A HARSH REMINDER The scoreboard at the end of last July’s All-Ireland SFC Qualifier between Mayo and Derry at Celtic Park told its own story. Pic: Sportsfile
Hope replaces expectation for Mayo
THE real test for newlook Mayo comes on Saturday evening across the border, against Derry. A more difficult start to the Allianz League could not have been cast for a fledgling team, and their performance could shape Mayo’s championship prospects in the coming months.
It is pretty certain now that, bar goalkeeper David Clarke, none of the Ballina contingent will be available to John O’Mahony and his selectors for this tough opening to the league campaign. No Brady, no McGarrity, no Harte . . . all of them engaged in their own preparations for their All-Ireland semi-final with Nemo Rangers later next month.
The mentors’ difficulties are exacerbated by the absence of James Nallen and Ciaran McDonald who have not been involved in preparations so far this season and around whose future there must now be serious doubt. McDonald had not been involved in the league in recent seasons, but Nallen’s leadership has been instrumental in Mayo’s retention of Division 1 status.
These vacancies – together with those created by the inclusion of the colleges in all the provincial leagues – provide an ideal opportunity to aspiring county players, and in fairness to management they have not denied the cream of this new crop the chance to express themselves in the three matches of the Connacht competition together with a few challenges.
Competition for places in those games has been intense, and the experiments are likely to have copper-fastened some positions, but the absence of experience cuts deep into the conviction of new players, and individual performances in many cases fluctuated between good and mediocre.
Thus, John O¹Mahony is confined in his selection to meet a Derry side that convincingly tossed Mayo out of the championship last season. And nothing that his challenges over the weekend threw up could have provided him with compelling evidence that the result will be any different in Celtic Park next weekend.
Victory by six points over Westmeath at Ballinrobe on Saturday might suggest an impressive Mayo. But an encouraging start gave way to a second half littered with blunders during which Mayo managed no more than three points while playing with the help of the strong wind.
The selectors will take comfort from the performance of Billy Joe Padden at full-back, a position he has held throughout the FBD league and in which he has been largely a success. Lack of concentration on a couple of occasions in their game with Roscommon has not undermined his confidence, and his defending was positive and effective on Saturday.
The Belmullet man is almost certain to retain that position for the Derry match and no one he has met so far will be as wily or as influential or as lethal at Paddy Bradley, a keystone in the revival of Derry as a football force. The outcome could decide Billy Joe Padden¹s future as a full-back, and he has the talent, if not yet the experience, to solve a problem for Mayo that has existed since Kevin Cahill retired.
Liam O’Malley is likely to fill one of the corners, and has begun to develop an understanding with Padden to the benefit of each. Conor Moran may be installed in the other corner.
No one can deny that Trevor Howley has played with competence and an iron determination at centre half back in the FBD trials. He was, however, missing from the weekend trials and it is to be hoped that he will be available to line out against Derry.
Many will be delighted to have learned of the return to active participation of David Heaney to a trial, which Mayo lost to DIT, on Sunday morning. The only link with the team of 1996, Heaney’s experience and dependability are invaluable assets.
Lack of match practice appeared to be his only weakness and whether management prefers the Swinford man to Howley at centre-half back — where he played on Sunday — remains to be seen. In that case Howley would be expected to occupy the right-half back berth with Keith Higgins on the other flank.
MOST intriguing of the Connacht league developments has been the persistence of the selectors in placing Peadar Gardiner at midfield. Similar responsibility was entrusted to the Crossmolina man at Ballinrobe at the weekend which would tend to suggest he will retain that position against Derry . . . in the absence of Ronan McGarrity.
His most likely partner is Seamus O’Shea who has shown enterprise and conviction in his last three games. Lack of experience will be a drawback against Derry, but the Breaffy man is a member of the All-Ireland winning U-21 squad and has begun to bed in well at senior level.
The forward line is less difficult to predict. In the O¹Byrne Cup, Conor Mortimer was one of the stars for DIT. His return to Mayo for their match with Westmeath was not met with his customary effervescence, but he is still a vital cog in the Mayo forward line and will almost certainly hold down the right corner spot.
On the basis of his excellence against Roscommon, Alan Dillon will also be given a vote of confidence, and the performances of James Gill throughout the Connacht League cannot be overlooked. It will be interesting to note whether the Westport man and Gardiner will alternate positions. Both have been developing an understanding that has led to penetrating raids on opposing defences.
On the basis of his success in the FBD League Michael Mullins is almost assured of a position in the forward line. His has been the most exciting performance of the competition, not just for the passion of his tackling but also for the quality of his scores. The manner in which he took his goal against Westmeath was noteworthy.
If all of those mentioned are chosen, only two positions remain to be filled in the forward line, and they are the central positions . . .which Mayo have not filled satisfactorily for a long time. Nor did anyone perform with distinction in either berth in the Connacht League.
The selectors have done their utmost to extract from Austin O’Malley the potential displayed in trials over the past couple of years. Longer flashes of his qualities were to be seen in the challenge against Westmeath and may earn for him against Derry another opportunity to find the confidence he needs to galvanise those skills.
Barry Moran, who lined out with UL in the Munster League, celebrated his return to the core of the attack with a goal. But the big man has not slotted in easily to the full-forward position and in the absence of other contenders may hold down the position on Saturday in Celtic Park.
The extent of the task facing Mayo on Saturday can be gauged from Derry¹s performance in the Dr McKenna Cup semi-final when their total of 2-12 was scored from play. They failed to repeat that performance in losing to a resurgent Down in the final last weekend, but that defeat will serve to have them even better prepared for their opening round of the National League.
Let’s face it: makeshift Mayo enter this match with little hope of success. A spirited performance is the most we can expect from a side weighed down in experimentation.
The chance is there for the young guns to prove their potential, but in the end the likes of Bradley, Collie Devlin, Matthew Keenan, Sean Leo McGoldrick, Enda Muldoon, Paul Murphy and Enda Lynn carry too much fire power to deny the visitors the goal of their journey.