Tuesday 28 March 2017

What have western protests gained? Mayo and Galway in relegation battles

Galway hurlers and Mayo footballers braced for relegation showdowns as pressure mounts after manager heaves

The Galway hurling team line up before the start of their opening game of the season, in the Walsh Cup against DCU (SPORTSFILE)
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Rebellions in the west may have occurred months ago but the first real tests of how Galway hurlers and Mayo footballers are responding to the consequent pressures only arrive this weekend as they both battle to escape the relegation zone.

Galway are in second last place in their group (1A) while Mayo are in sixth place in Division 1, just ahead of Cork on scoring difference and well ahead of Down, who have been totally out of their depth in the top flight.

Galway face Tipperary in Pearse Stadium on Sunday (2.00), while Mayo host Kerry in Castlebar (2.30) in games that will be carefully scrutinised by both sets of supporters - and indeed the broader GAA community.

The unavailability of several first choices left Mayo vulnerable over the early rounds of the Allianz League (they lost to Cork, Dublin and Donegal) but having finally picked up two points away to Monaghan last Sunday, expectations have risen considerably.

Kerry's visit to MacHale Park was always going to be a landmark occasion in the spring campaign but has assumed an even deeper significance, arising from Mayo's defeats in the first three rounds.

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The harsh truth is that if Mayo lose to Kerry and other results go against them, their chances of reaching the semi-final would be virtually gone, even with two rounds remaining.

More importantly, it would plunge Mayo deeper into relegation territory ahead of their clashes with Roscommon (away) and Down (home).

However, if Mayo beat Kerry and follow up with two more wins, it might be enough to earn a semi-final place as eight points usually secures a top-four finish.

The permutations greatly add to the intrigue as Mayo supporters take a closer look for signs that the squad's ambition levels are even higher than in previous seasons.

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Forcing out Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly after last year's Championship placed a fresh layer of self-imposed demands on the Mayo players, who know that they can only justify their actions by winning this year's All-Ireland title.

The same goes for Galway hurlers, whose tough stance against Anthony Cunningham was even more surprising, since they reached the All-Ireland final, where they led Kilkenny at half-time.

Mayo showed a marked improvement in Clones last Sunday, a result which new manager Stephen Rochford hopes will kickstart their season.

He said afterwards that their experience in similarly tight situations in the past was a major help in grinding out a victory against such gritty opposition but knows that different qualities will be required against Kerry, who have got their season moving nicely after a slow start.

Still, Mayo have an excellent League record against Kerry in recent times, having won four and drawn one of their last five clashes. It leaves Kerry seeking their first win over the Connacht champions since 2011.

With Down all but doomed to Division 2 after losing their first four games by a combined total of 44 points, Cork (13/8) and Mayo (7/4) are next in the relegation odds.

Mayo haven't been out of Division 1 since the 1990s, an impressive achievement not shared by any other county. That makes it all the more important for them to avoid the drop in their first season after the controversial management heave.

If the pressure to lay down a marker is great in Mayo, it's even more intense in Galway, where the hurlers will almost certainly be facing a relegation play-off if they lose to Tipperary.

The six-point first-round victory over Cork was followed by away defeats to Dublin and Kilkenny in circumstances which suggested than many of the inconsistency problems which have dogged Galway for years still haven't been minimised, let alone eradicated.

In fairness to new manager Micheál Donoghue, it's very early in his new regime but he already knows that long-standing deficiencies have carried through to this year.

The nature of the second-half fade-out against Dublin and the first-half slump against Kilkenny last Sunday were so uncannily similar to what happened frequently in the past that supporters are wondering if it's simply going to be more of the same into the future.

The Dublin and Kilkenny games were away so, as with Mayo footballers in Castlebar, next Sunday's game presents the Galway squad with an opportunity to make a real statement of intent on home ground against a Tipperary side also suffering from inconsistency issues.

They led Kilkenny by four points and Waterford by five points in their last two games, only to be undermined by second-half fade-outs.

Nonetheless, Tipperary are very much on a mission after losing last year's All-Ireland semi-final, which will make the Galway response very interesting.

The squad knows that many of the supporters were unhappy with the manner in which they forced Cunningham out last autumn and while that brings its own pressures, it should also provide them with a motivational drive to win what may be their last home game of the season.

"There's no such thing as a moral victory but we put in a decent second-half performance so it's something to build on for next week," said Donoghue after losing to Kilkenny last Sunday.

Of course, that will only be of value if Galway maintain the tempo which enabled them to outscore Kilkenny by 1-9 to 0-8 in the second half.

The markets have Galway as second favourites behind Cork for relegation (the bottom two meet in a play-off), which is not a comfortable position for the All-Ireland runners-up.

That's why next Sunday's game will be so revealing in terms of their mindset in a post-heave season which could define many careers.

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