MAYO have exceeded all expectations over the past seven years . . . because they are being judged by ordinary standards.
But because this is no ordinary team, different standards apply. The yardstick they have set in weathering so many storms has not been reached by any other county in our time.
And therefore not understood by the pundits.
After the first year or two of their rise under James Horan, the end was always nigh, the critics asserted. But they have endured. Their massive will power in bouncing back, re-emerging from the ashes of so much adversity has baffled everyone.
Not even Dublin have had to sit such a stern test. Because they have never been there, have never lost out so narrowly so often at the final hurdle, they don’t know what makes Mayo tick, what fizzes their character, drives them on against such gruelling currents of resistance.
Is it any wonder then that a lot of football folk are cagey about predicting Mayo’s destiny this season even though the mountain they face is more brooding and more forbidding? Their question: how on earth can they find the motivation to renew another mighty challenge?
More draws like Saturday’s will help. It eases them into the qualifiers, provides opportunities for more game time for those returning from injury, and some practical preparation for the less experienced.
There will be no talk of easy pickings. Limerick have not a lot going for them. They are fourth division standard, beaten by Leitrim in the league, and with all due respect not in any shape to provide worthwhile opposition for the All-Ireland finalists.
It is, therefore, for pride they’ll be playing, for the jerseys they are wearing, for club and county. And with a blanket defence they could raise enough resistance to present Mayo with a few unexpected problems.
But because of lessons absorbed from the emergencies through which his team staggered last year on their way to the final, Stephen Rochford, wisely, will not be drawn into any hint of smugness.
They met eleven years ago in the league at MacHale Park and Mayo had six points to spare. Keith Higgins and Andy Moran were on the home side. Five years earlier their meeting a third round qualifier was a much closer affair, only one point separating them.
It was a strong Mayo side that included David Heaney, James Nallen and James Horan, who would spark the rise of the present side. But in terms of All-Irelands they were in barren territory.
Limerick were then a hopeful force. Their under 21s got to the All-Ireland final that year where they lost to Tyrone. But those green shoots could not live with the more firmly rooted perennials in Kerry and Cork.
So it’s a matter of what kind of team Stephen Rochford sends in to bat on Saturday evening. The strongest possible, or with a sprinkling of those on the margins who need the experience to fill in for seniors feeling the strain in the sterner tests ahead.
It may be a chance to strengthen Rob Hennelly’s confidence in goal. The Breaffy man has been living too long in the shadow of David Clarke without sufficient opportunity to test his reflexes in serious games. He is a good keeper but needs to become accustomed again to scrutiny under the public eye.
ROCHFORD must plan without Diarmuid O’Connor who is under suspension, and midfielder Tom Parsons who is having his own lonely battle with that horrific knee injury sustained against Galway.
Who fills in for the luckless Charlestown man will not pose a problem on Saturday. Against weak opposition, whoever is presented with the number nine jersey is likely to shine. But in selecting a replacement, management will be looking to the tougher opposition ahead, and the need for mobility and vision in that vital area.
Aidan O’Shea and Donal Vaughan come to mind, and there is a growing desire out there for starting Lee Keegan in the pivotal position where he might not only lead, but also breathe life into those around him.
Not so sure, though, that the Westport All-Star is a natural midfielder. It’s a different game. His forte is defending. And the most effective aspect of that talent is his inherent ability to know when to break.
Only Keegan and Keith Higgins have that quality. Take them out of defence and you not only lessen Mayo’s resistance, but also their attacking options.
Stephen Coen has led Mayo’s All-Ireland underage winning teams from midfield so competently that you wonder why he has not seriously claimed a permanent place on the senior side. He is a Trojan worker and may yet win over management.
Will Andy be rested up front? Have they found anyone so adroit, so almost indispensable? The great pity is that we don’t have a McBrearty or a McManus so consistently accurate from all angles.
Cillian O’Connor and Andy have together devised some serious tactical scores in the past, none more celebrated than their brilliant goal against Kerry last year, their roles in the move brilliantly coordinated.
But there’s only so much can be asked of Andy now. He needs to be spared for the tougher games ahead.
Maybe some of the younger crew will be given their head. With Diarmuid out, there’s a place for a new young head to make hay. We haven’t seen much of Cian Hanley, or of Neil Douglas who, many think, is worth his place.
But I’m sure all those players on the periphery are being tested in training, and would have replaced some of the regulars throughout the league if they were standing out.
Mayo, no doubt, are seriously short of firepower up front. Aidan O’Shea can only do so much and even the Breaffy star is not tucking away ball like he used. Most of his work against Galway was done in defence. Had he been moved to full forward without being liberally supplied in there, Galway would have made hay.
Options abound in defence. Chris Barrett, Lee Keegan, Donoghue, Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle, Paddy Durcan, Brendan Harrison, Donal Vaughan, Ger Cafferkey. Take your pick. Fit and ready it¹s a formidable unit, no matter who’s left out.
Higgins was the shining light against Galway. More should have been made of his counter attacks, more help given to him. With Keegan back, that mindset might now change.
We are travelling on Saturday in the frame of mind that Mayo will not lose. We had better make the best of it because the chances of similarly easy opposition next time are slim. Limerick will hassle and cause a few ripples of surprise, enough to question some Mayo performances.
But there can be only one result.