Best of enemies - Weekend league clash gives Mayo and Galway a chance to lay down summer marker
An advisory notice from Galway County Board yesterday gave some context to the added interest there is in their first league clash with Mayo for seven years.
Because of advance ticket sales the notice suggested that those seeking seats should be in place by 1.15pm at the latest. The projection is for all 7,000 seats to be filled by then with redirection for everyone else to the terraces. By 2pm yesterday some 5,000 tickets, including season tickets, had been sold.
It may only be the second weekend in February but interest in this latest instalment of one of the game's most storied rivalries is high.
They haven't met in the league since Mayo comfortably rolled Galway over in Tuam by 2-12 to 0-10 in 2011, edging the home side ever closer to a plunge to Division 2 for the next six years.
Mayo were in the ascendancy under James Horan back then while Galway were in the midst of an inexorable slide that cut them adrift from their rivals in their next four championship meetings.
But the odds have tilted back in Galway's favour since with back-to-back championship wins followed by an FBD Connacht League win in Castlebar last month that was notable for the vigour with which the visitors pursued it, coming from five points down to win by one and ending the game with 12 players after substitute Damien Comer, and rookie full-backs Sean Andy Ó Ceallaigh and Sean Mulkerrins were red-carded.
So Mayo plan for Salthill on the back of three successive defeats to their neighbours, an unusual position given their prominence on a national scale.
But Galway have clearly pegged much of their recovery under Kevin Walsh to what happens against Mayo.
Championship wins in June have been followed by a July draw and defeat to Roscommon and while they dismantled Roscommon in a replay and Donegal in a fourth-round qualifier subsequently, their 'post-Mayo' form has been largely indifferent.
The trap of declaring early-season league games as 'must win' and judging them in broader terms is easy to fall into.
Last year Mayo went to Croke Park with a lot of winds blowing in their favour for a first win over a Jim Gavin-managed Dublin side but they were ruthlessly sent packing.
They still retained their Division 1 status by squeezing wins over Tyrone and Donegal in their last two games and looked none the worse for it when it came to the business end of the championship.
The previous year Stephen Rochford's first three games in the league were lost but again they survived and again they were so close when the lights on the 2016 championship went out.
Supporters have grown to trust that whatever the spring inadequacies the team may have with such a fragmented training group, by the right part of summer they will be competitive. Should another potential defeat to Galway be looked at through the same lens then?
With a championship meeting between them in just over three months' time, Sunday simply has to have some added substance beyond just being a league game between two keen rivals.
Is it really an indifference to Mayo if they remain in the rut of recent losses to Galway this weekend, bearing in mind that they are caught in a cycle of defeats and draws to Gavin's Dublin that stretches back 12 games?
Rochford's trawl for new recruits to flesh out his squad has had moderate success to date.
Eoin O'Donoghue had coped well until last weekend but the sense that he'll be returning to the tried and trusted when it matters can't be avoided.
Galway have adapted well to the life in Division 1 and their appetite to grind out wins is reflected in those wins over Tyrone and Donegal.
Comer's pre-season willingness to assume more responsibility, framed in words, have been followed up with decisive actions while Shane Walsh has looked a stronger, more compact footballer. This axis still remains Galway's best bet to make ground on the game's market leaders.
Mayo are unlikely to panic about another loss with such big hitters as Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan, Seamus O'Shea, Tom Parsons and Chris Barrett to return but at some stage they need to really assert themselves against this burgeoning Galway team.
Hence the warning for followers to come early.
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