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Starting from scratch

Sean Rice
SECOND COMING Pat Kelly’s recent good form with St Vincent’s in Dublin has earned him another chance with Mayo. Pic: Michael Donnelly

Mayo must start from scratch

THE enthusiasm with which John O’Mahony was greeted at Ballinode last January on his long awaited return as Mayo boss will be more subdued on Sunday when he leads his first team of the new year into action at Ballinrobe.
What will not have diminished, however, is the curiosity of the expected big attendance for Mayo’s first competitive game of the year, against NUI, Galway in the FBD Connacht League.
The hype surrounding O’Mahony’s return to the helm last season had about it a ring of irrational expectation, as if the Ballaghaderreen man had in him the power to work overnight in Mayo the wonders he had performed in Galway.
It was as if people expected, that night in the grounds of Sligo IT, to find every player imbued with the secret to success, each brandishing a new All-Ireland winning formula.
They left Ballinode with less exalted aspirations following Mayo’s four-point loss to the Sligo college. It was of course a trial team O’Mahony had fielded, and many of the players were new to him. To experienced observers of the Mayo scene the capacity of some to compete at the highest level was in doubt, but it was imperative that the new manager and his selectors overlooked no potential star.
The management team did get the best out of what they inherited in the National League series. Like the previous season, Mayo were at their peak and most confident in the league. Wins against the likes of Kerry, Tyrone and Dublin were vital in order to secure Division 1 status, and Mayo had to train that bit harder for those victories.
To have reached the league final was considered steady progress, although their three-point defeat to Donegal in the final left us still wondering about their mental quality. The old mindset seemed stuck still in mediocrity.
That old chink was exposed once more in the first round of the championship when they were ousted by Galway at Pearse Stadium on May 20. The manner of that defeat was embarrassing. They were taken asunder by their old rivals, walloped by seven points, confined to a score of two points from play. Not a wisp of imagination was evident in that performance, not a peep of potential. It was Mayo with even less of the passion and ardour of recent years.
In dishing out a good old hiding to their closest rivals, Galway had made up for their loss to Mayo in the league semi-final. The Tribesmen could have read too much into that victory for their loss to Sligo in the Connacht final bore all the appearance of complacency.
Nobody begrudged Sligo that unexpected victory, their first in thirty-two years, and what for them and their supporters was the equivalent of an All-Ireland title. But Galway’s self-assurance did overflow in the wake of their comprehensive win over Mayo.
The long wait between Mayo’s exit from the championship and their re-entry by the back door in July with victory over Cavan was excessive. And while they overcame Cavan by six points in the first Qualifier, they could not match Derry on their home ground in the next round.
That was the extent of their interest in the championship. They never managed to reassemble the mental fragments of that crash in Galway, and an announcement of sweeping retirements was expected after their defeat to Derry. But there was none.
Now, close on six months later, we wonder what John O’Mahony has been cooking up in the meantime. For the past couple of months he has a squad toning up with weights and other devices, and Mayo followers will flock to Ballinrobe on Sunday hoping to witness the foundation of a new team.
They’ll be wondering whether he has slotted the old servants into his plans for the coming season; whether he has in mind to use the likes of David Heaney, James Nallen, David Brady and Ciaran McDonald, or whether the FBD and Allianz leagues will become the platform for the launch of a new Mayo . . . a John O’Mahony exclusive.
The fact that no retirement has been announced is in itself a notification that all are available for selection. Although he has already announcement his retirement from inter-county football, David Brady is enjoying renewed vitality for Ballina. And while Nallen and McDonald bowed out of the county championship with no more than a whimper, they, too, were reinvigorated in the league final.
From the training programme he has set them the manager will have gleaned facts about the mettle of the men over whose potential he is at present pouring.
He will have seen the best of the old brigade, but can be under no illusion about the difficulties of building a new, successful team without some input from the collective experience of the four we have already mentioned.
None is likely to tog out on Sunday. In every sense of the word the team will be experimental. Whether the selectors invite the likes of Pat Kelly and Brian Maloney, who have been impressive in Dublin, to field in FBD games is not certain. Maybe the Allianz League would be more appropriate to their state of fitness.
Nor will we know until Sunday whether the selectors have given serious thought to the Mayo News Club Stars selection which included the likes of Ballina’s Colm Leonard, Martin Wynne and Kenny Golden in defence together with John Brogan, Trevor Howley and Dermot Higgins.
Some of those Ballina defenders may not be available, but it must be emphasised that the Club Stars were chosen only from the championship . . . to which outstanding performances were not confined.
So, as a new year begins, and the football sap rises, Mayo prepare once again for a championship run that has no guarantee of length beyond the first round. Sunday’s team is only testing the waters. The side eliminated from the championship by Derry last July had eleven changes in personnel from that of the year’s first fielded against Sligo IT in Ballinode. But it would be nice to see a few budding stars at Ballinrobe.

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