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Time for Mayo footballers to take a brief breather

Sean Rice

IT TAKES TWO TO TANGO Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly and Mayo’s Lee Keegan tussle during the All-Ireland SFC Final replay at Croke Park. Pic: Sportsfile

Column
Seán Rice

THE heaving emotions have subsided. Our footballers take a breather… and the pen also takes a rest.
It’s a short-lived break for the Mayo men. Within a few weeks a new season will be on us, and in their bid to sustain the impact they have made over the past six years, the sacrifices annually prescribed for them have recommenced.
By any standard it was an extraordinary year. Almost forgotten amid the excitement of the seniors’ surge to the final was the feat of the county’s under-21s.
From the day in Markievicz Park when they overcame Roscommon, the clear favourites for the Connacht title, Mayo’s foresight and self-assurance in picking their way steadily to the summit stunned the cognoscenti.
It also yielded a few senior prospects, and Stephen Rochford will be hoping they will fill important places in the coming Allianz League. Diarmuid O’Connor, Michael Hall, Conor Loftus, and Stephen Coen, the captain, had already the benefit of senior league experience before they captured the title.
When he replaced Lee Keegan in the final, Coen displayed rare composure for one of his age in curbing Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly.
O’Connor’s superb football earned him the Young Player of the Year award, for the second year in a row, emulating similar achievements by his brother Cillian. How richly earned it was. His performances were unparalleled at senior and under-21 level. In recent months too much has been asked of the young man. He needs a break before the big stuff starts again.
I’m not so sure the significance of the selection of Lee Keegan as the country’s footballer of the year has fully sunk home here in Mayo.
Only for the most distinguished is this honour reserved. Keegan has adorned Mayo football all season. His defensive qualities have not been confined alone to the year just gone. For the past six years, he has been an accomplished central figure in the Mayo defence.
The distinction is all the more prestigious since it was conferred on a player who had not won an All-Ireland senior medal. And while it may be cold comfort to Mayo followers to suggest that the Sam Maguire might now be resting on a Mayo side table if the Westport man had not been black-carded, it is at least acknowledgement of Keegan’s widely respected defensive
philosophy.
Who knows, maybe in some indirect way, that award is also a reprimand for the inconsistency of officials who bow to outside influences rather than depend on their own sense of justice in making decisions. Maybe it was also aimed at sideline officials who sometimes see nothing when blatant infringements are so obvious to everyone else.
Mayo have suffered those past few years at the hands of officials who abdicate their responsibilities, and while we repeat our mantra that Mayo must always be good enough to beat not only the opposition but also to overcome whatever the referee throws at them, it is galling that the powers-that-be pay little heed to incompetent match officials.
Lee Keegan was not the only victim of unfair treatment.  No match passes that Aidan O’Shea is not singled out for special attention. Dragged, bullied and sledged freely and frequently, is it any wonder the Breaffy man walks off every playing pitch utterly frustrated at the lack of protection for him from indecisive officials?
It’s not good enough for a player who never spares himself for Mayo.
Were he a Dublin footballer, the outcry would be deafening.
In the absence of any attempts towards re-schooling officials, we can expect more of the same for the coming season, more bad refereeing, more spineless linesmen. It is something to which young county player have got to adjust.

Search for new blood to resume in New Year
THE introduction of new blood will occupy Stephen Rochford’s mind in the FBD League, which commences in January. And in addition to those from the all-conquering under-21 side who have already experienced senior fare, more are sure to be added.
But new forward talent so vital for the perseverance of Mayo’s challenge for ultimate honours may be more difficult to nail down. Few stood out in the senior championship retained recently by Castlebar Mitchels.
Neil Douglas was their top scorer, the outstanding forward of the championship. Adept with both feet, his is a skill no forward on the Mayo senior team has managed to perfect. The Mitchels man was called up for county trials a few years back, but was not given sufficient time to unfurl his rare ability. His interest in county football may now be so strong.
Cian Costello has had an impressive year for the Mitchels, but may not have the physical stature to succeed at county senior level. Knockmore’s Keith Ruttledge ought to be in line for a call-up, and Breaffy’s Matthew Ruane has been talked of as senior potential.
Stars of the future often emerge from the least impressive beginnings. While Paddy Durcan’s qualities were never in doubt in the underage grades, the swift and unexpected transition of Brendan Harrison into an All-Star defender has been another of the great stories of Mayo football this past season.
Contrast that with the decline of Shane Nally. All through the Allianz League campaign last spring, the Garrymore man stood out as industrious and capable. But when the season campaigners got tuned up and the winter cobwebs were brushed away, Nally seemed a long way off the required standard and even in the county championships had not regained the form that won him league selection last year. Some players obviously winter better than others.
While the gap in grades must be taken into consideration, Westport in their climb back to senior status produced football that put some existing senior sides in the shade. And in winning their first Connacht title, some Louisburgh stars have also come under the spotlight. There is potential there if it can be worked on.
It would not be right to let the year pass without paying tribute to Enda Gilvarry, who has retired as county minor team manager and who led his side to the All-Ireland title three years ago.
It was the county’s first success in 28 years and it brought to an end concern and doubt about the handling of minors since Mick Burke guided them to their previous title in 1985.
Disquiet is widespread in some circles about the severity of the training minors undergo in general. Premature injury to some minors has been attributed, rightly or wrongly, to too rigorous workouts for inter-county championships.
We have no knowledge of the methods used by Enda Gilvarry, but he deserves the county’s thanks for closing a gap that in county minor circles had lengthened much too far.

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