Hennelly seeking redemption in Mayo's No 1 battle
Breaffy man set to get nod to face Dubs and put 2016 memories to bed, writes Donnchadh Boyle
On the inter-county scene, there are few rivalries that have come as close to Dublin against Mayo this decade but, in the battle for an individual jersey, nothing comes near the battle for the Mayo No 1 shirt.
David Clarke and Rob Hennelly have been challenging each other for the starting spot for most of their careers, with 2019 being no different. Mayo have played 15 games across league and championship this year, with Clarke between the posts for nine of those and Hennelly starting the other six.
An injury to Clarke means that Hennelly looks certain to get the nod for Saturday's showdown in Croke Park but it's a measure of the conundrum facing James Horan that, were they to end Dublin's drive for five, the goalkeeper selection for a potential final wouldn't be straightforward were Clarke to return to full fitness.
The chopping and changing is, of course, in stark contrast to Saturday's opponents with Stephen Cluxton setting a record for a number of Championship appearance in the best part of two decades which he has been Dublin's first choice.
In many ways, the battle between Clarke and Hennelly sums up the changing face of the goalkeeping position thanks mainly to the revolution brought on by Cluxton and his pin-point kick-outs.
Where once they were the last line of defence, and it was all about how many saves they could make, goalkeepers are now viewed as the first line of attack. These days, the adage of possession being nine-tenths of the law holds true for management teams. When a goalkeeper has a kickout, his team has possession; it is essentially up to him to ensure they retain it and not cede momentum to the opposition.
Of the two, Clarke is generally accepted as being a better shot-stopper but his kick-outs aren't at the same level as Hennelly.
Few seasons sum up the issue like the 2016 final in which Clarke started the drawn game before being surprisingly replaced by Hennelly for the replay
It was a gamble that backfired as, first, a poor Hennelly kick-out put his team in trouble and resulted in Lee Keegan being black-carded for a foul on Diarmuid Connnolly before the Breaffy man was black carded in the process of giving away a penalty. Mayo went on to lose by a point.
Going back to Horan's first year in charge in 2011 Clarke has started more games (78) in league and championship than Hennelly (50), with Kenneth O'Malley also playing a handful of league matches.
Both have only enjoyed one full season of being first-choice as Hennelly played all 14 matches in 2014 (Clarke had a serious hamstring injury) while, in 2017, Clarke was Rochford's first choice across 16 league and Championship games.
In 2013, Hennelly was brought back into the fray for their Connacht final with London after both Clarke and O'Malley picked up knocks. But even allowing for injury and for when Hennelly stepped away from the squad in 2012, it makes for considerable change in a key position.
In this year's league, the pair split the campaign's eight games evenly with Hennelly putting in a notable performance against Dublin in Croke Park, making around half a dozen point-blank saves on an otherwise forgettable night for Mayo. That was his first appearance at headquarters since the 2016 replay.
And after they secured league honours with a win over Kerry, Horan gave nothing away in terms of what way he was leaning.
"We're in a very strong position with our goalkeepers," he said. "David Clarke has been excellent in the last few years. We played Dublin here a few weeks ago and were very poor but Rob was the outstanding player on the field that day. He's on the right track, getting better and better."
As it was, Hennelly was in goals for the championship opener in New York and he was the man in possession against Roscommon, too, but a couple of errant kick-outs saw him replaced by Clarke, who played the next five games in a row.
However, a rib injury to the Ballina Stephenites man opened the door to Hennelly once more. Hennelly has a greater range on his kick-outs and went long with 21 of 24 restarts (87.5 per cent) against Donegal, with Mayo retaining 12 of those. In his previous start against Roscommon, he hit just over half long (12 of 22 or 55 per cent). Clarke hit seven of 20 (35 per cent) against Galway long and 11 of 26 (42 per cent) versus Kerry. Hennelly offers a different option and it was enough to prompt that ill-fated change for the 2016 replay.
After their win over Donegal, Horan insisted that Clarke would be fit for Saturday and now has a decision to make, although former Mayo midfielder David Brady reckons the issue of who starts in goals can be overplayed.
"Rob did hit some lovely long drives of a ball to Jason Doherty," said Brady of the Donegal game. "But there has to be an option because Mayo had no option whatsoever in the last couple of weeks. So do you blame the goalkeeper or do you blame the players out the field? I would always say that if the ball is in the air you have to compete and Mayo weren't doing that, up until last Saturday."
For Ciaran Whelan, Clarke is too ponderous in getting the ball out. "The David Clarke kick-out is still a problem, he's just very slow," he offered.
"If you look at Shaun Patton or Shane Ryan or Stephen Cluxton, the ball is gone out within a ten-second period and they know exactly what they want to do."
However with a rib injury that ruled Clarke out of even sitting on the bench on Saturday, it's hard to imagine that he'll return in just seven days, meaning Horan will turn to Hennelly once more with former league of Ireland goalkeeper Micheál Schlingermann potentially providing cover.
It would complete the circle for Hennelly to take on Dublin in championship in Croke Park. Himself, his manager and his county will all be desperate for a different outcome.