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Mayo and Kerry: Football giants who need reminding how to win

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Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice

Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice

SPORTSFILE

Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice

It scarcely constitutes a crisis to have reached the end of February without a victory in the Allianz Football League, but there's a somewhat broader dimension to where Mayo and Kerry find themselves as they prepare for Sunday's clash in Castlebar.

Disregarding wins over third level colleges, which is never an accurate pointer for county teams, both have lost their last four inter-county games, ranging in importance from the All-Ireland final (Mayo) and semi-final (Kerry) down to FBD Connacht League and McGrath Cup competitions and onto the league.

Still not a damning pattern, but neither is it a habit than James Horan and Eamonn Fitzmaurice will want to see extended for any longer.

Dublin, Roscommon, Kildare and Tyrone have beaten Mayo since their All-Ireland semi-final win over Tyrone last August, while Dublin (twice), Cork and Derry have accounted for Kerry's losing four-timer since their All-Ireland quarter-final success over Monaghan.

LETHARGY

Both Horan and Fitzmaurice can argue that early season lethargy last season had no lasting impact and was quickly blown away in the lengthening spring days.

Kerry were beaten in their first four league games, yet only lost out on a semi-final place on scoring difference , while Mayo lost four of their first five league outings, but reached the semi-finals thanks to their superior strike rate.

Given that experience, there will be plenty of time to recover for Sunday's losers, but, nevertheless, another defeat will become one more irritant at a time of year when nurturing emerging talent, establishing rhythms and building confidence are the main priorities.

Despite their rankings as genuine All-Ireland contenders, both Kerry and Mayo have much to work on.

Kerry were in rebuild mode even before the retirement announcement of Paul Galvin and the much more serious development when they lost Colm Cooper for the season. Tomás ó Sé had earlier signed off.

The absence of the multi-talented trio has offered openings to others, but the question remains if they will be good enough to exploit the opportunities.

O Sé will be missed greatly, Galvin less so after losing altitude over recent seasons, but 'Gooch' will be the biggest loss of all in a period when, James O'Donoghue apart, Kerry's attacking supply lines have been erratic.

Defenders all over the country will sleep easier prior to playing a Cooper-less Kerry, especially in high summer when he usually cranked up to the peak of his awesome powers.

The return of Cooper's colleagues from Dr Crokes strengthens the Kerry squad, although not to a degree that will leave opposition petrified.

Opinion is currently divided on Kerry between those who believe that they are no more than a lucky break or two from regaining the All-Ireland title and those who think that it's akin to the late 1980s, a period when the county was heading for a lengthy recession.

Sunday's game won't provide any real pointers in that regard, but it will give an indication of how well-equipped Kerry are to cope with the first real pressure point of this young season.

Unlike last year when Kerry were woefully inept in their opening two games against Mayo and Dublin, they played quite well against Dublin a few weeks ago and should also have taken something out of the Derry game.

An 'away' win over Mayo, who beat Kerry by six points in the corresponding tie last year, would be the ideal kick start to a period where all counties have five games in the space of 35 days.

Still, Mayo's need is even greater. A league title would be immensely helpful in a season where they will head into the championship carrying the added burden of having lost the previous two All-Ireland finals.

Winning the league would bring no championship guarantees, but it would increase their confidence, while also showing that they are capable of seeing an assignment through to the end.

That may be a whole lot more important than is generally recognised.

With the top four in Division 1 qualifying for the semi-finals, winning the league remains an attainable goal for Mayo, although one area of concern for Horan is the defensive frailties which undermined their efforts in the opening two games.

Mayo scored 2-18 against Kildare, a return that would win 95pc of games, and 0-15 against Tyrone, a match-winning yield on many occasions, yet they lost both games.

That was down to a porous defence which conceded 2-19 to Kildare and 2-15 to Tyrone.

That's an average of 2-17 per game, a surprisingly high giveaway rate for any county and totally out of line for Mayo, who ran a tight defensive operation last year. It suggests Mayo were behind most of their rivals in terms of early-season conditioning, a problem which will gradually correct itself during the spring.

Beating Kerry in Castlebar would be the ideal starting point for Mayo in what is a defining season for the current squad and management.

Mayo and Kerry are two of nine counties in all four divisions who have zero points after the two opening two rounds of the league, an uncomfortable feeling to take into March.

The need to escape from that should provide all the necessary ingredients to serve up one of the highlights of the new season to date.

Irish Independent