Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Brady and O'Neill crocked

The news on David Brady and Kevin O'Neill isn't great and it looks as if we'll have to do without both of them for a few matches. Speaking after the game, Johnno told the Western People that DB's calf injury was "severe enough" and that he'd be out for a few weeks. He confirmed that KoN's problem is a hamstring and that he'll also need a few weeks to recover.

It's almost certain that both will miss the trip to Clones to face Fermanagh on Sunday week and, most likely, we'll also be without them for the extremely difficult away clash with Cork two weeks after that. They could, I suppose, be back for the Dublin game but fitness will be a problem at that stage. Realistically, we may have to do without them for the remaining four league matches.

DB's absence is a big blow. Since his (latest) comeback, he's established himself as a key man for us - in my view, he's now the first name on the teamsheet. When he's on the pitch, we don't get bullied or bossed around the place and his snarling, Alpha Male presence in the middle seems to give heart to everyone around him. Look at the effect he had on the team when he came on against Kerry last September: he arrived at the scene of a car crash but he quickly put manners on Donaghy and, for a brief while, we were back in the game. Last Sunday, our early fluency left us once he went off and a better team than Limerick would have made more productive use of all that primary possession they were winning off McGarritty and Harte in midfield.

These two - especially McGarritty - have a huge responsibility to take on in Brady's absence in the next few games. If they can't do this, then we need to start looking elsewhere for midfielders. I'd be hopeful that Harte is up to it but I'm not so sure about Ronan, not least because of his basketball commitments. Don't get me wrong, Ronan is a talented player but 2006 wasn't a great year for him and he needs to start providing proof that he deserves a place in the first fifteen. As things stand, I have my doubts.

KoN will also be missed. According to Sean Rice in the Mayo News, his placing on the Forty was a big success last Sunday, resulting in plenty of quick, accurate ball into Campbell and Moran. It's true that, in his absence, we have lots of different options in the forwards (Mort, Austie, Killer and Conroy could all come in) but we're still lacking an intelligent playmaker and if KoN was shaping up well to take on this role, it's a pity that the experiment can't be continued with over the next few matches.

Elsewhere, Conor Mort is talking about the new regime and Andy Moran is interviewed about Sligo IT, with whom he's been playing a starring role since the start of the year (which included helping to inflict defeat on Mayo in the FBD League!).

Monday, February 26, 2007

Mayo 1-10, Limerick 0-7: early scores prove decisive

Mayo secured two valuable league points yesterday at Castlebar but their six-point win over Limerick was anything but convincing. The visitors kicked ten wides and twice hit the posts late on so the winning margin flattered us somewhat. It's worth noting that while the 1-10 we scored yesterday was good enough for a win, the same score a fortnight ago up in Ballybofey saw us lose by three points. The quality of the opposition yesterday - in a county where gaelic football only ranks fourth in the pecking order (after rugby, hurling and soccer, in that order) - was clearly not as high as the previous day. This fact was also confirmed yesterday by Donegal's quite comfortable win over the hapless Dubs.

Still, the points are in the bag and, if we manage two more against Fermanagh up in Clones on Sunday week, the nightmare prospect of Division 3 football next year should be avoided. A step up in form will still be needed, however, if we are to retain Division 1 status next year.

There were a few positional switches from the team announced in advance, with Kevin O'Neill swapping places with Ger Brady and Trevor Mortimor coming out to left-half forward and Alan Dillon taking his place at full-forward. KoN's original placing in the half-forward line was strange enough but moving him to centre-forward was even more odd. However, that paled beside the switching of Alan Dillon to full-forward. Messiah, what you up to?

It's difficult to know how the rejigged lineup would have fared but an early injury to DB (after only nine minutes) meant that we wouldn't get the chance to find out. Up till then, Mayo were cruising - they had raced into a 1-2 to 0-0 lead, Trevor getting the goal - but once the Main Man departed (to be replaced by clubmate Pat Harte), gone too went much of the coherence in Mayo's performance. When the Skipper limped off shortly before half-time, Mayo lost another leader but by then, with the score at 1-6 to 0-2, the points were more or less secure.

The second half performance was ragged enough, with Limerick cutting the deficit to four points and missing further chances to get closer. Still, we managed to close out the game effectively enough and the six-point winning margin also helped to boost our points difference, taking us above Tyrone to third in the table (behind unbeaten Donegal and Kerry, who have a slightly better points difference than us).

The negatives from yesterday were a continuing lack of fluency in the forwards and the way our game plan came asunder once DB and KoN went off. There were some positives, however, notably encouraging debuts from Enda Devenney and Aidan Campbell, both of whom bagged two points. Andy Moran also weighed in with two points and he set up Trevor's goal early on. His excellent form both for Mayo and Sligo IT will make him hard to ignore in any team selection from now on.

