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Croke Park waits for Mayo’s return

Sean Rice
Sean Rice

Final chance to banish ghosts



Croke Park waits for Mayo’s return

Seán Rice

SUNDAY’S final will be the truest measure of a Mayo rebirth since their collapse to Meath last August. They return to the scene of that disaster, and their mindset rather than their football is under scrutiny.
Their football skill is not a doubt. It never is. It is the wavering frame of mind that chips at those skills we find hard to explain. On a good day they are a joy to watch; other times you are left shattered.
Fundamentally, the team has changed little from that beaten by Meath last year.  And few of us enthused of their chances to hold on to first division status, when they started out last February. Four away games against the toughest opposition seemed a bridge too far.
Yet here they are at league’s end topping the division, and on Sunday competing for their twelfth National League title, a record second only to Kerry.
That’s the enigma that is Mayo football.
Dublin’s win was the only blemish of their campaign . . . self-inflicted, as it was, by eighteen wides. But in the end a measure of compensation was won by denying the Dubs a place in the final.
Hard work was the cornerstone of all of their league outings. Old flaws were not entirely eliminated, but were offset to a great extent by a bit of passion, and the willing support of each player for the other.
Seamus O’Shea epitomised that new-found spirit, and set a marker for others. When it all came together, after the break in many cases, their shape was striking.
Impressive though their covering for one another was in defence, however, it was also evident that deep-rooted faults still exist. Cork, despite ten changes, in the first half, exposed a few disquieting chinks which must be a cause for concern.
Fintan Gould and Colm O’Neill caused Mayo hearts to flutter and only desperate defending denied John Hayes a breakthrough. The return of Goulding and Kerrigan will increase that fear.
In the first half, only Liam O’Malley, Chris Barrett, Donal Vaughan, and goalkeeper David Clarke, dealt authoritatively with the pressure. The rest came good only when Mayo upped the tempo after the break, and Cork backed off. That imbalance will win no honours on Sunday.
Seamus O’Shea, the driving force of the team, injured an ankle in that game, and there will be anxious moments about his fitness. The recovery of Ronan McGarrity from injury is a bonus. And management must now decide what pairing is most suitable for midfield.
Tom Parsons can field with the best, but he has little appetite for hard work. He and McGarrity, with Seamus O’Shea helping out from the ‘40’, worked well before. Everything else being equal the selectors may gamble on that strategy again, if O’Shea is fully fit.
Whatever partnership they settle on will have their hands full to win midfield, especially if Nicholas Murphy, who outfielded everyone the last day, makes a return. He and Aidan Walsh are an impressive duo.
Apart from the seventy minutes of wastage against Dublin, the Mayo forward line has performed reasonably well. Aidan O’Shea is beginning to repay the selectors’ confidence in him. We had credited the Breaffy man previously with only one goal bagged for the series, when he had in fact netted against Derry as well as Monaghan.
How well he is fed next Sunday is of primary importance. Cork know how challenging a forward O’Shea is, and they will be wiser next time. A sluggish midfield will lessen his chances of repeating the danger.
Because of urgent defensive measures last time, the Mayo half-back line got few chances in the first half to assist their midfield or forwards. That improved when Vaughan and Barrett later forced the pace. Without their help on Sunday the front line will have few pickings.
Trevor Mortimer has not quite reached in the league the standard he set in other competitions, but his experience is invaluable. So, too, is that of Andy Moran, Alan Dillon and Conor Mortimer. Who completes the line depends on who is thought to be most ready.
Cork are clear favourites, even though all favourites in the division have fallen to Mayo . . . including a weakened Cork. That’s Mayo . . . their notorious unpredictability, a constant torment to their followers. Sunday’s final is an opportunity to banish a few ghosts.

Last spot in backs had to be Nallen’s

IN picking my ‘Best Mayo Team since 1960’, James Nallen is the final piece of my defensive jigsaw. He was second choice for the central position  . . . edged out only by the great John Morley.
But Nallen’s contribution to Mayo football will always find a generous response from those who have followed his county career for the past fifteen years.
He stands alone as the longest serving Mayo footballer of all time. From the day he first donned the county’s senior jersey in the league back in 1994 he toiled unremittingly to steer Mayo to the mountain top. He lined out on 132 occasions and got to four finals, only to be denied by the intangible hurdle that has denied them that final inch all those years.
Throughout the past fifty years eighty-seven players graced the left flank of defence, a host of wholehearted young men striving to close the yawning gap in the county’s football history. Few will remember Tommy Treacy or Willie Joe Padden occupying that slot, or Joe Langan or John Morley. All of them did, before finding the positions with which they were to become more familiarly associated.
I was in Derry more than forty years ago when Joe Earley, playing left-half back, broke a leg. Energetic and vigorous in challenging for the ball, Earley had been making that position his own up to the time of his accident.
We remember great performances from Willie Loftus on the left flank, and Martin Flatley, Vincent Nally, Seamus O’Connor, Brian O’Reilly, Michael O’Toole, Pat Holmes, the uncompromising John Finn and many more.
Fergal Costello was a tower of strength there; Aidan Higgins, Alan Roche, Pat Kelly and Peadar Gardiner had big performances on the left flank. But perhaps Henry Gavin, Noel Connelly and John Finn offer the most serious challenge to Nallen’s claim for selection.
Connelly captained Mayo’s last National League win nine years ago, and together with Pat Holmes and Micheal Collins, steered Mayo to an All-Ireland U-21 win four years ago.
Nallen did not play at left-half back, but was capable of adapting to it as he had to many other positions. The Crossmolina man was durable, sharp and astute, virtues he took to every position.
He was given a broader stage in 1998 when selected to play for Ireland against Australia. He was also a member of the side that beat the Aussies the following year. And of course he was a mainstay of Crossmolina¹s great All-Ireland victory in 2001.
There were no theatrics to his play. Everything was done efficiently but modestly.  In good times and bad, Nallen was there for Mayo, a rock of sensibility..

NEXT WEEK NUMBER EIGHT

Just a thought …
Mayo GAA Board once presented county players and officials of certain service in the GAA with county crests. Serious thought should be given to reviving a fine old custom.

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