Saturday 23 September 2017

The West is awake to a feeding frenzy in Connacht

Mayo's rivals in Connacht have scent of blood and are ready to pounce on any sign of weakness in champions

Andy Moran makes his speech to accept last year’s Connacht SFC trophy
Andy Moran makes his speech to accept last year’s Connacht SFC trophy
Galway’s Gary O’Donnell
Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

THEY should forget about Amhran na bhFiann and just play the theme tune from 'Jaws' at this summer's Connacht SFC games. Like sharks circling a wounded swimmer, they smell blood out west, for the first time in years.

Mayo's inability to close out two more big games in Croker, when they had a one-man advantage over Dublin (league) and Derry (Division 1 semi-final), has given a flicker of hope to everyone else in the province.

In Roscommon, they are licking their lips after the fillip of winning promotion, a Division 3 title and some substantial U-21 success, which has made them joint second favourites.

Everyone has forgotten the blowtorch that Mayo took to the province last summer when they won the first Connacht three-in-a-row in 29 years. Legend had it that they never played well in Pearse Stadium, yet they walked out in Salthill and vapourised Galway by 17 points.

Roscommon were then dispatched by 12 points, and while everyone else was cooing over cute little underdogs London, Mayo did a Godzilla to that Bambi in the Connacht final by a 16-point margin.

Their scorched-earth policy left a trail of destruction, and they went on to beat Donegal and Tyrone.

A second consecutive All-Ireland loss followed, but their dominance of Connacht showed the huge gulf in class between themselves and the rest.

So what has changed to give others hope in 2014? Not a lot, which shows what shaky ground their opponents' new-found optimism is built upon.

Yes, the Rossies have rejoined Galway in Division 2 but Galway were blessed to survive in the second tier and Mayo still remain the province's only Division 1 side.

Questions about Mayo's mental resilience in Croker will keep dogging them if they continue to lose the plot there. They've a surfeit of midfielders and a lot of identikit forwards but Derry exposed a half-back line that sometimes forgets its primary duty.

But it was still only the league. They've since beaten New York and still haven't lost a game in Connacht under James Horan.

Roscommon or Leitrim will be the first to get a crack at them in a Connacht semi-final where either will have home advantage.

In John Evans' first year the Rossies have some impetus and a decent combination of youth and experience. Roscommon's bye to the semis left them caught cold last year.

They'll have a game under their belt if they meet Mayo this year but, to make a Connacht final they're going to have to improve substantially from their league final performance, especially defensively.

Leitrim's dented pride from losing to London and then being mortified by Armagh has since been restored.

Under rookie manager Sean Hagan and ex-Tyrone player Aidan McCarron, they retained the FBD title and were flying in Division 4 until the wheels came off against Waterford.

Their U-21s subsequently caused a sensation by beating Galway to reach their first provincial final at the grade for 16 years but were heavily beaten by Roscommon. But they have to travel to the Hyde, where they could face a backlash for beating the Rossies in the FBD final.

Galway recovered from their Mayo mauling to make the last round of the qualifiers last year and there was only a point between them and Cork. They are joint second favourites with Roscommon, largely because they're on the other opposite side of the draw to Mayo. They open against London and the winner will be under the glare of Sky Sports in Sligo.

It's five years since Galway made a final and six since they won one. Dogged by injury during the league, their only two victories (Down and Armagh) were, significantly, in Tuam, not Salthill. Gary O'Donnell has solved their centre-back conundrum but midfield and up front they still haven't found consistent solutions.

London will find it hard to repeat last year's giantkilling heroics. Achieving their first Connacht win since '77 and beating Leitrim to make their first final exceeded all expectations. It took phenomenal effort but they've lost some key men since and are no longer dark horses.

The draw pits Adrian Faherty and Mark Gottsche against their native Galway but scoring remains the Exiles' big problem (only 9-57 in Division 4).

DARK HORSE

Sligo, who tripped up to London last year, look the dark horse. Pat Flanagan has taken over from Kevin Walsh and they're not coming on to the radar until late June on the weaker side of the draw.

Forward David Kelly is back in top form after two years of injury and Brendan Egan won an All-Ireland club medal with St Vincent's.

Charlie Harrison's shoulder injury is a worry but Flanagan is giving youth its fling and Niall Murphy and full-back Gareth Ryan are two newcomers.

Their form in Division 3 wasn't convincing, but, with home advantage and a bye to the semi-final, Sligo only have to beat Galway or London to make their third Connacht final in five years – and two years ago they went to Salthill and won.

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