Champagne football it wasn't but it was a valuable win. Next up is the trip to Clones against bottom-of-the-table Fermanagh on the 11th of March, another must-win match.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Tomorrow's match against Limerick

I'm posting this far later than I'd intended to but I got caught up watching the rugby. What a performance that was, one that - unlike the France game - did justice to the marvellous surroundings in Croker.

Anyway, back to the more prosaic location of Castlebar tomorrow where the lads face a crunch match in Division 1A of the NFL against Limerick. With Tyrone losing unexpectedly down in Cork tonight, we'll take the field tomorrow back in fifth spot in the table, as Cork's better points difference puts them into third place. This goes to show, yet again, just how tight this Division is going to be.

I gave details of the team yesterday but I'm still trying to figure out what Johnno is up to, given the many changes he's made. From the back, Clarke is obviously being punished for his costly error against Donegal and O'Malley deserves a chance so I suppose now is as good a time as any. The full-back line is starting to look settled but only if they perform a bit better than they have so far. Kilcullen has shown some promise in the no.3 spot but has yet to provide convincing proof that he's the man for the job. The half-back line now looks positively exciting, with BJP improving all the while and now flanked by two real speedsters. Devenney has loads to offer (and he's keeping Heaney out of the side into the bargain) but now's the time to start showing that he can do it when it counts.

McGarritty's comeback is predictable but I have to say I feel a bit sorry for Pat Harte, who has scored 1-1 in the two matches played to date and who could do with a regular place in the team. However, DB is now almost the first name on the teamsheet and McGarritty's selection is probably an example of Johnno's "Horses for Courses" policy for this match, in that he's opting for the more experienced man to partner Brady.

In the much-changed forward line, there are plenty of questions. Here are a few. Why blood Campbell in a match like this? Why is KoN in the half-forwards? Why is Andy Moran in the full-forward line? Why no Killer? I can see the logic of playing Ger Brady and Trev at 11 and 14 respectively (Horses for Courses again) and the same logic applies to the dropping of Conor M and Austie (both could well come on at some stage in the match). However, I don't follow what the Great Man is up to with the other placings and I don't think we're any closer to having a settled forward line.

Limerick, by the way, will field the same fifteen that started against Fermanagh last weekend, albeit with a few positional changes. The Limerick team is:

S Kiely; S Gallagher, J McCarthy, P Browne; P Ahern, T Cahill, P Ranaghan; J Galvin, T Carroll; G Noonan, J Ryan, J Cooke; J O'Brien, D Horan, M Reidy.

Onto predictions: 3-0 to us, in short. RTE think it'll be close but that we'll do it, while Setanta and the Irish Times (no link) both opt for us as well.

Finally, the Indo has an interesting article about the betting odds for the All-Ireland, which they say show that Mayo are one of only five counties that the bookies give any chance of winning the Sam Maguire. Kerry, Dublin, Tyrone and Armagh are, unsurprisingly, the other four.

That's it - back on Monday after tomorrow's match.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Mayo calling

This post is a first on two fronts, i.e. it's the first (and hopefully not the last) that I've done while physically located in Mayo. As a consequence, it's also the first time I've tried to post using GPRS. So far, although far slower than 3Mbps broadband, it's okay but let's not tempt fate.

First, the final update on the Clare match. Thanks to the wonders of the printed version of this week's Western People (old technologies can often be best), here's the full team for the Clare match last weekend:

Kenneth O'Malley; Dermot Geraghty, Ger Cafferkey, Tom Cunniffe; Enda Devenney, Ger Brady, Aidan Higgins; Ronan McGarritty, Colm Forde; Mickie Mullins, Aidan Campbell, Aidan Kilcoyne; Marty McNicholas, Barry Regan, Mark Ronaldson. Subs: Trevor Howley (for Geraghty), Paddy Navin (for Cafferkey), Sean Ryder (for Cunniffe), Gary Mullins (for Forde), Michael Conroy (for Regan) (all half-time); Edmond Barrett (for M Mullins, 45), Seamus O'Shea (for Campbell, 45), Mickie Mullins (for Barrett, (65, inj).

In all, nine of last year's U21 team played a part in the match. Okay, enough about the Clare match.

I've just seen the team for Sunday, in today's Irish Times. There are widespread changes, as follows:

K O'Malley; L O'Malley, J Kilcullen, K Higgins; E Devenney, BJ Padden, P Gardiner; R McGarritty, D Brady; K O'Neill, G Brady, A Dillon; A Campbell, T Mortimor, A Moran.

