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The waiting's over

Sean Rice
mayo team 1975
WORTH REMEMBERING Pictured are the Mayo team that lost to Sligo in the Connacht final replay of 1975. Back row, left to right: Ted Webb (RIP), Con Moynihan, Ivan Heffernan, Frank Burns, Willie McGee, TJ Farragher, Eamon Brett, John O’Mahony. Front: Ger Farragher, JP Kean, Gerry Feeney, Tommy O’Malley, Sean Kilbride, Seamus Reilly (RIP), Mick Higgins.?Pic: Tom Campbell

Sligo hoping to catch us cold

Sean RiceSean Rice
THEY come as champions, and all Mayo is wondering will Sligo play like champions. Will it be on the irrepressible bounce of last season’s shock over Galway they come to Castlebar — or with the faded image portrayed in league relegation?
And how will they find Mayo when they come: lively, spirited, ambitious . . . or a passive host?
Since they haven’t had a championship match we are unable to evaluate Mayo’s current form, to gauge their sharpness, or feel the tremble of their energy in the ground.
On Sunday they test the water for the first time, the last county in the province to commence their campaign. It’s been a long wait since they lost to Tyrone in their final game of the league, eight solid weeks ago. In the meantime Galway and Leitrim have completed two rounds.
If on the scale of their league achievements you were to predict the outcome of Sunday’s match, Mayo would romp home in a canter. By that standard Sligo could have lost to London.
The fact that they won by sixteen points bears out the argument that league form is not the model on which to base championship predictions. Galway learned that to their cost last year; Mayo did in 2000 when they lost in Sligo by three points. Leitrim disproved the theory last Sunday.
Complacency, therefore, is unlikely to be a factor when Mayo and Sligo meet on Sunday, their first in the championship for five years. Mayo struggled to a three-point win on that occasion at Markievicz Park. In 2001 Sligo ran them to two points in the semi-final at MacHale Park, and for Mayo it was small compensation for defeat the previous year.
Mayo have more reason to be wary this time because they face the reigning Connacht champions, whose performance against London in Ruislip is an indication of their determination to hold onto the title they won last season for the first time in 32 years.
Sligo will be heartened by the performance of Gary Gaughan who in his first outing for the county on that occasion scored 1-1 in the opening three minutes.
Gaughan also set up the seasoned Mark Brehony for Sligo’s second goal, and the St Mary’s man eventually overshadowed the young debutante’s storming start by raking in a whopping 1-11, nine of those points coming from frees. Is it any wonder Sligo returned home feeling they had put their league form behind them?
By all accounts Mayo will be lining out without one of the pillars of their defence Trevor Howley who has been sidelined for some time with injury. The Knockmore man is well on the way to recovery and is undertaking light training, but will not be ready to resume his centre-half back berth on Sunday. It looks like Conor Mortimer will have recovered in time but it is not certain that Alan Dillon will be fit to play.
All are losses Mayo can ill afford. In anticipation of Howley’s absence for the opening round, the selectors may turn to Tom Cunniffe to fill the role, a position with which the Castlebar man is not unfamiliar and from which he impressively led Mayo’s under 21 All-Ireland semi-final revival against Kerry.
For all the punishment he has absorbed during his career, Mortimer has been relatively free from injury. He has been Mayo’s leading forward for many years, and sometimes — when he does not quite reach the very high standard he has set himself — he falls in for unfair criticism.  He is entitled to be off-colour on occasions, but his worth will be fully recognised only in his absence. Hopefully he will have recovered in time to line out on Sunday.
Dillon has also been an essential cog in the forward line and the absence of both would leave David Heaney and Trevor Mortimer the sole survivors from the 2003 side.
Sligo have also undergone serious surgery. From the team of ‘03, only Patrick Naughton, Michael McNamara, Eamon O’Hara and Mark Brehony bridged the gap at Ruislip, while John McPartland and Sean Davey were drafted in from the bench in the second half.
But for most of the thirty or more players Sunday’s will be their first clash. Whatever they have learned about one another will have come not from face to face experience but from the study of videos and the advice of mentors.
Practicality aside, however, Mayo are sufficiently aware of the accomplishments of Eamon O’Hara to be wary of the influence he exerts on his colleagues. His goal in the Connacht final last year was one of the scores of the year, and clear evidence of his experienced midfield stewardship. With Kieran Quinn by his side, Sligo will pin their hopes on the wisdom of their old star to plot victory.
No sector operates efficiently without midfield power, and Mayo have had a fair share of contenders for starting places in that sector throughout the league. Management will have settled for Ronan McGarrity and Tom Parsons for the Sligo match, and no one will disagree with that pairing.
Although he has not reached his own imposing heights for some time, the Mayo captain has of late begun to show a timely return to assertiveness for Ballina, and is expected to hit form on Sunday. Tom Parsons has a style reminiscent of some great fielders of the past and, although inclined to fade out of the game for short periods, bears a confidence that belies his experience.
Midfield, of course, does not hold all the answers. There will be testing moments for Keith Higgins, David Heaney, Colm Boyle, and for Kieran Conroy who is likely to get the nod over Billy Joe Padden for the full-back berth. In a desperate bid for a replacement, management threw the Shrule man the reins when Padden was forced out through injury.
Conroy had little or no experience of full-back play. How they stumbled on him, I’m not sure, but he manned the post admirably in the absence of Billy Joe, and ought to be preferred against Sligo. The readiness of Billy Joe to take over will be an incentive for Conroy to prove himself.
Trevor Mortimer is most likely to fill the centre half-forward spot. No man deserves selection more than the Shrule man, and no man has suffered more for his fearlessness. He epitomises the image that is not always held of Mayo football by outside observers.
He will have as company in the forward line, Pat Harte, playing his best football for some time, Austin O’Malley,  Andy Moran and hopefully Conor. The choice for a replacement if Dillon is unavailable could be Aidan Kilcoyne, Peadar Gardiner or Mark Ronaldson.
An eight-week pause since completing the league campaign has been no help to Mayo’s prospects. A couple of hot and cold challenges have been played in the meantime, but challenges in the true sense of the word are not challenges at all. They rarely whip up the passion required for championship survival.
Nobody expects Mayo to lose on Sunday, but there is a nagging fear that Sligo will have drawn enough strength from last year’s success and from Leitrim’s adventurous spirit to upset their plans. Mayo will not be quaking, but they will not get away with a half-hearted performance.

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