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Hard to believe that Mayo will be beaten

Sean Rice
Sean Rice

Hard to believe that we’ll be beaten

Mayo’s mindset should ensure a winning start

Seán Rice

SEVEN years ago when Mayo last experienced the pressure-cooker atmosphere of championship football in Markievicz Park, Peter Ford was in charge of Sligo. The Castlebar-based teacher was enjoying the fruits of a journey which took Sligo to places they had never been before.
As manager the previous season, Ford had led his squad to victory over Tyrone, and to a replay with Armagh in the qualifiers, a match they lost in Navan by two points. Against such distinguished opposition those performances had the air of a side at last coming of age.
So Mayo travelled warily that June day in 2003. Beaten by Cork in the quarter-final the previous year, together with an unremarkable league run, left no one rushing to put his shirt on their survival.  For once against Sligo they were outsiders . . . and we had begun to think the unthinkable.
In the circumstances the favourites lost by three points, and the promise of 2002 was never quite fulfilled. Two years ago Mayo won at McHale Park by ten points.
The setting for Sunday’s meeting is not far removed from what pertained seven years ago. In the shadow of a drubbing by Cork, Mayo make the journey in the hope of rescuing even a modicum of football dignity.
But it is Sligo’s graph that’s rising. And since Kevin Walsh assumed the helm there has been a consistency to that upward curve that Mayo have every right to fear.
Is that fear justified? Or are Sligo flattering to deceive once again?
It is not the winning of Division 3 alone that has the Yeats County cock-a-hoop. Promotion was the culmination of their surge up the football ratings last season during which they came close to beating Galway and Kerry. A missed penalty by Sligo near the end released Kerry from an embarrassment that would have haunted them forever.
Under the guidance of Galway man Walsh, Sligo have now reached the stage where they don’t fear any team anymore. In the league they withstood the severest of tests. Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh was excited by what he saw in the final and named them as the dark horse of the coming campaign.
Stephen Gilmartin, man of the match in the final, is their new midfield find. The defence is built around the battling nature of Charlie Harrison, Ross Donovan and Jonathon Davey while the forward line is led by the experienced Mark Brehony, still thriving in the company of two livewire corner forwards, David Kelly and Colm McGee.
Mayo are on a mission of redemption following their collapse to Cork. Nothing they have done, however, can conceal the scar tissue left not only by Cork but so many previous calamities. Their resilience is unquestionable, but the psyche has taken a battering.
Punishing preparation has been in place to counterbalance the effects of that most recent nightmare. Successful challenges against Cavan, Westmeath and Dublin were followed by a loss to Kildare. That defeat is significant because it was more comprehensive than the one-point margin indicates. In a similar challenge earlier, Sligo drew with the Leinster men.
Having belatedly discovered the need for a better-equipped centre back, tests have not yet unearthed an ideal candidate to replace Trevor Howley. It’s a bit late in the day for experiments and with Brehony in top form for Sligo, it is not a position to be filled by anyone lacking confidence or experience.
Howley, who had been playing well at corner back, is out of contention at any rate because of a hamstring injury, forcing the selectors to install a new centre back. That could be one of three contenders . . . Tom Cunniffe, Donal Vaughan and Kieran Conroy.
The frequency with which they have been tested in recent weeks seems to indicate a leaning by the selectors toward a back line of Chris Barrett, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins, Donal Vaughan, Tom Cunniffe and Kevin McLoughlin, with David Clarke in goal. If Vaughan is chosen at centre-back, Cunniffe may lose out to Peadar Gardiner.  No substantial change from that which did duty in Croke Park.
Ronan McGarrity and Tom Parsons are the most likely midfield men to start and, if he is not carrying an injury, Barry Moran may lead the attack. Trevor Mortimer, Andy Moran, Alan Dillon and Seamus O’Shea will join him. The remaining position is up for grabs but Alan Freeman has most claim to it.
The scarcity of physical power, which we perennially claim is at the root of Mayo’s underachievement, eased somewhat in the league with the inclusion of the O’Shea brothers, Seamus and Aidan. But to our cost we have learned that neither skill nor muscle will produce the desired effect . . . without the will to win. There’s a widespread belief that for all their imperfections, Mayo have the capacity to beat Sligo. One dismal performance, it is said, cannot overshadow an otherwise successful league campaign.  The confidence with which they beat Kerry and Tyrone and Derry in the league will surge back once the ball is thrown in. It’s all in the head. Against teams like Sligo they believe in themselves.
But before disdainfully dismissing the chances of a side over which Mayo have habitually triumphed you have to ask have Sligo’s recent achievements meant more than those of 2002? If not, Mayo will skate home.
On the other hand, you can’t skim over the impact their league promotion and their performances against Galway and Kerry last season must have had on their confidence.
Make no mistake this will be no romp! But like most of my county fellow men I, too, think Mayo will win . . . because they believe they can. But to finally edge out a side champing at the bit for a tilt at the Connacht champions may take extra-time and maybe even a replay at McHale Park.