That's far more changes than I'd expected, I have to say but the defeat by Donegal did call for a shakeup. Johnno is sending a clear message here about the consequences of underachievement - a cruel but necessary lesson.

That's enough over GPRS. More tomorrow once I'm back in broadband land.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Johnno hints at changes for Sunday

No team announced yet for the Limerick match on Sunday - that probably won't happen till Thursday evening - but Johnno has already confirmed that there'll be a few changes from the Donegal game. Citing Limerick's "much more direct style", he appears to be thinking about picking a side to deal with such a playing approach. Maybe Heaney will get picked, after all. Johnno mentions that there'll be a "couple of changes" - is the Great One being literal here or are we talking two or three? - but it looks as if the reshuffle will be minimal enough. Devenney in for Heaney, McGarrity in for Harte, with a few switches in the forwards - positional as well as personnel - is likely to be as far as the changes will go. I'd say Killer and Campbell will have to be content with joining the action from the bench.

One more nugget of information from the same story, relating to the Clare match, which was that Aidan Higgins lined out for the first time since the All-Ireland. (That's ten of the team now, only five to go!) Aidan had a great year for us last year, apart from the final (which was the case with the bulk of the team) and his return to the colours will boost our options in the backline.

Finally, also in the Mayo News, Kevin McStay reminds us just how tough this current NFL campaign is. He makes the valid point that the days of using the League to blood promising youngsters are over and that, with points difference so important in deciding final placings, every score really does count. Another reason why we need a good win on Sunday.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Scorers from Saturday evening's match

At this rate, we might even get details of the team that lined out against Clare. As expected, Aidan Campbell got the run-out at Johnno mentioned beforehand and it looks like he played well too, scoring three points. He wasn't the only U21 medallist to play, or score, either: Mark Ronaldson got a goal and had a penalty saved later on, Killer got two points (hope he looked as happy with them as he does in the picture), while Barry Regan also made an appearance and scored two points into the bargain. Of more interest than all this, perhaps, is the news that Enda Devenney - the Hamlet of the Half-Backs - has finally made an appearance in a Mayo jersey for the new regime. He also got two points and, according to the Indo, put in a "sparkling" display at half-back. That could well be Heaney's place taken for the Limerick match. I think we can expect to see either Killer or Campbell start against Limerick too, but probably not both of them.

Here's the full list of scorers from Saturday evening:

M Ronaldson 1-0, A Campbell 0-3 (2f), A Kilcoyne 0-2 (1f), B Regan 0-2, E Devenney 0-2, E Barrett 0-2, M McNicholas 0-1, G Brady 0-1, G Mullins 0-1.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Win over Clare, next up their neighbours Limerick

We beat Clare in last night's challenge match. That's a world exclusive, folks, as I haven't seen it reported anywhere else as yet. And here's another exclusive: we scored 1-14, they scored 1-8. The text message I got conveying this groundbreaking news didn't, sadly, include any additional details as to what team we put out or who the scorers were. Hopefully, this info will leak out over the coming days.

Limerick, our NFL opponents next Sunday, were in action against Fermanagh up in Clones today, where they recorded an impressive 5-point victory over the Ernesiders (2-10 to 1-8). To my reckoning, that margin of victory puts them above us (on points difference) in the table but, more to the point, it shows that they're not a team to be messed with. We already saw that when Dublin only beat them by a single point last weekend. This could be a tricky match for us, I think.

Another result of relevance to us was last night's hiding that Donegal got from Tyrone in the Dr McKenna Cup final. Donegal beat us by three points last weekend but last night Tyrone had ten points to spare over them. What does that say about us? Not a lot, probably, but it still doesn't look too good.

Friday, February 16, 2007

A wider back door?

There's some talk in the Indo about a motion that might come before the next GAA Congress in April to widen the back door in the Football Championship. The issue has been raised by the Ulster Council secretary, Danny Murphy, who feels that the current system is unfair to provincial champions. He has, apparently, got support from Armagh's Fat Controller, Joe Kernan (a man who could certainly do with a wider back door), who has experienced what it's like to approach the All-Ireland series both as provincial champions and as a county coming through the qualifiers. Both feel that provincial champions get a raw deal, in that once they qualify (unbeaten) for the All-Ireland series, they get no second chance. If they lose (which they frequently do) in the quarter-final, then they're out, whereas if they lose in the provincial final, they have a route back.

Murphy's plan would see a reorganisation of the All-Ireland series. It would start with a pre-2001-style face-off between the four provincial champions, with the winners progressing to the semis, while the losers would face the two remaining qualifier teams. This means that the qualifier route to the All-Ireland series would be restricted to just two teams, instead of the present four, and that, as a result, the All-Ireland series would involve six rather than eight counties.

