Thursday 26 April 2018

Stakes higher than usual for Mayo in their Championship opener against rivals

Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor and Galway’s Eoghan Kerin get to grips with each other. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor and Galway’s Eoghan Kerin get to grips with each other. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Mayo boss Stephen Rochford still has 12 weeks before renewing their rivalry with Galway. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

If there was a silver lining for Mayo in Sunday's league defeat to Galway it was likely that there's more than 12 weeks to get things right before they take on the Tribesmen again.

There's plenty to work on as their recent record against their biggest rivals doesn't make for good reading.

Leeroy Keegan identified Dublin’s ability to pull match-winners off the bench as one of the differences between the sides in last year’s All-Ireland final. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Leeroy Keegan identified Dublin’s ability to pull match-winners off the bench as one of the differences between the sides in last year’s All-Ireland final. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Galway will come to MacHale Park this summer looking for a third Connacht championship win over their neighbours in as many seasons while they have already beaten them twice this season.

And by the time their next clash in Castlebar rolls around, there will be much more on the line. Early season Championship games don't often carry as much significance for teams who expect to be at the business end, but given the contrasting routes on offer to the winners and losers, that Connacht quarter-final takes on even more importance than usual.

The losers of that game will be pitched into the first round of the qualifiers and will face an arduous journey if they are to make it all the way back to the sharp end of things.

They will have to play five championship games - including four games in five weeks in the back door - before the new Super 8s part of the All-Ireland race begins, meaning they'd have to play 10 games in a condensed window to win an All-Ireland title.

It would seem particularly important for Mayo to avoid that route. Even allowing for the fact that they played 10 championship games last summer and produced their best displays in the back end of that run against Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final replay and Dublin in the final, Rochford and Co would surely rather the direct route.

The benefits of the front door are clear. Should they beat Galway on May 13 and go on to win Connacht, they would have played just three games before heading into the Super 8s, where they would face three high-intensity championship games in four weeks before bouncing straight into an All-Ireland semi-final.

Recently Leeroy Keegan identified Dublin's ability to pull match-winners off the bench as one of the differences between the sides in last year's All-Ireland final, so the direct route would be more likely to suit their squad who will most likely look to familiar faces to do much of the heavy lifting come the business end of the summer.

Mayo can't claim to have the depth of talent that other contenders like Kerry and Dublin boast.

So they have work to do and form to find but there's comfort for Mayo in that they have been here before and survived.

Twelve months ago, they found themselves with one win from their opening four league games. With Dublin in Castlebar next on the list for them, it's likely they will face a similar scenario this time around. But in 2017, they won their last three games to finish four points clear of the drop zone.

Admittedly they flirted with disaster at times during their back-door run but they also arguably came closer to winning Sam Maguire than any other year in the lifespan of this side.

In any case, if this Mayo team have taught us anything it's that they can always save their best for when it really matters.

"We found ourselves in this type of position before," Mayo manager Stephen Rochford commented in the wake of their defeat to Galway on Sunday. "There's no way back except through hard work. We know that."

They will get better. Former Footballer of the Year Keegan hopes to see action before the end of the league. Seamus O'Shea and Tom Parsons will bring significant know-how to the middle third. Keith Higgins and Chris Barrett are also due back in the side in the coming weeks.

The inclusion of those players from the start will bring about some natural improvement.

They will still be up against it to see off their neighbours in May, but fretting about Mayo's form so early in the year is a fool's errand.

They have work to do but this team has surely earned the benefit of the doubt.

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