Wednesday 19 December 2018

Mayo's list of absentees put Stephen Rochford's men on back foot ahead of clash against old foes Dublin

Keith Higgins of Mayo in action against Con O'Callaghan and (inset) Donal Vaughan and Chris Barrett
Keith Higgins of Mayo in action against Con O'Callaghan and (inset) Donal Vaughan and Chris Barrett

Frank Roche

MAYO diehards made a return trip last Sunday to Celtic Park – the scene of last summer's great escape, chapter one – and saw their team surge from behind to claim both Allianz League points.

Keith Higgins was suspended for that qualifier last July but caught the eye here, scoring 0-4 from full-forward in an "outstanding" performance that earned a 'nine' rating from the Irish Independent.

Only one problem, for all those diehards who didn't travel to Derry … Higgins was playing for the Mayo hurlers.

The dual star speed-machine from Ballyhaunis will turn 33 this Sunday. The night before, Mayo will host their All-Ireland nemesis in a showdown that has fans from the west gripped with pre-match anticipation, but also a nagging dread.

Why the latter? Because Dublin's Division 1 campaign has started in typically serene fashion, winning three from three. And because Mayo, in equally typical February fashion, have oscillated between decent and deplorable, following up a battling away win against Monaghan with back-to-back defeats to Kerry and Galway.

There are mitigating circumstances for the malaise. Mayo are missing too many marquee men to reprise their summer trick of going toe-to-toe with the Dubs.

Throughout their various All-Ireland arm wrestles, Dublin's biggest perceived advantage over Mayo has been the strength of their bench and that spells trouble in the here-and-now for Stephen Rochford, liable to be down anywhere between five and eight of his 2017 final starters for Saturday's Castlebar rematch.

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Definitely out are the suspended Cillian O'Connor and injury absentees Chris Barrett (knee) and Donal Vaughan (hip). The same applies to Higgins (with the hurlers all spring to date) and almost certainly Lee Keegan, even though he is edging closer to a return after his double-hip surgery.

Séamus O'Shea is also back training after a knee injury but, it seems, won't be ready for Saturday.

That leaves Tom Parsons, fully reimmersed after returning from his honeymoon – and likely to feature in some role this weekend. Andy Moran is also expected to be available, having missed the Galway defeat following the death of his father.

On the flip side, 2016 All Star corner-back Brendan Harrison is being flagged as a "major doubt" after missing the Galway game.

Rochford's options have been stretched particularly in defence. Six of his All-Ireland '15' have yet to play a single minute this year: Barrett, Higgins, Vaughan, Keegan, Parsons and Séamus O'Shea. That's a lot of September experience still unseen.

Higgins' scenario is arguably the most intriguing. His love of hurling is no secret and he has started all three NHL Division 2B games so far, shooting 2-9 and helping Mayo to maintain a 100pc record.

But is this just a welcome diversion – a break from the serious stuff of chasing Sam? Some Mayo folk are sanguine enough that Higgins will be back when required; others are getting just a little twitchy. 

What's beyond question is that Rochford needs a player who betrayed little or no hint of his sky-high mileage with a tour de force campaign last summer, culminating in a fourth All Star.

Higgins' spectacular run of form came after his ‘red mist' moment against Galway and resultant ban against Derry.

The hope in Mayo is that Cillian O'Connor's straight red against Galway, nine days ago, might prompt a similar reawakening. In four of the last five seasons, O'Connor has been the country's top SFC scorer. He remains utterly pivotal but last summer's form was up-and-down and he has struggled, off the bench and starting, this spring. 

Just as worrying, he has been embroiled in several disciplinary scrapes, including a couple of incidents last summer where rivals Tom Flynn (Galway) and Darran O'Sullivan (Kerry) were controversially black-carded.

Dublin won't have their full complement either this Saturday, and Bernard Brogan's cruciate injury is a setback – but Jim Gavin's resources run far deeper. 

And even then, most of his front-line troops are already back on the pitch. Against Donegal, nine of his All-Ireland ‘15' started. Of the other six, Cian O'Sullivan, Eoghan O'Gara and Dean Rock came off the bench. Mick Fitzsimons, having started the first two rounds, was listed in the 26 but not used. 

That left Con O'Callaghan (consumed by club hurling and Sigerson commitments) and Jack McCaffrey (recuperating from ACL surgery) as the only two September starters who have yet to see league action.

All of which could put Dublin in the Castlebar box seat.

ABSENT: Chris Barrett, Donal Vaughan and Seamus O'Shea (back) won't feature for Mayo on Saturday

BIG LOSS: Keith Higgins and Cillian O'Connor will be missing for Mayo on Saturday, as will Bernard Brogan for Dublin

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