At the heart of this is the (at least implicit) concern about provincial champions having to sit around swinging the lead for a month or more, waiting to see who is going to emerge from the qualifiers to face them in the quarter-finals. The Fat Controller's concerns are obviously a reflection of recent experience, with Armagh having to loiter for four whole weeks last Summer before coming cold into a quarter-final with born-again Kerry. The unfairness of the present system is further illustrated by the fate of Cork, Kerry's conquerors in Munster last year. They trooped off Pairc Ui Caoimh on the 16th of July having comprehensively beaten their neighbours yet when they next took the field, at Croker in their All-Ireland quarter-final with Donegal on the 5th of August, they did so knowing that Kerry were already waiting for them again in the semis, having beaten Armagh earlier in the day. This meant that Cork's reward for having beaten Kerry in Munster was to play Donegal for the right to meet Kerry again in the semis. There is clearly no logic in such a state of affairs.

However, I'm not convinced the Murphy plan is the answer either. If it does come to pass, it won't be long before the two counties who reach the semis unbeaten will have cause for complaint about the lack of a back door for them too. This will almost certainly happen as they'll be left waiting around to see who emerges from the back door to face them.

What this debates demonstrates is that, despite the success of the back door and the huge public appetite for big Championship matches, the current structure is fundamentally unsound. Sport should be about how teams fare in a competition where the underlying structure doesn't favour one team over another. That patently isn't the case with the current Championship structure.

For my money, Martin Breheny's idea (can't find the link to it, but I'll keep trying) about redrawing the provinces and playing the provincial championships off by way of a mini-league format (similar to the Champions League), with the top two in each province getting through to the All-Ireland series, sounds like the best option I've seen so far. I know, I know, it devalues (somewhat) the provincial championships but the current system is so imperfect (we can, I fear, expect to see a Cork v Kerry All-Ireland semi-final virtually every year, by the looks of it) that more radical reform than what is now being mooted will be required.

As an aside, the Indo also publishes figures to show how the various provincial champions have fared under the new system. It is, perhaps, surprising to note that Mayo are the only provincial champions from Connacht to make it past the quarter-finals since 2001. Both times we won Connacht, in 2004 and again last year, we made it all the way to the final. By contrast, Roscommon (2001) and Galway (2002, 2003 and 2005) have never, as Connacht champions, made it past the quarter-finals, although Galway did, of course, win the All-Ireland via the back door in 2001.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Johnno on the Donegal defeat

Johnno has given his thoughts in the Mayo News on the defeat by Donegal. He sounds rueful enough, stating that we could have won it, pointing to the stage just after we got that fortunate goal where he felt we missed an opportunity to inflict greater damage on them:

They were a little vulnerable after we got the goal and we didn’t expose that well enough. That is something we’re going to have to learn at the year progresses.

He also expresses his belief that this was one of the four away matches out of which we could really have got something:

League points are vital and we have four away games this year. We did feel this was a game to target to get something out of on the road. I would have been happy enough with a draw here at the end but we are disappointed because we are putting a huge effort in.

He's clearly far from happy in terms of how the forwards are shaping up so far, stating that, as yet, "we just don't have a rhythm" in that sector. Interestingly, he singles out Swinford's Aidan Campbell as someone "who will have to get a longer game to express himself". Aidan was the captain of the minor team that reached the All-Ireland final in 2005 and was on last year's victorious U-21 team. I think it's fair to assume he'll be starting against Clare on Saturday night and possibly also against Limerick the following weekend.

Overall, the Boss isn't exactly chuffed, which is precisely how it should be. It was a tough game, on a miserable wet day, against opponents who are on a bit of a roll and where the home support would have given Donegal a significant lift. But we still could have pinched it and that's why Johnno's unhappy. I think Limerick can expect a hard game from us on Sunday week.

P.S. The poll in the Mayo News asked if we can still win this year's NFL. When I checked the results, 55% thought we could. I voted "No", by the way.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Challenge game under lights on Saturday evening

There's no NFL action this weekend but the lads will still get a run-out, with Paidi O Se's Clare coming to Ballinrobe on Saturday evening (February 17th) to inaugurate the club's new floodlights at Flanagan Park in the town. Throw-in is at 6.30pm. Kevin McStay mentions the upcoming challenge game in his regular column in this week's Mayo News. He also supplies photographic evidence (reproduced here) to show that the lights actually work!
In terms of who Johnno selects to play on Saturday night, I think we can expect to see some Rafa Benitez-type rotation. What odds on a much-changed forward line to give some of the guys on the margins a run?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Donegal 1-13, Mayo 1-10: late scores send us home empty-handed

