Frank Roche: 'Mayo and Donegal need marquee men to return'
On face value, looking strictly at the tables, you could make the case that Mayo and Donegal have made decent starts to their 2019 NFL campaigns.
Mayo lie third in Division 1 on six points, just trailing the Dubs on scoring difference.
Donegal are likewise third in Division 2, also on six points, two adrift of the promotion incumbents and hoping to pounce on a slip-up by either Meath or Fermanagh.
In reality, anxiety levels among the massed Mayo ranks will have ratcheted up while watching their previously high-flying heroes suffer back-to-back defeats to Dublin and Galway.
And given their status as Ulster champions and promotion favourites, Donegal may be privately kicking themselves to have lost ground when falling to Tipperary and Fermanagh.
But at least Declan Bonner’s men steadied the ship in a Ballybofey tempest on Saturday night, edging out Armagh in a feisty battle of will and wits. And that brings us to a key difference, right now, between Donegal and Mayo.
While Paddy McBrearty is on the cruciate recovery road, Donegal got one of their marquee forwards, Michael Murphy, back on the pitch at the weekend – and he made all the difference.
Mayo fans, meanwhile, are still awaiting sight of Cillian O’Connor – and the absence of their all-time record scorer is starting to bite.
But first, back to Murphy. The Donegal skipper underwent minor knee surgery in January and hadn’t featured prior to Saturday’s must-win duel with Armagh. He was introduced in the 28th minute of a fractious affair, the scores tied at 0-3 apiece. As the goalposts swung wildly in the wind, and tackles flew in just as wildly, a calm head in a storm was required.
Murphy was that soldier: his injury-time goal at the end of a slick passing move was a case study in cold-blooded precision, while his two second-half points from play pushed Donegal clear before Armagh’s late rally in vain.
On a night when 1-9 was sufficient, Murphy hit 1-2 from play off the bench. Case closed.
How Mayo fans would love their marquee man back in a hurry from his own knee injury travails. O’Connor had surgery back in December, and the initial hope was that he might be available for the last two rounds, but there was no further clarity on that at the weekend.
While his deadball accuracy has not been quite so metronomic in recent years, his ability to win his own frees, provide a focal point up front and deliver big scores from open play have all been missed in those recent defeats.
Andy Moran can’t do it all by himself; and he didn’t even start on Saturday when a gale-backed Mayo did all the hard work by reducing Galway’s seven-point lead to a single point with 20 minutes (injury-time included) to go ... and then frittered away chance after chance.
Statistically they have the meanest defence in Division 1 – but they’re also the second lowest scorers. They tallied just 0-3 from play against Dublin, and 0-5 against Galway.
Moreover, after promising spring starts, the latest assembly line of young forward wannabes are all now struggling. O’Connor can’t return quickly enough ...