Wednesday 23 August 2017

Colm Keys: Can Mayo's long-serving core of 'heavy lifters' put the shoulder to the wheel again?

 

Mayo face into another Championship campaign relying largely on the same familiar faces including Lee Keegan. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Mayo face into another Championship campaign relying largely on the same familiar faces including Lee Keegan. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

For no other county do the margins ever appear finer than for Mayo.

Last year's replay goalkeeping change, the eerie nature of two own-goals in the space of four minutes in an All-Ireland final, Lee Keegan's shot dropping short as they pressed their foot on Dublin's throat with a four-point lead in the previous year's All-Ireland semi-final replay, the collision between Cillian O'Connor and Aidan O'Shea in Limerick in 2014… some things can be legislated for, others just can't.

But reflect on the edge that Dublin have had over Mayo since 2013, and the diverse paths taken by Ciaran Kilkenny and Pearse Hanley must rank as a highly influencing factor.

In early 2013 Kilkenny opted to revoke a commitment to AFL side Hawthorn and return to Dublin, declaring in February that year that he was "born to win All-Irelands". He has backed himself to the hilt on that, with a depth of influence within this Dublin side in the last two years that perhaps only Brian Fenton can match.

Hanley will be a decade gone from Mayo later this summer. His career with Brisbane Lions and now Gold Coast Suns has soared to the point where he is now comfortably among the top GAA imports of the 51 who have signed professional terms since 1983.

He was electrifying on the night that he made his debut in a qualifier against Cavan, giving Mayo a bitter taste of what they would be losing.

As Mayo's season quickly folded in Derry soon after, so too did Hanley's brief sojourn with inter-county football as a professional life called.

Those counties that wish players well as they turn to AFL will always wonder what might have been but in Hanley's case that may be magnified because his line-breaking speed was, and still is, the biggest missing link since Mayo's rise to such prominence over the last five years.

For sure they've had that pace in abundance coming from deeper positions, particularly through Keith Higgins and Keegan, but Hanley's explosiveness from a more advanced position makes you wonder how the last decade, and especially the last five years, might have been different for Mayo.

As it is Mayo step back on the carousel of another Championship campaign this weekend with their team bearing a distinctly familiar look.

Read more - Ciaran Whelan: There is a huge wave of fear coming from Mayo and Kerry need a lot of things to fall their way

Fergal Boland gets in for his Championship debut, Conor O'Shea, now in his fourth season, gets a third start, but the rest have much bigger banks of experience behind them, even Diarmuid O'Connor and Patrick Durcan, who have made up ground quickly over the last two seasons.

The economy of resources and consistency of selection has been a striking feature of Mayo teams since 2012, James Horan's second year in charge and their first All-Ireland final appearance in the current cycle.

No other county has played more Championship games in that five-year period, Mayo's 31 even eclipsing Dublin's 30 from 2012 to 2016.

In those 31 games 43 players have been used but, critically, just 32 have started. Six of the 43 have made single appearances off the bench - Conor Mortimer, Ronan McGarrity and Diarmuid Geraghty in the first game of 2012 against Leitrim and James Burke, goalkeeper Kenneth O'Malley and Shane Nally in the years after.

By any standards that's a small pool and a small rate of change. And as much as it has been their greatest strength, it now threatens to become their greatest weakness.

For Mayo, the League illustrated that their pulse is very much beating hard, that the will, when they are backed into a corner, is still as strong as ever. The manner in which they secured Division 1 status reflected that, with wins ground out against Tyrone and Donegal, both of which they could have left behind.

But in terms of personnel there wasn't enough to suggest that there might be anything new, anything different in the months ahead.

So once again it turns to that tight core of 'heavy lifters' who have been virtually ever-present during a most intense period of activity for the county.

Maybe a team that loses an All-Ireland final replay by just one point doesn't have to replenish as much. But standing still in the current environment hasn't been enough, especially when the protagonists have such capacity to change.

Remarkably, Keegan, Higgins and Kevin McLoughlin have started every one of the 31 games in the period, while Colm Boyle has also played in them all, coming off the bench for the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, the only day he didn't start.

Aidan O'Shea is not listed to start against Sligo on Sunday, breaking a sequence of 29 games that stretches back to the 2012 Connacht final against Sligo. O'Shea sat out the previous game against Leitrim that year.

Cillian O'Connor has only missed one game in the last five years too -the 2013 Connacht semi-final against Roscommon - and has started in 29.

Donal Vaughan can also reflect on 30 appearances since 2012, absent only for the Championship opener in London last year.

Andy Moran has started 19 of the 31 games and come off the bench for 10 more, while Seamus O'Shea, Jason Doherty and Alan Dillon can also reflect appearances in the high 20s.

It's an impressive record of service that only Dublin and Donegal players can measure up to in the same period. But do those regulars need to be challenged by fresh blood?

Irish Independent

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