A bit like Ireland at Croke Park, really. On a day of such sporting significance - when the day's action at Croke Park offered an alternative to what was happening in the GAA world - Mayo suffered a three-point reversal against Donegal up in Ballybofey. Although Donegal were on top for much of the game, Mayo hung in there till very late on only for Donegal to land three points close to the end and seal the win. Here's the Indo's take on the contest.
Mayo were on the back foot from the off but came storming back into it after Donegal had dominated the exchanges in the opening 20 minutes, with a succession of scores from Conor Mort, Austie, Alan Dillon and Andy Moran putting us a point in front at the break. Donegal again took the initiative in the second half and they were helped on their way when David Clarke dropped a high ball and Ryan Bradley stuck it in the net. However, our lads came back into it with a jammy goal of their own, which, highly unusually in Gaelic football, was credited as an o.g. for Donegal captain Neil Gallagher. Back level and with time running out, it looked like we might sneak away with a share of the spoils but it wasn't to be as three late points won the day for the home side.

Losing any match isn't easy to accept (as the punters in Croke Park yesterday will confirm, all of whom incidentally now have some idea as to what it feels like to be a Mayoman leaving that great sporting cathedral in September). The defeat adds to the pressure in terms of League placings and will make it more difficult to secure a place in the reconstituted Division 1 next year. Still, things could be worse: we could be like Cork - or Galway in Division 1B - with two defeats racked up. With one win in the bag and a home match against Limerick to come, followed by an away trip to Fermanagh, we could (should?) have six points to our credit before the more difficult clashes with Cork, Dublin and Tyrone. A last-two placing - that would see us plunge to the new Division 3 - should be avoidable but we'll need to win at least three of the coming five matches to claim a Division 1 place. That's a reasonably tall order.

In terms of the game itself, it was another good, hard match and Johnno will have learned more about his players from this one than he did from the win over Kerry. DB has already done much to nail down one of the centre-field places after another strong performance yesterday, with his clubmates Pat Harte and Ronan McG left to scrap for the other midfield berth. The forward positions remain fluid: the entire full-forward line was replaced yesterday but none of the subs made it onto the scoreboard. The backline looks a bit more settled but they did concede 1-13 so a bit of experimentation is likely there too in the weeks ahead.

There are no NFL matches next weekend so the next action to look forward to is Limerick's visit on Sunday week. Limerick were very unlucky to lose by a point to the Dubs on Saturday but they're scheduled to play their postponed match against Fermanagh next weekend so they might have some points on the board before they visit Castlebar.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

2-1 to us (that's previews not the predicted result)

The tipsters tip marginally in our favour this time (I'm not sure if this is a good thing or not). Setanta are agin us, while RTE and the Irish Times (when you finally get to drag them away from the rugby) back us. No preview in the Indo but they have a good article by Martin Breheny on what a dogfight Division 1 is this year. If we win tomorrow, we'll be in good shape for a top four finish, what with relatively easy matches to come against Limerick and Fermanagh before the tough last three outings. However, Donegal are in the same boat, having won their opener and knowing that a win tomorrow gets them half way to safety while a loss will push them back into the dogfight. Having to play four matches away from home doesn't help our cause and, if one was minded to whinge (one isn't but one could easily get on one's high horse with a little encouragement), one could point to the fact that, for the second year running, we have to play Cork away. Why so?

Donegal named their team last night. They've made a few changes from last time, with Paddy Campbell returning at full-back, Neil Gallagher in at midfield and Ryan Bradley coming in at left-corner forward. Here's the team in full:

P Durcan; T Donoghue, P Campbell, K Lacy; E McGee, B Monaghan, B Dunnion; K Cassidy, N Gallagher; C Toye, C Bonner, B Roper; K McMenamin, B Devenney, R Bradley.

It's definitely going to be a tough match and a good test for the lads. Donegal are a decent side, with plenty of talented footballers, and, with home support, they'll be difficult to beat. Away matches in the league are always hard to win but, if we're to keep our Division 1 status for next year, we need to win this one. I know it's still very early in the year to be forming opinions about how we'll fare out in the Summer but I think that tomorrow's result will tell us a bit about our prospects for 2007.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Unchanged team for Sunday

Johnno has opted to go with the same starting fifteen for the Donegal match on Sunday, with just one positional switch from last Sunday's anticipated-and-highly-insignificant-in-the-scheme-of-things victory over Kerry. The team for Sunday is:

D Clarke; L O'Malley, J Kilcullen, K Higgins; D Heaney, BJ Padden, P Gardiner; D Brady, P Harte; A Moran, T Mortimer, A Dillon; C Mortimer, K O'Neill, A O'Malley.

