SCRAPING THE CLOUDS Mayo's Ronan McGarrity is pictured in full flight during the All-Ireland SFC qualifier against Cavan two years ago. Pic: Sportsfile
Midfield question to provide answer
THE qualifiers are commonplace now, an intrinsic constituent of the championship. Without them this season Mayo hopes would be trapped in deep winter, in disarray and despair.
In addition to providing counties with a second chance, the qualifiers have also hit a happy medium between those campaigning for an open draw, and those for whom the provincial championships are sacrosanct. With the qualifiers you get a taste of each.
Thus Cavan, who were beaten by Down, engage Mayo on Saturday evening . . . and this time there is no lifeline for the losers. It has been a long seven weeks for Mayo since Galway delivered the coup de grace at Pearse Stadium at the end of May.
The intervening weeks will have exercised the minds of the players as well as their legs, for they have not experienced a defeat as heavy by Galway since 1995 when they lost the Connacht final in Tuam by 0-17 to 1-10.
They could hardly have asked for a more suitable draw to re-establish their ambitions. Cavan are not Armagh or Meath or Donegal. Yet to watch the challenge of the visitors wilt before the onward march of a newly-inspired Mayo might be a little too much to expect.
Cavan may not have reached four All-Ireland finals in the last eleven years, but their temperament is not much different from that of Mayo. When least is expected of them, they spring a surprise.
They come to Castlebar as outsiders. They have had the occasional win over Mayo in the league . . . in 1989 in Ballina, and in 2003 in Breffni Park. On three other occasions Mayo had the better of their tussles.
Their last meeting was in the qualifiers at Hyde Park two years ago, their only championship encounter since the All-Ireland final of 1948 which ended prematurely with Mayo losing by a point. Both were then riding high at the peak of their powers. Neither county has been revisited by the glory of that era.
Mayo won the qualifier in Roscommon by three points, a game remarkable for the extent of their wastage. Doing their level best to present the game to Cavan, Mayo accumulated nineteen wides compared to the losers’ seven, a topical subject throughout the county in the following months.
That result came the season after Mayo lost to Kerry (2004) in the All-Ireland final. Having experienced a similar trouncing by the same county in last year’s final, Mayo’s management will be hoping for greater accuracy on this occasion from Saturday’s game.
Cavan make the journey without two of their mainstream players, Paul Brady and Sean Johnson, who have left for America. Both were key players in the league throughout the spring, and their absence leaves the side at a disadvantage. Their mentors may try to exploit that loss, psychologically, in the lead up to the game . . . in the hope that their absence might lure Mayo into complacency.
They can still boast of abundant talent, and midfield in particular will pose a problem for Mayo where Dermot McCabe and Nicholas Walsh have been operating successfully. McCabe is a positive asset in that department, and his experience of modern midfield play has him fully equipped for any opposition. In their previous encounter, in 2003, he scored five points, and three in the qualifier two years later, which is an indication of his mobility and attacking flair.
His partner is also a big, strong player, who has tasted the toughness of Australian football. His three years with AFL club, Collingwood, has Walsh well prepared for midfield demands although he lined out at centre half forward two years ago.
Larry Reilly is one of Cavan’s great servants. He fits into any forward position with ease and has experienced all sorts of opposition in that capacity. In their league meeting of 2003, which Cavan won at Breffni Park by eight points, Reilly scored three points, but contributed largely to many more. He also scored three points in their 2005 clash. He, Jason Reilly and Mark McKeever are likely to make up the half-forward line.
Other notable members of the team are Michael Graham, Anthony Forde and Joey Jordan, and all of them will provide a stiff test for a Mayo that is likely to consist of some fundamental changes since falling to Galway seven weeks ago.
In the challenges they have had in between, Billy Joe Padden was given a different role. Against Cavan, Laois and Cork, the Belmullet man played in the forward line, a sector to which he was more accustomed before being installed at centre halfback for the league, where he operated with mixed results.
A number of tests were held to fill the berth vacated by Padden, and the selectors may now have decided to introduce David Kilcullen to the rigours of inter-county championship fare. He has had consistently impressive performances for Ballaghaderreen and while inexperience is a handicap, Kilcullen has sufficient ability and conviction to make a successful debut.
More surprising, however, has been the re-shaping of Trevor Mortimer into a defender. You would not have guessed that a man so orientated towards attacking play could be converted to defence. But the Shrule man is likely to hold down one of the wing back positions on Saturday, and his transformation is surely an O’Mahony innovation.
Yet think of it, think of the perseverance of the Shrule man, think of his indefatigable work rate, his nerve, his refusal to quit, and the more logical his transfer to defence becomes. His performance ought to be worth watching.
Peadar Gardiner and David Clarke are likely to be the only survivors in defence from that which did duty two years ago. Dermot Geraghty, Gary Ruane and Pat Kelly are no longer in the picture. David Heaney and James Nallen have moved to other positions. Liam O’Malley will be at full-back, and Trevor Howley is almost certain to be promoted. But the absence of Keith Higgins, who broke a bone in his wrist while hurling for Mayo, is a severe loss.
Midfield, as ever, is crucial. They pull the strings. You can’t operate smoothly nowadays if that sector is not functioning, and ever since Ronan McGarrity left, Mayo’s midfield has been a challenge for the selectors.
The good news is that McGarrity is on the way back. He has faced his illness with remarkable grit and dignity, and his return is a welcome boost to Mayo. It will take a few games to hone him for a full seventy minutes, and hopefully Mayo’s interest will remain alive long enough to see the Ballina man back to full form.
In his absence on Saturday the midfield make-up is difficult to predict. David Heaney is likely to be selected alongside either David Brady or James Nallen . . . whoever has shown up best in training. Pat Harte does not qualify because of suspension. But only when McGarrity is back at full pace will confidence be restored to midfield.
Expectations of Ciaran McDonald’s return appear to have dipped after tweaking a hamstring during training. How the injury has reacted to treatment will determine his chance of taking some part in the proceedings. An injury to the luckless Austin O’Malley may also keep him out of contention.
The re-adaptation of Billy Joe Padden will have added greater muscle to the forward line, and with the likes of Ger Brady, Conor Mortimer, Andy Moran, Alan Dillon, Marty McNicholas, Kevin O’Neill, Aidan Campbell and Aidan Kilcoyne, all in the hunt for places, Mayo, on their home ground, ought to be able to generate enough power to make it to the next round, a week later.