
Ronan McGarrity did not line out with Ballina in their opening match of the league against Breaffy on Sunday. But Pat Harte was in top form until he got sent off seconds from the end for a heavy tackle on O’Shea.
The big hope for Sunday is that Mayo will have wrung from their system the lethargy that has ravaged their first half performances for much of the league campaign.
There were plenty of positives to be grasped from their win over Galway, but the fear has not yet vanished that they will again slip back to the margins of that promise, and leave us all less optimistic about the championship.


MANAGEMENT DESERVE
CREDIT FOR U-21 TITLES

SO Mayo captured their fourth successive Connacht U-21 title at Sligo on Saturday. That’s a record worth noting and surely must count for something in Mayo’s bid to regain the initiative in Connacht, and re-burnish hopes of bridging that senior all-Ireland gulf.
Pat Holmes, Noel Connelly and Micheál Collins have managed once again to inspire their young men, and while Sligo did not produce the stiff opposition expected of them, the laurels were earned against Galway and particularly Roscommon in that remarkable semi-final.
The spirit that won them the reprieve in that match at Charlestown literally seconds from the final whistle when we had our notebooks tucked away and were about to bow to Roscommon¹s brave recovery, was the key to their success on Saturday.
It is one more feather in the cap of management. This trio must be the most successful in Mayo coaching history and they deserve unending praise for getting the best from their players and providing a solid foundation for future senior sides.
BALLINA GET NEW SEASON OFF TO A VERY GOOD START
WITHOUT Ronan McGarrity, Ballina looked vulnerable when they took on Breaffy in their first league match of the season. And if Breaffy had taken their goal chances the Stephenites might not have survived on home ground.
They can thank Liam Brady that they did. Normally in the forward line, Brady filled in at midfield for the absent McGarrity . . . and played a blinder.
In that role he scored a total of 1-7 (four points from frees) and even outshone Pat Harte in general play. Less adept at high fielding than in his distribution and general work, Brady was a revelation and it is to him that Ballina can point as the mainstay of their win.
How well they do this season was not revealed in this performance. For in truth Breaffy could have had the match won at half-time even though playing into a diagonal wind. Three goal chances let the Stephenites off the hook.
Brady’s goal just before the interval, and three successive points immediately after it, knocked the fight out of the visitors. They lost their shape once the old experience of Harte, McGarry, Ruane and Brady asserted itself.
Conceding penalties is becoming a habit of David Clarke. But when you are as assured a goalkeeper as the Mayo star there might be method in his madness. His tackle on Paul Conroy resulted in Michael Meehan slicing the ball wide from the penalty spot against Galway.
On Sunday he brought down Marty McNicholas, and then proceeded to save the resultant penalty from Barry Jordan. Both saves spared the blushes of his teams.
The danger is that certain referees would send him to the line for such heavy tackles. You cannot fault the Ballina man’s bravery however. Against Galway it served to inspire an unlikely victory.