The one positional change sees Kevin O'Neill and Austin O'Malley switch places in the full-forward line. KON certainly knows where the goals are so it'll be interesting to see if that is part of The Master Plan. Kilcullen gets another run at full-back and BJP gets another opportunity to feel at home at no. 6. DB gets another chance to growl, snarl and generally behave like a Real Man in the middle of the pitch. Harte lines out beside DB, which means no place for Ronan McGarritty. However, he's playing basketball in Dublin on Saturday evening so he couldn't be expected to line out the following day as well.

Andy Moran and Conor Mortimor both start in the forward line but, having played prominent roles for their respective Sigerson teams the other night. I'd be surprised if they both play the full 70 minutes on Sunday. After a poor display against Kerry, Mort was on form for DCU when they hammered UL, scoring three points. Andy lined out at full-forward for Sligo IT and he contributed 1-3 to their victory over Tralee IT. An L O'Malley came on as a sub early on for Sligo IT in that match as well. I assume he's ours, in which case he'll be a bit knackered on Sunday as well.

Johnno has issued another caution ahead of the match. Okay, okay, okay, I think we get the message now - THIS WILL BE A TOUGH ONE.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Morty's cautious about Sunday too

Conor Mortimor is the latest to state the party line that Donegal will be a tough nut to crack on Sunday up at Ballybofey. Mort actually makes the valid point that Donegal came very close to beating Cork in last year's quarter-final and, had they done so, they could well have given Kerry a tougher match in the semi-final than the limp challenge that Cork posed. Ah well, that was then.
It's difficult to know what to make of Donegal's win down at Cork last weekend but, for my money, the argument that it had a lot to do with the red cards issued to James Masters and Nicholas Murphy has a ring of truth about it. Those two gents are key men for Cork and their early departure almost certainly made Donegal's job easier.

That's all for now. No team news yet but we might hear something tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Johnno speaks . . .

Of course he does. He's a (wannabee) politician, isn't he?
But, away from the hustings, he's also been speaking about the win over Kerry and Sunday's upcoming clash with Donegal in Ballybofey. He's not happy about the refereeing on Sunday, hardly surprising, though if he were Pat O'Shea, having lost Donaghy so early in the second half, he'd be entitled to be even more ratty.
Interestingly, he reveals why Austie was hauled off so early, despite showing some good touches early on. It says all you need to know about the state of refereeing when it comes to a manager being forced to substitute a player, who has done nothing out of order, for fear he is about to get his marching orders. It was the clever thing to do, without doubt, and it gave Michael Conroy some good air time but we did lose Austie at a time when it looked like he was about to do the business.
Elsewhere, Johnno also reveals that he knew we'd knock seven shades of sh*t out of Kerry but that Donegal will be a much harder game. (Well, sort of). Move over Alex Ferguson, give some room to our Mind Games man. He also says that he hopes The Natural will be back before the League action is over.
The Man has spoken . . . that's it for now.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Mayo 1-11, Kerry 0-11: the bandwagon begins to roll

Well, The Messiah did it. It wasn't the All-Ireland (nor was it snatching the last seat for Fine Gael in the General Election), it most definitely didn't count as revenge, or even the merest hint of revenge, over the All-Ireland champions but it was a win - and a good one at that - in Johnno's first proper competitive test of his Second Coming. Two points in the bag from the first League outing is nothing to be sniffed at, especially in such a tough Division where we only have two more home ties to come after yesterday, set against four on our travels.

There was plenty to be upbeat about yesterday but two things stand out, namely the good performances of James Kilcullen at full-back and BJP at centre-back. Kilcullen was an eleventh-hour replacement for McGarritty and he totally bossed the exchanges with Quirke (who does not look like a second Kieran Donaghy, it must be said), leading to the Kerryman being replaced early in the second half. (Donaghy departed soon after, but I'll come back to that in a minute). It's too early to be drawing conclusions based on one match but Kilcullen now has a legitimate claim on the no. 3 jersey. BJP can also make similar claims on the no. 6 jersey after a confident and assured performance at CHB. In fairness, the backline as a unit performed excellently, with Peadar Gardiner putting in a Man of the Match performance, scoring three points from play in the process. My fears about the backs were, I admit, proven to be groundless, on this occasion anyway.

We did well in midfield too, where David Brady was menacing and masterful by turns. He had a wonderful, aggressive tussle with Dara O Se - who also turned in a fabulous performance for Kerry (were he not in Green and Gold, he would be a pure joy to watch) - and he always seemed perfectly positioned to take the ball and give the right pass, letting the ball do the moving. Beside him, Pat Harte was full of running and he appeared like an express train ten minutes from time to accept the final pass of a great move to seal the points with a cracking goal. Harte is one of our most underrated performers but he's becoming one of our real key men.

