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Good start is half Mayo’s battle


PLANNING AHEAD Mayo manager James Horan, is pictured with his selectors Ciaran McDonald, Tom Higgins and James Burke (hidden) during the recent FBD Connacht League match against Galway. Pic: Sportsfile

Talking Tactics

Billy Joe Padden

THE goal for every team at the start of the National League, and this includes the All-Ireland champions, is to stay in Division 1.
That’s the main priority for all eight teams.
We say it over and over again, but a team is better-equipped for the summer after a good National League campaign. And that will especially be the case this year with the new tighter run-in to the championship. Momentum and form will be crucial.
Everything is framed through the prism that Mayo need to win at least one of their first two games against Donegal and Monaghan.
You always want to go into the first ‘mini break’ having at least two points on the board.
I’d imagine Donegal will have been training hard for the last few months. Tyrone going on to win the All-Ireland will have focussed their minds, and Stephen Rochford returning for a fourth season as coach shows that he feels they have more in them.
They’ve also had a few morale-boosting wins in the McKenna Cup and those games will have brought them on in terms of match-sharpness. Mayo have had to make do with one FBD game in The Dome and a few challenge matches.
I think this is going to be a tough assignment for Mayo, and they will need to draw on as much experience as possible.
In the continued absence of Cillian O’Connor, they will be looking to Ryan O’Donoghue and Tommy Conroy to lead the line up front and try and create goalscoring opportunities. They will need goals to beat Donegal and these two forwards are the best men to get them.
Around the middle you’ll see Stephen Coen, Paddy Durcan, Diarmuid O’Connor and probably Jordan Flynn doing the heavy lifting and trying to set the tone.
One of the most difficult things for James Horan over the course of the league will be trying to find the right balance in the half-back line, given the embarrassment of riches at his disposal. We know that line is the engine of this team so it will be a big area of focus.
Behind them, it’s about giving someone a chance in the full-back line beside two experienced defenders.
A lot depends on the opposition too, of course. If Mayo are going out against an exceptional inside line then you don’t want to be asking Oisin Mullin to play corner-back or throwing in two debutants. But there are certain games, against maybe the likes of Monaghan, where you can try some things out in the full-back line when it comes to the match-ups.
For the record, I don’t want to see Oisin Mullin or Lee Keegan in the full-back line during this National League unless there’s absolutely no other choice.
Another benefit of getting some wins on the board early might be that it gives a chance to try out one of the other goalkeepers in the squad. Rob Hennelly is the number one, and nothing that happened last year changes that. But I do think it would be to the benefit of Rory Byrne and Colm Reape if they get some game-time.
It will also benefit the defenders in front of them and the midfielders and kick-out targets.
All of that could be very important come the summer.
There are a few big questions to be answered over the next few months.
Can Mayo keep things positive over the course of the league? Get the wins, get the performances, and go into the championship feeling good about their chances of having a good summer? And get Brendan Harrison, Jason Doherty and Cillian O’Connor back on the field and playing well too?
If all those things happen, it will have been a very good National League for Mayo.

Blooding new players is a balancing act

MAYBE after one season of seeing this new timeline in play, we might realise that experimenting down in Division 2 or Division 3 isn’t such a bad way to prepare for championship. Top-flight league football is cut-throat and pressurised and getting wins is the only real measure of progress and success.
And that’s the reality of the coming months for the top eight teams, including Mayo.
Getting points on the board will be Mayo’s first priority; after that it will be about developing players, bringing on the lads with some experience to see can they kick on, and bringing in new players to cut their teeth and see can they make the step-up.
I don’t think we’ll see a whole pile of what might be termed ‘experimentation’ by Mayo during the league. You always get a better idea of what level a new, young player is at when you see them perform as part of a fairly settled team.
If you’re putting a young defender out there with three other young defenders, it’s going to be very hard for them to perform and to stand out.
But if you’re trying out the likes of Sam Callinan, for example, at wing-back and he’s got Lee Keegan and Oisin Mullin alongside him, and Brendan Harrison and Padraig O’Hora behind him, well then that’s going to be easier for him. And you might learn more about that player because he’s going to be surrounded by experience and ability.
That’s the best way to blood young players.
What I think you’ll see from James Horan this spring is that, five or six young players who are performing well in training will get their chances over the course of the league.
I’m thinking of lads like Callinan, Connell Dempsey and Frank Irwin.
Hopefully they will get those opportunities alongside the leaders and the quality players.

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