Spotlight falling on Galway for all the wrong reasons
Must-win signs flashing for mediocre Tribesmen ahead of trip to O'Moore Park.
Where does the greatest imperative for success lie among this weekend's 16 third-round football league matches?
In Castlebar, where defeat may not condemn the loser to relegation, but will immerse both Kerry and Mayo in a battle that they may not have anticipated at this stage of the season?
In Longford, where the home side meet Fermanagh, knowing that defeat will push them ever closer to where they began their brief renaissance under Glenn Ryan three years ago?
Or Markievicz Park, where Offaly's visit to Sligo has desperation written all over it?
But perhaps the 'must win' sign will be inked in the boldest print on the door of the Galway dressing-room in O'Moore Park tomorrow night as the Tribesmen make their way to the midlands again and a venue where they experienced their worst defeat of the 2013 campaign, losing to Laois by 1-15 to 0-10 last March.
Galway haven't travelled happily to provincial venues in Leinster in recent times as defeats in Portlaoise, Mullingar, Drogheda and Navan illustrate.
Only their away match with Monaghan, fixed for Pearse Park in Longford as a punishment to the Farney County for their 2012 Clones melee with Kildare, has brought them any solace since Joe Kernan plundered a surprise victory over Dublin at Parnell Park almost four years ago.
The league may not yet have hit cruising speed, but already Galway find themselves in quite a bind.
While the gap may have grown between their greatest rivals over the last few years, Galway and Mayo share the unlikely and unwanted distinction of conceding more scores, 4-34 in both cases, than each of the other 30 counties in the league. It is a harrowing statistic, softened slightly in Mayo's case by the fact that they have scored more.
Against Meath, Galway were wide open, allowing the hosts to have 46 attempts at scores, less than half of which were taken. At home to Donegal seven days later the flow was stemmed somewhat but the concession of 1-16 was still troubling.
So, after the promise offered in the qualifiers against Armagh and Cork last July and the possibilities opened up by James Kavanagh's switch from Kildare, the spotlight is shining on Galway's mediocrity again.
Thus, a real test of character awaits this weekend. Over the last two years they have generally been able to respond to a poor defeat or performance in Division 2.
When they lost to Louth last year they gritted their teeth for a draw against Westmeath and a win over Longford. The 'pick up' from losing to Laois was an easy home win over Wexford.
But Wexford and Longford made quick returns to Division 3, while Derry and Westmeath's escape to the top flight hasn't made life in the second tier any easier. With Donegal, Down, Monaghan and Meath coming in at either end, it is a far harsher environment.
There is better shape to the team announced for Portlaoise.
Gareth Bradshaw appears to have put a difficult 2013 behind him which saw him skip the qualifiers as he headed for the US after his red card against Mayo in the Connacht quarter-final hammering. He started at half-forward against Donegal, but is now restored to half-back, where he is much more comfortable.
For the first time in two years at senior level, Mulholland is able to pair his double All-Ireland U-21 winning midfield, Fiontan O Curraoin and Tomas Flynn, together. Both players have really struggled with injuries since their emergence at this level. But their time will surely come.
After operating at wing-forward and midfield in the opening two games, Paul Conroy is restored to full-forward where he has thrived before.
Conroy, ever-present for club, college and county over the last six years, is developing into the team's leader in the continued absence of Michael Meehan, whose future is cased in fresh doubt after undergoing more surgery on his debilitating ankle injury prior to Christmas.
The performances of the Galway players in Tuam last weekend, as Connacht swept to a first inter-provincial title since 1969, provide encouragement. Joss Moore handled Michael Murphy well, Sean Armstrong pulled the strings at half-forward, while Bradshaw and Conroy contributed strongly in the positions they will start tomorrow night.
Mulholland had anticipated a tough start to the campaign with a trip to Navan and then a visit from the team most likely to win the division.
But the safety nets are about to be whipped away.