Things didn't go so well in the forward line, especially in the first half when we had bundles of possession but very little to show from it. It looked like all the old failings - an inability to get into clear scoring chances, over-elaboration, poor shot selection, attempts at points falling short and a few wides. Conor looked particularly out of sorts, getting into pointless spats, which, on one occasion late in the first half, resulted in a 14-yard tap-over for us being switched to a free out for them, with Conor getting a yellow card for his troubles. Nothing seemed to work for Conor yesterday and, with the ref doling out yellow cards like wedding invitations (15 in all), it's a wonder he didn't follow Trevor off before the end. He certainly should have been taken off early enough in the second half.

That wasn't the only talking point about the forwards. Austie was hauled ashore early in the second half and his replacement, Michael Conroy, then gave way to Ger Brady ten minutes before the end. Was Austie injured? I can't see any other reason why he should have been taken off at that stage. He was going reasonably well and had scored a point from play early on.

On the positive side, Alan Dillon was excellent, nailing four great points, three of them early in the second half when we raced into a clear lead. Kevin O'Neill also got a point from play, as did Trevor, who looked good at centre-forward, despite his sending-off late on. Given the rate at which the cards were being flashed, it was always likely that someone was going to join Donaghy for an early bath. Trevor's second yellow was still ridiculous - he pulled a jersey, got slapped on the head for his troubles, fell over and got carded.

Donaghy's two cards were also innocuous but Dara O Se was lucky to stay on when he elbowed Dillon in the face, right in front of the ref, at a stage when he was already on a yellow. The ref checked his number and then, with Kerry already reduced to 14 men, bottled the decision. It was a typical GAA refereeing fudge - what's the point handing out 15 yellow cards if the ref can't, or won't, make the right calls on the tough decisions?

Overall, though, it was a good day and a fine win, one that provides a timely confidence boost as the 2007 season gets underway. Already, the backline is starting to look better and the team as a whole looks meaner than before. The forwards need to sharpen up a bit but it's early days yet. Next up is a tough away match against Donegal this coming Sunday.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Before the off

This was going to be a quick one then I lost everything just as I finished it, so it's going to be even shorter now.

We're in good shape for tomorrow, according to Setanta, who report that the injuries to Ronan, Keith and PH have cleared up. Johnno likes our preparation for the game, describing it as Championship-like. That's the spirit, but just remember this is February, lads, not high Summer. Real revenge will have to wait till then.

Kerry are apparently the most consistent League performers over the past four years, according to the Indo. No real surprises there, I suppose. We're sixth with a record of P 30, W 16, D 1, L 13.

Only two previews to report. RTE give it to Kerry, while the Times (no point linking this, it's premium content) gives it to us, but only because they think we are fielding a stronger team. This isn't the case, as I pointed out yesterday.

That's it. Looking forward to the off tomorrow and I'll be back on Monday to discuss the game. Till then.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Teams for Sunday announced

The Mayo team for Sunday's NFL clash was announced last night. Forget the FBD shadow-boxing, this is the first line-up put together by Johnno and the new management team in a national competition so it's the first one that really counts. And here it is:

D Clarke; D Heaney, L O'Malley, K Higgins, A Moran, BJ Padden, P Gardiner, D Brady, R McGarrity, P Harte, T Mortimer, A Dillon, C Mortimer, A O'Malley, K O'Neill (capt).

For a first-round League match, this is a strong team. Ten of the side started the All-Ireland final, with three more coming on as subs. Notably, none are newcomers to the panel since last year. All fifteen have significant Championship experience.

From midfield up, the side looks good. Brady and McGarritty should do okay at midfield, with Harte close by in the half-forward line and BJP nearby too at centre-back. Trevor at centre-forward is an interesting choice - I don't think he's lined out there before. He certainly has the strength for the middle but can he lead the attack effectively? The full-forward line looks very strong but Austie has to start delivering the goods regularly if he's going to nail down that position for the Summer.

I'm less confident about the backs. O'Malley's not the answer at full-back and I wonder why Johnno is giving him a run there when it was clear enough from last year that he hasn't the height or the presence to command things around the square. What happened to Kilcullen? One of learnings from last year was that we need a new full-back and that he needs to come from outside the 2006 pool. I still believe that to be the case.

