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Going about to get very tough

Kevin McStay
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Mayo’s Andy Moran runs into Donegal’s Paddy Campbell
NOTHING EASY Mayo’s Andy Moran runs into Donegal’s Paddy Campbell during the recent NFL match at Ballybofey.  Pic: Sportsfile

Going about to get very tough

Kevin McStayKevin McStay

HOW tough then is this national league? A few weeks ago we told you how the promotion and relegation battles would be decided and the message that falls out is a simple one: there are few soft touches out there in the respective divisions.
There was a time when every NFL fixture list threw up the opportunity for a nice weekend away, a bit of bonding and the certainty of the two points come Sunday. And if your manager or county secretary was considerate enough to book the hotel with the best nite-club in the county, then it made for the type of weekend we pay big money for these days.
Indeed there was a time when a hotel booking by a county or Sigerson team had to be negotiated over a period of weeks with special clauses inserted on the insurance policy. I was talking to a hotel owner last weekend that was listing the football bookings he had lined up for the summer and how happy he was to get the business. I enquired if the maintenance bill was higher than the booking itself and he laughed: ‘Those days are long gone. Now it’s about quiet, no disco, floors to themselves, a pool for rehab and a menu that an Olympic athlete might insist on’.
The cameras were out in force for the opening round when Mayo faced up to Kerry and the excellent victory for the home team allowed them take top place in the table later that night on points difference. A week later a superb round two match ended in defeat against the fast improving men of Donegal. It meant we dropped to third and saw our scoring difference at zero.
This weekend we had the postponed match between Fermanagh and Limerick played up in Clones and a win for the visitors (we deem Limerick to have travelled the furthest!) meant another drop for the men of Mayo. We are now in fourth place, on equal points with Limerick (ahead of us on PD), with Kerry and Dublin matching our single win, but with an inferior scoring record.
On a weekend when we don’t even play we fall a place in the league table and with almost a third of the matches played, one gets a keen sense of how tight this league is. Not only is every league point gained going to be critical, every point kicked over the bar or conceded at the other end, might well make all the difference.
The circuit is cut-throat this season and will remain in future years because the new system of graded divisions from 1 to 4 will mean there are no push-overs involved. And in this environment, how does one blood the young trialist that might make all the difference? It is certainly a difficult balance; you want to introduce young hopefuls into a solid and competitive side but if you overcook the meal the good teams out there will hammer you.
One key difference these days is in the area of physical fitness and if you have little or no work done come mid January then be prepared for defeats and the odd hammering too. The lower-rated teams are well able to beat you if they have a significant advantage in the conditioning stakes so the season must start earlier than many of the purists might like.
This year some teams set sail in September while Championship 2006 still played out. By November the majority were aboard and only the very best could afford a December start.
The NFL table is most revealing when you analyse the points difference in the two top divisions. While some teams have suffered two defeats already (Cork and Galway for instance) their respective PD is only a handful of points. Which informs us the defeats are narrow ones and this fact is replicated across these divisions; again, no handy fixture out there.
And when you develop this particular analysis, it becomes apparent that a couple of wins against the teams perched in the top four can change things instantly. So, the message to Mayo footballers over the next few weeks is clear: if you get on top hammer home the scores and should you be struggling remember the match must be played out to its full length in search of the scores that will make the defeat ‘worthwhile’.
This league really is the mother of all footballing battles. This season Mayo play four of their seven matches away from home. The Limerick fixture this Sunday is the middle home match, not much wriggle room for the protagonists.

CLUBBING TOGETHER AND GOLDEN MEMORIES
ST BRIGID’S of Roscommon will look back on their encounter with Crossmaglen Rangers and really regret the lost opportunity. Maybe not today, or perhaps this year, but in time they will take out the tape, open a beer and reflect. And two areas will form the focus of the reflection: the easy missed chances for points when Cross’ were struggling and the Oisín McConville assist for the crucial goal.
Let’s deal with the goal first. I scanned a few of today’s newspapers and have viewed the footage of the match also and it seems to me St Brigid’s have a real crib. Oisín is quite brilliant in the lead up to the goal, indeed his vision to pick out the supporting player is a view very few players have. But he most certainly fouled the ball before he deftly hopped it across his body to make the vital opening. It should have been a free out.
That was a matter they had no control over, as all refereeing matters are, and you must get on with things. They did move on and got back into a great position from which they might win but kicked some horrible wides just as the door was opening. A few short minutes later Oisín and his men slammed it closed and that was that.
Crossmaglen are a massive club side and I suppose they were the more efficient team throughout but they have a long history of dry spells and the opposition did not avail of their break in play. Ballina Stephenites know a thing or two about this type of opportunity. The Mayo men came back from the heartache to win the All-Ireland and the Rossies can do the same. But only if you stop looking on in awe; a gift horse is, after all, a gift horse.

WE gathered in the local clubhouse to look back at the reason we all came together over two decades ago. Similar to the popular TG4 programme, All Ireland Gold, I am delighted the passing of time did not change the bottom line: yes, the standard was fierce ordinary and yes, the result still stands and will forever.
Ballina Stephenites won the Moclair Cup in 1985 for the first time since 1966. Playing for the club at that time gave one the strong sense that a famine was in progress and an older generation of men could not understand why the shortage was continuing.
Thankfully they did more than talk about it and decided instead to sow their own food. Bord na nÓg was supplying a rich harvest and it just had to bear fruit in the end. In 1985 we won a difficult championship but by 1987 we knew how to win them a little easier.
Those two squads, comprised of more or less the same players, gathered to have a laugh, reminisce, tell white lies and be thankful all but one of us had been spared.
It was a time when football was very enjoyable, the craic was ninety and the things we got up to a howl. I keep hoping that today’s players will have the same memories when their time comes. After all, friendship and enjoyment and the odd win are what it is all about.