ONE GIANT LEAP FOR MAYO Ronan McGarrity soars into the air as Meath’s Eoin Reilly stays on the ground during Sunday evening’s challenge match at Dunderry in Meath. Pic: John Quirke
Champions are the teams to beat
IF not Kerry, then who? As the championship twitches into action, and aspirations surge, is there a county in the country capable of toppling the kingdom?
League trends would suggest that despite their defeat in the final, the All-Ireland champions have built up a head of steam for a further drive to success four months from now.
Their loss to Derry will have them better prepared than if they won the league. Understrength throughout the competition, they still churned out enough points to reach the final, and have the material — including a newly won U-21 title — to repair whatever ravages Derry inflicted in their surprisingly easy win.
Up to their meeting with the Kingdom, Galway seemed on course for their fifth league title (and their first since 1981) but their failure to Kerry in that vital tie at Salthill was a disappointing end to a campaign that been a good omen for their championship chances.
Nobody, of course, is foolish enough to suggest that good league form is a precursor to championship success . . . Kerry folk least of all. Yet of the other seven teams in Division One Derry — if they manage to survive the Ulster cauldron — seem best equipped to end the ambitions of the All-Ireland champions.
Is there a dark horse out there stalking the Munster legends? Monaghan, total outsiders, came closest to snuffing out their back-to-back title intention last season. The Ulster side did not maintain that form in the league, but they are still a pretty redoubtable force.
If neither Derry nor Monaghan possess it, who of the other challengers has the right stuff to elbow the monarchs aside? Dublin and the Pillar have been trekking the margins for the past couple of years promising more than they have achieved. Armagh and Tyrone and Donegal are re-energising for further glory.
Keen to rehabilitate themselves back into the hearts football folk following their gratuitous strike earlier this year Cork will be striving to make their mark, and could disrupt their neighbours’ plans. Meath, Westmeath, Galway and Mayo are longshots.
The balance of probability, however, lies with Kerry. No other county has yet discovered what drives them, what sustains their extraordinary interest despite so much success.
THE backdoor system has diminished the significance of provincial titles. Failure to win in Connacht and Munster did not preclude Galway or Kerry respectively from claiming the holy grail. For the weaker counties, however, a provincial title is still a benchmark. It is their All-Ireland.
How Sligo celebrated last year their first Connacht title in 32 years! In beating Galway they struck a blow for the minnows. Their achievement has not been mirrored in the league results, but Mayo would be foolish to take the relegation of the Yeats County as a sign of a serious decline in their form if, as anticipated, they meet in the semi-final next month.
Leitrim cleared their first hurdle on Sunday with eleven points to spare over New York. It is a good result against a team that provides stiff opposition for visitors. It will strengthen their Connacht ambitions. But how much heart can a team like Leitrim have when faced with a freshened Galway side bristling with confidence. For it is Galway surely they will meet in the semi-final.
Next Sunday the Connacht champions are home to troubled Roscommon. The resurgence we had expected John Maughan to bring to the Rossies evaporated with his inimical departure a few months back.
Time was essential to Maughan¹s success, but neither time nor patience some supporters were willing to give. They had based their hopes for senior progress on the All-Ireland success of their minors. When it didn¹t happen Maughan became victim of their disappointment.
There are still the makings of a surprise packet in Roscommon. A quality U-21 side ran Mayo close this season and should now become the basis of renewed hope for the future.
But no one expects them to upset Galway on Sunday.
FOR SENIOR SQUAD
LINING out without the likes of Tom Cunniffe, Trevor Howley, Keith Higgins, Tom Parsons, James Gill, Alan Dillon, Austin O¹Malley and Andy Moran, Mayo launched the final phase of their preparation before their first outing on June 22 with a one-point win over Laois at Ballyhaunis last week.
Higgins and Parsons were drafted in for the second half, and they did help spur a Mayo rally, but it took a well struck penalty by Conor Mortimer to haul them out of danger, with a late, late point by Mickey Mullins providing the winner.
Laois, commencing their campaign later this month, were almost at full strength, but came good only in the second half when Mayo appeared to tire or, more to the point, when Trevor Mortimer (pictured) began to flag.
Mortimer was Mayo’s engine, especially in the first half. In terms of work he contributed more than any other. He was also at the heart of Mayo’s late recovery. The hope must be that the Shrule/Glencorrib man will escape injury over the next few weeks so that Mayo will have the full benefit of his incomparable industry for the championship.
Meanwhile, one manager who places no faith in friendlies is Tyrone’s Mickey Harte. Eight weeks without a competitive game will have passed when Tyrone play their first championship fixture next month. Harte is relying, as he has always done, on his players to maintain their sharpness in club football.
MINORS BEGIN AGAIN
WHAT has happened to our minors? When senior football reached its nadir in this county it was to our minors we turned for some semblance of comfort. They afforded us a flicker of hope, throughout the dark days of despair.
But twenty-three years have elapsed since our young men captured the Tom Markham Cup, the widest gap in the history of the minor championship. Victories were recorded in 1935, ‘53, ‘66, ‘71, ‘78 and the last in 1985.
Next Saturday at 7pm the minors take on Roscommon at Castlebar in the Connacht championship. That same county beat Mayo two years ago and went on to record a magnificent All-Ireland title. Nothing Mayo has done in the meantime signals a change of fortune.
We wish our new representatives luck as they start out. Failure this year, however, will demand a rigorous investigation by the County Board into the cause of our minors decline.
MORE INJURY WORRIES
THE injury, which necessitated the removal of Jimmy Killeen to hospital on Saturday evening, is a stark reminder of the hazards of football.
The Garrymore man was driving through the Ballina defence when he picked up the injury less than five minutes into the game.
Unable to straighten up, team officials carried the injured player to the sideline where he waited for medical assistance. Half an hour later the game was held up while an ambulance crossed the pitch and whisked the injured man to hospital.