FAMILIAR FACES Monaghan manager Séamus McEnaney, right, with members of his backroom team, from left, former Mayo coach Donie Buckley, and former Tipperary hurling manager Liam Sheedy. Pic: Sportsfile
SHORT of next Saturday week’s All-Ireland SFC Qualifier against Monaghan being in Clones, we’re not sure it could have been any tougher for Mayo.
While it might seem churlish to argue the reigning All-Ireland champions were not the team to avoid, I’d argue the nature of Tyrone’s capitulation to Derry was far more concerning than Monaghan’s Ulster semi-final display against the Oak Leafers.
It’s a long road back for Tyrone.
But what of Monaghan? We think some tactical naivety in terms of match-ups were as big a part of their loss to Derry as any under-performance. Indeed, they were right back in the game before Derry’s third goal.
They’re a team who we felt at various stages this spring were primed for a right assault on the All-Ireland, but then one week later they looked like also-rans.
That has been their issue this past decade – finding a consistently high level of performance. Like Mayo in some respects, Monaghan can reach a very high level on their day but their poor days have arguably been worse than Mayo’s.
For instance they in the past five years they’ve exited the Ulster championship at the hands of Down (2017), Fermanagh (2018) and Cavan (2019 and 2020). Only their narrow Ulster final defeat to Tyrone in 2021 was arguably a game they weren’t strong favourites for.
In the Qualifiers their form has been better.
They were shocked by Longford in 2016 — but Mayo won’t judge them on that one.
In 2017 they got out of the Qualifiers but were beaten by Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-finals. They lost the following year’s semi-final to Tyrone by just a point while Armagh beat them in the 2019 Qualifiers, before losing to Mayo.
There were, of course, no Qualifiers in the Covid championships of 2020 and 2021.
They’ve been remarkably consistent in the league, staying up since being promoted from Division 2 in 2014. They were in Division 3 the previous year, earning promotion and ending up as Ulster champions.
How they will react to losing to Derry will be telling. They certainly have the personnel to forge a run into the All-Ireland series through the Qualifiers.
They have Jack McCarron playing consistently well and injury free.
Gary Mohan will be a handful for a Mayo full-back line not overly confident in the air and that’s before you even mention one of the best forwards of his generation, Conor McManus. He may be 35-years-old now, and plagued by injuries in recent years, but wouldn’t you sooner have him with you than against you?
Niall Kearns and Darren Hughes are a strong, formidable old school midfield. Kieran Hughes adds even more power in the middle eight while the likes of Micheál Bannigan, Ryan McAnespie and Conor McCarthy are as confident on the front foot as the back foot.
A full-back line of Conor Boyle, Kieran Duffy and Ryan Wylie can keep it tight or drive forward as the need arises.
Goalkeeper Rory Beggan may be suffering from a bit too much wanderlust this year but he’s still one of the best in the business.
Worryingly from a Mayo perspective, they are adept at keeping it tight at the back and funnelling bodies back when the need arises. They may have played a more open style this year, but a crowded defence is clearly a template to frustrate Mayo and so the ability to do so is a crucial weapon in Monaghan’s armoury.
One of the few positives that people drew from Mayo’s defeat to Galway was the six-week gap to this game to allow some of the walking wounded get back in harness.
It was with black humour that we said on the Mayo News Football Podcast straight after the Galway game that such wishes ignored the possibility of more injuries in the interim.
As Mayo’s luck has it, of course more injuries arrived. Michael Plunkett has joined Jordan Flynn, Brendan Harrison and Tommy Conroy on the long-term injured list.
Ryan O’Donoghue, Oisín Mullin and Rob Hennelly are doubts to varying degrees (again, a lack of any official updates puts an asterisk beside any concrete news about their availability or otherwise).
The fear is six weeks is not half long enough.
A novel championship pairing
IT’S bizarre that this will be the first ever championship clash between Mayo and Monaghan.
The teams are not strangers to each other. They’ve clashed nine times in the league since 2010. Mayo won six of those nine games.
They clashed for the first time at senior level in an 1981 league game, followed by a Centenary Cup clash in Ballina in 1984.
With 16 Ulster titles to their credit, it is curious they never faced off with Mayo in an All-Ireland semi-final in the pre-Qualifers era.
They’re joint second in the Ulster roll of honour with Tyrone, way off Cavan’s 40 titles.
Mayo have played most of Ulster this past decade but always managed to avoid Monaghan.
Tyrone came our way last year, Donegal, Armagh and Down in 2019, Derry in 2017 and Fermanagh in 2016.
Mayo last faced off with Cavan in 2007 (their second clash in three seasons) which leaves just Antrim and Monaghan as the two Ulster teams Mayo have never played senior championship football against.
Antrim are a far more credible blank than Monaghan, especially when you consider that since their last Ulster title in 2015, both counties have been pitched into the Qualifiers in 2016, ’17, ’18, ’19 and now.
The sides couldn’t avoid each other forever but with Mayo’s injury woes, another year apart would not have been bad news for James Horan and his squad.