Heaney at corner-back worries me greatly. He'll probably do okay on Sunday, when the going is heavy but Johnno cannot seriously think he'll make the cut there for the Championship. How many scorable frees did Heaney give away last year? Far too many, in my mind, for him to be given serious consideration in the last line of defence. And that's before you even start to think about how comprehensively he was skinned in last year's All-Ireland. Personally, I think Heaney's had his chips, certainly as a first-choice player. He's still a useful sub but I think we're risking too much by persevering with him and we should be using games like this to find better alternatives.

The half-back line is also a worry, containing, as it does two half-forwards. Still, I have to say I'm enthusiastic about BJP @ CHB - it could work. He'll run all day, he'll be well able to go forward and to track back. But, like Trevor at no.11, the key will be how well he sees the bigger picture. His spatial awareness, if you like. But, this is the kind of experimentation we need to be doing and now's the time to do it. Andy Moran at right-half back? Dunno - he came on nominally as a half-back against Dublin but really played as a forward. Is he a wing-back? Can he become one? Sunday will tell, I suppose, but, again, I just wonder what Johnno is up to.

In terms of subs, I hope the likes of Kilcoyne and Conroy get a look in. We need to be blending into the side the key figures from last year's U21 triumph and that process should be starting now. So far, only Keith Higgins is a regular starter but I firmly believe that Killer needs to be given proper run in the side over the Spring. We know he has the talent but he needs more regular football at this level.

That's us, a few words on Kerry. Their side - the first under new boss, Pat O'Shea - is also very strong considering the time of year. Here it is:

D Murphy; Marc Ó Sé, T O'Sullivan, K Young; T Ó Sé, A O'Mahony, B Guiney; D Ó Sé, K Donaghy; S O'Sullivan, E Brosnan, P Kelly; C Cooper, M Quirke, B Sheehan.

With Moynihan and McCarthy having retired and Declan O'Sullivan and Paul Galvin AWOL in Australia (where maybe, just maybe, they might come off second-best with a kangaroo or something), Kerry have a number of enforced changes from last September and O'Shea is taking the opportunity to experiment as well. In all, despite the four absentees mentioned above, nine of Kerry's starting fifteen are the same as last September, with two more having come on as subs. Interestingly, O'Shea has opted to fill both full-back and centre-back vacancies by drafting in players from the left-wing (O'Sullivan and O'Mahony respectively).

The big talking point is Donaghy's switch back to midfield but any hopes we might have about an easier time on the aerial front will be tempered by the fact that his replacement, Michael Quirke, is 6 feet 7, i.e. taller than Donaghy! O'Malley will certainly know he's been in a game after grappling with that kind of challenge.

That's it for now. More on the game tomorrow.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

New beginnings

January is over and almost over too is the four-month hibernation in the GAA world. I've thought about starting this blog for months but it's only now, three days before national competitive action resumes, that I've finally got around to doing it.

I've followed Mayo's footballers for longer than I care to recall. Briefly, I was first taken to Connacht championship matches as a child in the late Sixties but have clear memories of such events from the early Seventies. So I remember the long drought of the Seventies and exulted in our re-emergence as serious contenders for the All-Ireland in the Eighties and Nineties. I've been at all of the finals since 1989 and have experienced the same sickening low that all other Mayo fans have gone through in 1989, 1996, 1997, 2004 and 2006.

But, as the title of this post suggests, the object here isn't to look back - though I will do so, now and again over the coming months - but to think ahead to what's facing us in 2007. We have a talented squad, with plenty of competition for places and we have, at last, Johnno back at the helm, accompanied by a good back-up team. We're one of the top six or seven teams in the country as we prepare for the start of the NFL on Sunday (Kerry, Armagh, Tyrone, Dublin, Cork and Galway would be the others - including us that's seven) and, given the way the Championship works (a topic I will return to again), we should, at least, make the All-Ireland series without too much difficulty. It's there that the season really begins.

But now, back in February, we have the start of the NFL, with a rematch against Kerry in Castlebar on Sunday. This is being touted as a rerun of the All-Ireland, a revenge mission etc etc. It's nothing of the sort - the only way we'll get revenge on Kerry is by mashing them in a full Croke Park in the Summer, preferably in the final itself. League clashes are only about points and team-building for the Championship, nothing more. So, if we do win on Sunday, which we well could, let's not get carried away, eh?

We still don't have any word on the team but we do have a new captain. Kevin O'Neill made a great comeback in the county colours last year and showed true leadership qualities on the big days in the Summer, notably against Galway and Dublin. He'll be a good captain. Peadar Gardiner is vice-captain - not a bad choice either but he needs a better season this year. He tailed off badly last year and had as poor an All-Ireland final performance last year as he had in 2004.

But, never mind the past. Where's the team? Till then.