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.