Monday 22 January 2018

Martin Breheny: Mayo and Galway in real need of exciting new talent

Mayo’s Tom Parsons and Galway’s Michael Lundy tussle during last year’s Connacht championship clash – the two sides meet tomorrow under Friday night lights without many of their regular starters. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Mayo’s Tom Parsons and Galway’s Michael Lundy tussle during last year’s Connacht championship clash – the two sides meet tomorrow under Friday night lights without many of their regular starters. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The result won't be remembered for very long but tomorrow night's Mayo-Galway FBD Connacht League clash in Castlebar still has a relevance which extends beyond the actual game.

Both counties knew exactly where they stood after last year's championship and while Mayo, despite losing to Galway in the Connacht semi-final, ranked much higher than their neighbours they were still left with the emptiest of feelings after losing an All-Ireland final for the fourth time in six seasons.

Galway's capitulations against Roscommon and Kerry undid the good of the win over Mayo, leaving promotion to Division 1 as the season's significant plus point.

It's an important one, but only if they survive in the top flight, a prospect which bookmakers consider unlikely, having installed themselves and Kildare as favourites for relegation.

Dropping straight back into Division 2 would be a serious setback for Galway, especially since their championship opener is against Mayo in Castlebar.

The losers will head for the first round of the qualifiers, territory that rarely yields All-Ireland winners.

Read more: 'Start pre-season earlier' - Reynolds

Having lost to Galway in the last two championships, Mayo will be targeting May 13 as if it were an All-Ireland final in order to avoid facing an even lengthier qualifier road than what they encountered in 2016 and 2017.

Plus, of course, they don't want to become the first Mayo squad since 1982-'83-'84 to lose to Galway in three successive years.

What happens under the lights in MacHale Park tomorrow night could be more important in shaping the season for both counties than is generally recognised.

Impetus

Just as they planned to be for last Sunday's postponed game, both will be very much in experimental mode, trying out new talents in the hope that even a few will demonstrate that they have the capacity to challenge for first team places later on.

A squad that came as close as Mayo did to beating Dublin in 2015-'16-'17 might look as if it doesn't need many new additions but the fact remains they won none of those games.

Returning with the same group is likely to leave Mayo coming up short again. Most of them will be there but are there others in the background who can not only force their way into the team but give it the added impetus required to end the All-Ireland misery?

Stephen Rochford has been questioned over not having made more changes during the last two seasons but is there strong emerging talent in the county?

His comment last Sunday that "we'll find the players that are there" sounded like a gentle reminder to his critics that he has not overlooked anybody who is good enough to wear the green-and-red.

"We're always of a mind that there are good youthful footballers in Mayo. If they're good enough they'll be in the squad and might push out somebody that was there last year," he said.

Ultimately, that's the challenge in every county, whatever its status. It's easy to criticise managers for not bringing in new players but that only makes sense if they are good enough to displace those already there.

Since 2015, Brian Fenton, Con O'Callaghan, John Small and Niall Scully have forced their way onto the Dublin team as major forces, underlining the amount of talent at Jim Gavin's disposal.

Mayo's turnover has been much slower, reflecting a problem which ultimately may well be the reason why the All-Ireland drought persists.

Whether this year's pre-season and Allianz League programme corrects that remains to be seen. In all probability, it needs to if Mayo are to make the big breakthrough.

Galway's situation is even more uncertain. Other than Dublin, they are the only team to beat Mayo in the championship over the last two seasons but neither win brought the expected surge.

They won the 2016 Connacht title but bombed against Tipperary in the All-Ireland quarter-final in what was one of the county's worst performances in Croke Park for a long time.

They made it to the All-Ireland quarter-final against last year - this time via the qualifiers after losing the Connacht final to Roscommon - only to produce another anaemic performance against a Kerry team that Mayo later beat in a replay.

The team that got Galway into Division 1 last April is not good enough to keep them there. Defensive frailties continue to undermine them, which is why it's so important for the talent trawl in the FBD League to produce at least two new top-class backs.

There are high hopes in Galway that Seán Andy ó Ceallaigh can solve the full-back problem but it's asking a lot of him to be an outstanding success in his first season, especially in an unsettled environment.

Besides, there are other issues too, including Galway's tactical approach which runs counter to the county's traditional DNA, which always majored on attacking creativity.

Galway appear to have had something of an identity crisis in recent years as the move towards a more defensive style clashed with their long-held reputation as an attacking force.

Both Galway and Mayo will be short-handed for much of the league, giving new talent a prolonged opportunity to impress in demanding circumstances. By the end of March it will be fairly clear how well the supply lines have functioned. Right now, there are big doubts on both fronts

 

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