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Waiting in the wings for Mayo

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Making the Mayo panel is only half the battle

Feature
Mike Finnerty

TIME and again last season we heard about the fierce competition for places in the Mayo senior football panel. Everyone from James Horan to Conor Loftus to Aidan O’Shea spoke about the battle to make it into the match-day squads of 26, never mind the starting team.
This was borne out over the course of Mayo’s five championship matches as there were some days when household names like Rob Hennelly, Colm Boyle and Keith Higgins failed to make the cut to get a jersey.
It was a similar story for the likes of Fergal Boland, Fionn McDonagh and James Carr, players with plenty of big-game experience who found themselves sitting at home watching some championship matches on television due to Covid-19 restrictions around the number of team personnel allowed into venues.
As most inter-county players discover at some stage, being invited into a county panel is only half the battle. Staying there, and nailing down a place in the match-day squad or first XV is the hard part.
This week we look at four players who joined James Horan’s panel in 2020 and will be hoping to not just make the grade again this year, but kick on and get some minutes under the belts. .

Goalkeeper
Rory Byrne
Castlebar Mitchels
HE may have spent all of last year (both pre-Covid and after the season restarted) inside the Mayo squad, but the 28 year-old goalkeeper from the Mitchels didn’t get a single minute of game-time. Them’s the breaks when you’re third in line behind Messrs Clarke and Hennelly.
Byrne would probably have expected to get a run-out at some stage in the National League, especially early in the year, but instead James Horan kept faith with the tried and trusted duo.
The nearest Byrne got to action was sitting on the bench for the Connacht SFC quarter-final win over Leitrim. His last competitive outing for Mayo was in the the 2017 FBD League.
Theres’s no doubt that Mitchels not getting out of their group in the championship last Autumn denied Byrne a chance to show the Mayo management what he could do.
But with David Clarke now retired, he must be closer to a long-awaited league debut.

Defender
Rory Brickenden
Westport
THE tall defender was one of six members of last year’s Mayo Under-20 squad that James Horan called into the senior panel last spring.
Horan had seen the teenage Brickenden up close during his season coaching Westport in 2018 and obviously rates him highly; the 21 year-old was fast-tracked to sit on the bench for last Autumn’s National League match against Galway on the weekend the season restarted.
And Brickenden made his senior debut just a few weeks later when he came on against Leitrim in the opening championship game while he was also introduced against the Rossies.
In fact, he was in the match-day squad for all of Mayo’s five championship matches, including the All-Ireland Final.
Brickenden wore number six for the Under-20s against Galway last year and also operated at centre-back a bit during last season’s senior club championship.
However, if he’s going to get his chance with Mayo in 2021 it’s more likely to be in a full-back line that has lost Chris Barrett and Keith Higgins to retirement, while Brendan Harrison is still on the road to recovery from injury.

Defender
David McBrien
Ballaghaderreen
VERSATILITY is probably one of the 21 year-old’s biggest assets.
He has played with the Mayo Under-20s for the last two seasons and operated in both the full-back and half-back lines, while he has done a lot of his best work for Ballagh’ as a dynamic wing-back.
He was another of the 2020 Under-20s called up by James Horan last season and made his senior debut against Galway in the National League in October, lining out at full-back.
He didn’t feature for Mayo for the remainder of the season, but he would have gained a lot of valuable experience from marking the likes of Cillian O’Connor and Aidan O’Shea on the training ground.
McBrien is very highly-rated in Ballagh’ and Andy Moran, who plays with him and has coached him with the Mayo Under-20s, is a big fan.

Forward
Darren McHale
Knockmore
A STRING of impressive performances in the Mayo club championship last season, including a man of the match display in the County Final, saw the talented Knockmore attacker called into the Mayo squad last Autumn.
His first and only appearance came as a substitute late in the day against Leitrim in the Connacht championship but he will have learned a lot from three months spent training with Cillian O’Connor and company.
The 26 year-old is a typical Knockmore forward; skilful, two-footed, accurate, and at his best when his confidence is high. Anybody who saw McHale score his brilliant goals against Ballintubber and Breaffy at MacHale Park last season will testify to his ability.
The half-forward line is his natural habitat so he will be competing for places with a plethora of others in the months ahead; but his first aim will have to be to nail down a regular place in the match-day squad.

 

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