Mayo face another big test of their character
Unshakeable optimism has sustained Mayo through many disappointments over the last six years, but even those with the most enduring loyalty are beginning to wonder if this year's Allianz League will leave the green-and-red heading into territory not visited for over 20 years.
Alone among all counties, Mayo have been in Division 1 for two decades but are now facing yet another test of their resilience after losing two of their first three games.
And with in-form Dublin coming to Castlebar on Saturday night, it's highly probable that Mayo will still be on two points with three rounds remaining.
Requiring a strong finish to stay in Division 1 is nothing new to them but with so many of their top-line stars currently unavailable, there are real fears among Mayo supporters that this could be the year when the guillotine falls.
"You'd hope not but the worry is there. There was certainly nothing in the last two games to offer much encouragement," said John Maughan, who managed Mayo (two stints), Clare, Fermanagh and Roscommon at various stages.
"There's a long way to go and the squad have shown before how tough they can be when they're really up against it but they need a bounce fairly quickly.
"It's hard to see it coming against Dublin on Saturday night so everything will depend on the last three games."
Kildare (away), Tyrone (home) and Donegal (away) complete the programme for Mayo, who beat Monaghan and lost to Kerry and Galway in the opening three rounds.
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The absence of so many big names has seriously reduced their power and with the younger talent flow more a trickle than a torrent, they are essentially relying on the old guard to come good again in the All-Ireland championship.
They have repeatedly done that, especially over the last two years when, after losing to Galway in successive Connacht semi-finals, they worked their way to the All-Ireland final, via the qualifiers.
While they failed to beat Dublin in three close calls, they still established a reputation as the side best-equipped to dislodge Jim Gavin's powerful troops.
However, with the Mayo team's age profile rising due to the shortage of younger talent forcing their way into the starting 15, questions arise over how much longer they can remain in the top three.
"For whatever reason, enough of the younger boys in the county haven't stepped up in the way we'd have hoped. There's no denying that. The team as we know it has been incredibly resilient but for how long more can they keep lifting themselves to the heights they have?" asked Maughan. "The older you get, the more knocks you carry from year to year. And when you're coming up against opposition that has a fair amount of young talent coming through, it makes it harder.
"The mental toughness the Mayo team have shown in incredible but no group can go on forever. We're just hoping there's another big season in them," he added.
Those who believe that Mayo's quest for an All-Ireland would be helped by winning the league title realised from the start of the year that it wasn't going to happen.
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Now, it seems far more likely that another battle against relegation will define the early part of the year.
There's nothing new there, since the latter part of recent league campaigns have run along similar lines. They have always managed to survive, but a look at their points haul underlines just how far off Dublin they have been at this time of year.
Dublin took 54 of a possible 70 league points over the past five seasons, compared with Mayo's 36. Nor have Mayo beaten Dublin in league or championship since the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final.
They have met 12 times since then, with Dublin winning nine while there were three draws. Their respective starts this year (Dublin have won their first three games) suggests that change is unlikely on Saturday, even if Mayo have home advantage.
"Whatever happens on Saturday, the big thing for Mayo is to avoid relegation. Division 1 is the place to be, both from a playing and financial viewpoint. Points will be hard to come by, but the way this league is going, four points could be enough to avoid relegation.
"I have no doubt that come championship time and all the lads are back, Mayo will be a very different proposition but, for now, it's a struggle," added Maughan.
Mayo were especially flat against Galway when they managed just four points from open play. Even then, two of them came from defenders, underlining how outclassed their forward line was.
"There was a lot of experience in that forward line so you'd expect more of a return," said Maughan.
Elverys MacHale Park will host one of the biggest crowds of the weekend as Mayo face Dublin in both the ladies and men's leagues at 5.0 and 7.0 respectively.
Like the men, Dublin ladies are also top of the Division 1 table, having won all three games. Mayo are joint second, with two wins out of three.
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