Sunday 16 December 2018

Sudden death looms once again for Mayo on final day

Aidan O'Shea and Donegal will lock horns again on Sunday Photo: Sportsfile
Aidan O'Shea and Donegal will lock horns again on Sunday Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

If Mayo are to find any plus-point from being in a relegation showdown with Donegal on Sunday, it comes under the heading of 'familiar territory', from which they have extricated themselves before on quite a few occasions.

For a third successive year - and a fourth time in six seasons - they are heading into the final round under threat of dropping into Division 2.

It's starker than before as this time there is no safety net in the form of other results possibly saving them if they lose.

Defeat in Ballybofey would leave them level with Donegal in seventh place on four points. It would be a great result for Declan Bonner's side, enabling them to remain in Division 1, having earned the higher placing on the head-to-head result with Mayo.

A draw suffices for Mayo, but a defeat would leave them heading for Division 2 for the first time since the 1996/1997 season.

In ordinary circumstances, Mayo's poor form would sound alarm bells around the county, but fans have grown so accustomed to sluggish spring campaigns being following by exciting summers that there's a general assumption this year will be the same again.

However, doubts would flourish if Mayo slipped into Division 2, having won only two (v Monaghan and Kildare) of seven games. As it is, they have the lowest scoring average (13.5 points) in Division 1 after six rounds.

They were obliterated by Tyrone in Castlebar last Sunday, scoring a measly 0-8, with only one point coming from their starting 15.

Still, they will be encouraged by the fact that they are taking on a Donegal side that has the second worst defensive record (average 19 points) behind relegation-bound Kildare. Surprisingly, Dublin were the only opposition not to score a goal against Donegal.


With injures weakening Stephen Rochford's hand, Sunday's game will call for a really highly-charged effort, similar to what Mayo have produced in similar circumstances in the past.

If it's forthcoming and they secure the win, the league will be forgotten as the focus veers towards the Connacht quarter-final clash with Galway on May 13. However, a defeat would raise new questions over whether Mayo can summon the energy for another massive championship effort.

Rochford has lots of experience of priming a team for these 'sudden death' end-of-league Sundays.

Last year, Mayo needed to beat Donegal in the final round to avoid the risk of being caught by Cavan, which they duly did in a fractious encounter in Castlebar. As it happened, they would have survived in Division 1 anyway, as Cavan lost to Roscommon.

In 2016, Mayo needed to beat Down - also in Castlebar - in the final round to remain in Division 1, which they did after a tense finish which saw the visitors run them to three points. They still only managed to avoid relegation on scoring difference, seven points better off than Cork, who dropped out with Down.

In 2013, it took a win over Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Round 7 to preserve Mayo's Division 1 status.

Such were the fine margins that victory not only kept them safe from relegation, it hoisted them into fourth place and semi-final date with Dublin, which the lost.

Mayo also lived a charmed life in 2008 and 2011 when they took only five of a possible 14 points, which, unusually, was enough to avoid relegation.

Mayo have finished on seven or fewer points in seven of the last 10 leagues, but have always managed to do enough to survive. In fact, they are the only county to stay in the top flight over the last 20 years, which is quite an achievement, even if it hasn't led to a title.

Donegal last dropped into Division 2 in 2013, but now need to produce a special effort to survive in the top tier, giving new manager Bonner a much-needed boost after a campaign where luck has not been on their side.

They led Kerry by a point late on in the first round in Killarney before conceding two points and then suffered a one-point defeat against Galway.

It was as if those early setbacks dented their confidence and, since then, their only win came against Kildare.

With the stakes so high and memories of last year's feisty encounter in MacHale Park still fresh, Wicklow referee Anthony Nolan could have a busy afternoon in what is the only game of any real significance in Division 1.

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