Saturday 24 February 2018

Wounded Mayo look for home comforts

League final defeat can inspire O'Mahony's men to provincial glory

Joe Kernan will be concerned by Galway's defensive frailties.
Joe Kernan will be concerned by Galway's defensive frailties.
Peadar Gardiner will make a welcome return to the Mayo fold for the Championship.
Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

WHEN the dust finally settled on a busy 48 hours of National League football final action at Croke Park last month the stock of two Connacht counties had taken radically different trajectories.

While Sligo's had rocketed thanks to their Division 3 victory, the manner of Mayo's Division 1 loss saw theirs plummet quicker than Anglo Irish shares.

Given their upcoming clash in the Connacht quarter-finals at Markievicz Park, some people immediately queued up to anoint Sligo as favourites. But Mayo's latest lamentable collapse in the Big House may yet backfire badly on their provincial opponents.

Sligo deservedly got all the kudos. They had just won back-to-back league titles (beating Antrim in consecutive finals) and played the most exciting and entertaining brand of football in all four league deciders, so manager Kevin Walsh was understandably delighted.

But 24 hours later was he quite so happy? A wounded animal is a dangerous thing.

Mayo left Croker with another barrage of slagging about their mental frailties ringing in their ears so will no doubt be pumped up to come out swinging.

Mayo and Galway were also Connacht's only Division 1 teams this year and Sligo's nightmare draw means they have to beat both to even reach the final.

There is a fair argument that they should never have fallen into the league's backwaters after winning Connacht in 2007 but they went into serious free-fall afterwards.

Last summer certainly proved they were still the guts of a Division 1 side. Galway only escaped from Markievicz with a one-point victory and if that is sometimes forgotten then their single-point loss to Kerry -- in Tralee -- certainly wasn't, especially given that Sligo missed a penalty in the dying stages.

Since their latest league victory, Walsh has admitted to using that heartbreaking Kerry defeat to drive them on.

"It all depends on what you do the following year out," Walsh said.

"You can pat yourself on the back because you came so close, or you can take it as a lesson and move on and hope to have a good year again.

"A lot of teams have taken the plaudits after a good year and gone down the way. That was our biggest job on the management side, to make sure that that didn't happen."

He is not afraid to give youth its fling either. He started Keelan Cawley -- of the U-21 team that lost this year's Connacht final -- at wing-back in the league final and may introduce more of them now.

But he will also want to match Mayo's massive experience when they meet.

It is 10 years since Sligo beat Mayo in Connacht; a three-point win at Markievicz Park in 2000.

They have lost to them three times since, twice away and the most recent (2008) was a painful three-goal drubbing, so the pragmatic former Galway playing legend now at Sligo's helm will not be getting too carried away by the hype.

Mayo's destiny? Well that's in their own hands. It won't be easy. If they don't put that demoralising NFL final display aside then all the other good league work they put in will be lost to them. They also have Keith Higgins, Peadar Gardiner and Enda Varley to come back in.

They say the league doesn't matter come the white heat of the championship, yet the pain of that loss to Cork may yet be exactly what sustains the defending Connacht champions this summer.

Whoever wins between Mayo and the Yeats men faces Galway in the semi-final, who remain a bit of an enigma, despite the arrival of an acclaimed 'outside' manager this year.

Joe Kernan was expected to give them that bit of boot and plenty of bite that their traditional brand of open football lacks in these increasingly defensive times.

There were certainly flashes of it in their league victories over Dublin and Tyrone. But, worryingly, Galway conceded a massive 8-104 in the league, which they bookended with an opening seven-point loss to Mayo and a four-point defeat to Derry.

Like Mayo, they have significant players -- Padraig Joyce, Michael Meehan and Sean Armstrong -- returning now but it is in defence and midfield that they really need the cavalry.

Despite barely scraping through their Connacht quarter-final clash against minnows New York thanks mainly to Joyce, Galway -- another wounded animal right now -- certainly won't want for motivation in the semi-final.

Twelve months ago, Roscommon, with Fergal O'Donnell taking charge, were everyone's fancied dark horses but they suffered a 20-point hammering from Mayo and have remained in the shadows since.

They are fortunate in that they're in the much weaker half of the Connacht draw and were boosted by the return of sharpshooter Ger Heneghan for the league but were still relegated to Division 4 even before the last round.

However, three of their NFL defeats were by just a single point and another was by two and they had a disastrous run of injuries and should now have Karol Mannion, Ian and Senan Kilbride, David O'Gara and Enda Kenny fully fit again.

They have been boosted by Jimmy Gacquin's U-21s winning their first Connacht title in 11 years. Donie Shine was the only U-21 that O'Donnell used during the league but he may dip further into the underage vein now.

The Rossies will certainly be worried about London, who ran them to a point five years ago and had a late shot off the woodwork.

The Exiles lost useful Armagh native Padraig Duffy this year when Carlow's Derek Hayden was one of their better signings but he is an injury doubt and it could well be ex-Dublin star Declan Lally who is the ace up London's sleeve.

The winner of that encounter plays Leitrim, who struggled in Division 4 this year and face a ridiculously long wait of 10 weeks since their last league game.

Perhaps that is just as well, given the unimaginably tragic loss of Philip McGuinness.

When they lost their two best forward players -- Emlyn Mulligan to a second consecutive cruciate injury and Declan Maxwell to ankle surgery -- back in March, you could not imagine Leitrim having any worse fortune.

Sadly, McGuinness' death has put football starkly into perspective and the only hope is that it will galvanise them.

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