MAYO’S future belongs to the likes of Eoin O’Donoghue.
Understudy to Keith Higgins throughout the league, the young Belmullet man is making steady progress, patently eager to learn from the master.
In no game has he been out of his depth. Inexperience dealing with Paul Mannion cost him Dublin’s opening goal in MacHale Park. A learning curve to be sure, and to his credit it did not undermine his confidence, or destabilise his defensive instincts.
It is for budding potential of his likes that Stephen Rochford has been combing the county, ardent hopefuls wanting to become a Keegan or an O’Shea or a Boyle or a Durcan. Maybe more in the shape of Andy Moran, Rochford might maintain, of which there is a critical scarcity!
In the absence of the established players an opportunity arises for replacements to launch their careers on the Mayo scene. Regardless of general opinion, appeals to the selectors to introduce new talent have been heard. Eight of the team beaten by Dublin recently did not start in the All-Ireland.
But it does appear the county is not blessed with genuine contenders. Many of those being assessed are unable to nudge out regulars sidelined by injury. It is a ready made opportunity for newcomers, but the bar has been set so high that some look no better than average by comparison.
In fairness, would-be hopefuls are not expected to meet those standards over night. Growing into a team of Mayo’s calibre is a painful process, trial and error to a degree.
In MacHale Park especially the problem is magnified when thousands of eyes are pinned on you, howling, weighing, evaluating every kick, every pass, measuring you against the star you are standing in for.
Stephen Coen is among the best to emerge from the underage ranks in recent years. His cv ought to be a manager’s dream. In naming him captain, bosses at minor, under 21 and Sigerson Cup level have acknowledged his inherent leadership qualities.
In Mayo’s senior ranks his promise is without doubt, his work-rate beyond question. In the All-Ireland of 2016 he stood in for Lee Keegan when the Westport man was black-carded, and curbed the danger that Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly had posed.
That performance did not win him first team promotion, but throughout last year’s campaign he was among the first to be called on by the selectors, their most reliable replacement for defence or midfield.
Will it be thus in the coming championship? Will his rising star continue to glow when the regular complement return. Will a well-served apprenticeship be finally rewarded with promotion?
Right now a starting place at midfield for Coen is conceivable only if injury or loss of form rule out Seamie O’Shea or Tom Parsons . . . or in the absence of any of the existing half-back line.
The dilemma with which Stephen Rochford has to wrestle is this: Can he continue to get the best out of Stephen Coen from the bench, or will his place among the reserves limit his capacity to develop?
And what of Eoin O’Donoghue? His potential is unquestionable. Yet, in a head to head with Keith Higgins for the corner spot, the Ballyhaunis man is still the unanimous choice.
Following his impressive championship season for Ballintubber, Jason Gibbons has worked his way back into the league side. rebuilding his confidence and re-assuring followers of his fielding capabilities. Will he be there when Tom Parsons and Seamie O’Shea return to full form?
What Gibbons lacks just now is county senior experience, and a resolute disposition in taking on and shaking off opponents. He has the equipment and is beginning to impose himself on the position. Like Coen, he must also rank high in the manager’s estimation.
Management is ever anxious to ensure that no chasm exists between bench and first fifteen. No one of the 21 players is less crucial to the team’s objective. All are groomed equally, all first choice. As Dublin have proven, without a good bench sustained success is not possible.
It’s a formidable aura the established players have created. The absence of the injured stars has pushed the county to the edge of relegation and those calling for change are now forced to admit that the new shoots are not yet in full bloom. In short, for all of their collective mileage, the existing engine is not yet seen to be burning oil.
Snow only postpones the inevitably huge contest
STEPHEN Rochford will have welcomed deferral for a week of Mayo’s vital league clash with Kildare. It provides more valuable preparation time for those about to return, that extra few days to sharpen the senses and the desire to claw in those points so essential to survival in the top division.
A lot of teams are scrambling for points . . . especially Mayo and their remaining three opponents, Kildare, Tyrone and Donegal. It’s a dogfight they find themselves in and it will take an almighty effort to cleave from those games the desired results.
We are suckers for finding excuses for our defeats. Against Dublin we drew some mental comfort from imagining how it might have been if the blight of inaccuracy had not intervened. For all the conjecture about what gear Dublin might have been driving, I think they could have been caught, and that it was another opportunity lost for Mayo.
Last week’s postponement makes Mayo’s task next Sunday no easier. They travel to Newbridge in the knowledge that time is running out and that only a performance above anything produced so far will haul them from the chasm.
Without a point from their four games, Kildare have their backs to the wall. No further ground is available to give. Another defeat and the trap door yawns.
Consequently, a gripping contest looms on Sunday.
Mayo, too, are on the face of the cliff and looking down. Their sole win, against Monaghan, which seemed then to herald an easy campaign, has lured all of us to expect too much from a skeleton side.
The make-up of Sunday’s starting side will not be known before this column appears. But to field the strongest selection available to him will be the manager’s concern.
We know Cillian O’Connor will be back after suspension, and hopefully with his sights re-adjusted. But who of the old guard will join him remains to be seen.
We could do with the lot.
Mitchels appoint management duo
CASTLEBAR Mitchels have appointed Russell Gibbons and Rodney Clarke as joint managers of their intermediate team for the coming season.
Russell, who played senior football for the club, is son of Joe Gibbons, a corner back, who won several county senior medals with the club in the fifties.