Carney calls on old rivals to lay down marker
NOTHING indicates the degree to which Connacht football has lost its place among the hierarchy of the elite more than the betting order for the All-Ireland title, which shows Galway and Mayo filling the last two places in the top 10.
Even Down, who have already checked in through the 'back door' and need to win four games to reach the last eight, are ahead of them. Derry and Donegal have also overtaken them, while Cork, Kerry, Dublin, Tyrone and Kildare fill the top five places.
It's quite some time since both Mayo and Galway were so far down the fancied list. But then last season undermined both so badly that it would have taken a very progressive league campaign to rebuild confidence. Instead, both performed poorly, winning just three of 14 games between them.
And since that included Mayo's win over Galway, it means that Connacht's 'Big Two' managed just one win each (Mayo beat Cork, Galway beat Armagh) against opposition from the other three provinces.
Galway were relegated, while Mayo survived by the narrowest of margins.
That's the background to their Connacht semi-final clash in Castlebar on Sunday and while it's not exactly an encouraging landscape, both hope that one of the most intense rivalries in Gaelic football will stir the creative spirit and prove the launch pad for a productive summer.
Mayo already have a championship outing behind them, but it threw up far more questions than answers as they came so close to losing to London in the first round four weeks ago. They will try to put it to the back of their minds, but, according to former Mayo (and Donegal ) star Martin Carney, that won't be easy if things start to go against them on Sunday.
"It could cause further doubt, which is not what you want in any championship game, let alone against Galway. This is quite an inexperienced Mayo team in championship terms, so that poor performance against London was the last thing they needed at this stage," he said.
Carney believes that Mayo's eight- point win over Galway in the league will be completely irrelevant and that Mayo's survival and Galway's relegation won't have any real impact either.
"Galway were relegated, but they finished the league quite well, beating Armagh and drawing with Dublin and got another boost from winning the U-21 title, so they'll be coming to Castlebar more confident than people might think. They have switched Finian Hanley out to midfield, which I think is a very clever move," said Carney, a long-time analyst on 'The Sunday Game'.
He believes that Galway and Mayo are in broadly similar territory, which appears to be some way off the pace set by the top All-Ireland contenders. However, all could change pretty quickly for Sunday's winners.
"A win will generate a huge amount of momentum. Suddenly, you're in a Connacht final and you're thinking if we get over this, we're in Croke Park in August and who knows from there on? Roscommon will be difficult opponents for whoever wins, but you'd much prefer to be looking ahead to a Connacht final next Sunday night than waiting to go into Round 2 of the All-Ireland qualifiers," he said.
The direct route still provides teams with a massive incentive, which will make Sunday's clash ultra-competitive.
"It's there for either side to go out and make a big statement. Mind you, it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if it took a replay to sort this one out," said Carney.
A close encounter, indeed, looks highly likely as three of the last four Galway v Mayo clashes -- all in Connacht finals -- have produced one-point wins.
Mayo won in 2006, Galway triumphed in 2008 and Mayo took the honours in 2009. Remarkably, the 2008/2009 games produced identical scores -- 2-12 to 1-14.