Saturday, March 31, 2007

Previews for tomorrow

A quick one this morning - plenty to do before heading West later in advance of tomorrow's clash with the Dubs at McHale Park.

This time the previews favour us (for what it's worth - they went for Cork last weekend), with Setanta, RTE and the Irish Times all plumping for us. Paddy Power even joins in the chorus, making us 8/13 for the win. Hmmm.

There's a good article on tomorrow's match, also in the Irish Times (also premium content, I'm afraid), by the excellent Keith Duggan (a far better sportswriter than the vastly-overrated Tom Humphries, who is not at all excellent), who has been talking with both Johnno and Pillar. Duggan makes the interesting (and fairly valid) observation that Dublin and Mayo are, for different reasons, the two most scrutinised and talked-about counties in the Gaelic football world. Given this, it's not surprising that neither manager is giving too much away about tomorrow's hostilities, which Duggan describes - with some merit - as a rare kind of league game, which will have a once-off championship feel to it.

It'll be tough enough to get a result tomorrow, unless the backs perform far better than they've done of late. While individually competent, as a unit the backs seem to have some kind of glass chin and the Dubs are the boys to exploit such weaknesses. If we lose, it'll be because we've conceded at least three stupid goals (not an impossibility: we conceded four such goals against them in Parnell Park this time last year). However, the Dubs don't like it when the going gets tough - as they showed against Tyrone under the lights at Croker back in February - and if we come at them hard with our running game, we can expect them to buckle. With the large home support (though the Dubs will bring a fair few too), it should be our day.

Also, let's not forget the U21s who take on Galway in the Connacht semi-final later this afternoon in Pearse Stadium. Any meeting between Mayo and Galway is going to be competitive and the fact that our Connacht and All-Ireland crowns are on the line will add some piquancy to the occasion. Another tough one but, hopefully, another win to celebrate.

Friday, March 30, 2007

U21s have injury problems too, Johnno on the hustings

Mayo's U21s start the defence of their Connacht and All-Ireland titles tomorrow afternoon in Pearse Stadium against Galway but Pat Holmes has, according to Hogan Stand, plenty of injury worries ahead of this local showdown. Senior player Aidan Campbell is a doubt (what hope has he of lasting the full 70 minutes the following day against Dublin, if he's to play against Galway tomorrow?), as are Chris Barrett and Seamus O'Shea. Galway murdered Leitrim in the opening round so our lads could be up against it in this one and, with no back door in the U21s, it could be a short campaign. Let's hope not. Throw-in time tomorrow at Salthill is 2.30 pm.

Elsewhere, Johnno was on the radio last night - wearing his politician's chapeau - on a Vincent Browne special from Breaffy. Most of the Mayo candidates were also on the programme, which was broadcast live from Breaffy in front of an invited audience, but Johnno struggled to make his presence felt in a midfield crowded out by such noted blabbermouths as Beverley Flynn and Michael Ring. Even Browne himself, who it must be said is a reprehensible toad at the best of times, was civil to The Great One, instead using him to make a few sly digs at Ring. The whole show was local politics at its very worst and it makes you wonder what on earth Johnno is doing in such ghastly company. More to the point, what impact will a General Election in May have on our chances against Galway on the 20th? Priorities, Johnno, priorities!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Mayo unchanged, despite all the injuries

Anything Pillar can do, Johnno can do as well. Hot on the heels of the Dubs announcing an unchanged side yesterday for Sunday's NFL Division 1A showdown, we have - despite all the injuries in the camp - done the same. For the record, here is the team to face the Dubs in Castlebar on Sunday:

MAYO (SF v Dublin) - K O'Malley; L O'Malley, J Kilcullen, K Higgins; E Devenney, B J Padden, P Gardiner; D Heaney, P Harte; A Campbell, G Brady, A Kilcoyne; C Mortimer, A Dillon, A Moran.

Johnno has made just one positional switch, with Ger Brady moving back to the centre-forward position that he held for much of last year under the M&M regime, while Killer moves across to left-half forward. Otherwise, it's the same team that started against Cork last Saturday.

Aidan Campbell and Alan Dillon have both been named in the starting lineup but, according to today's Indo, both have still to undergo fitness tests before Sunday to determine if they're in a position to line out. Team captain Kevin O'Neill drops down to the bench but he's certain to get called into the action at some point, quite possibly from the start, if either Campbell or Dillon fail to recover.

No word on the subs, in particular the two Macs. Given his second half display against Cork, it would be great to have have Marty Mac to throw into the fray at some point but, as mentioned yesterday, he appears extremely doubtful due to the foot injury he picked up playing for Breaffy on Sunday. Given his wonder point to slay the Dubs last year (go on, treat yourself to another look!), it would obviously be nice to see Ciaran Mac make a cameo appearance on Sunday as well.

Johnno is obviously developing rapidly as a politician as well. He's quoted, in the same article in the Indo, as saying that they decided to prior to the Cork game not to blame a defeat on the injury list. "It'll be the same if things don't go to plan for us against Dublin" opines the Great One. So now we know: the injuries could, so he says, be a factor in any defeat, but you're not, if we do lose, going to hear us whingeing about them. Now, does that man deserve a vote or what?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

ER, Mayo-style

The news is not getting any better on the injury front, with three further casualties arising from the weekend's action. Both Alan Dillon and Aidan Campbell limped off the field before the end of the first half against Cork on Saturday night and they're both struggling to be fit for the Dubs on Sunday. Then, to make matters worse, Marty McNicholas - who scored two crucial points in the second half against Cork - picked up a foot injury playing for Breaffy in a league game the following day and he's reported to have his foot in a cast, so that's him out for Sunday as well. There's still no sign of DB coming back, Trevor is - as we discussed last week - unlikely to be back this side of July and the unfortunate Ronan McGarritty is, of course, out for an indefinite period. In addition, Johnno has been quoted as saying that Ciaran Mc has only a 50:50 chance of being fit for the Championship showdown with Galway on 20th May. It's all a tad depressing, isn't it?

This catalogue of the walking wounded contrasts sharply with the situation in the Dublin camp, where Pillar has, unsurprisingly, named an unchanged team for Sunday's crunch match. This means that both Ciaran Whelan and Alan Brogan have to be content with places on the bench at McHale Park.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Division 1 status not yet in the bag

I have a bone to pick with Johnno. The Great One is going round shooting his mouth off to the media, viz. De Paper yesterday and the Mayo News today, to the effect that we have already secured our Division 1 status for next year. We haven't, although we're tantalisingly close to doing so, as we'll see in a bit.

It should first be confirmed that any further points gained in our final two matches, against the Dubs and Tyrone, will take us over the line. Even a draw and a defeat would do. This puts us in the happy position of having our fate in our own hands.

Because the four counties - ourselves, Dublin, Kerry and Tyrone - chasing the three Division 1 paces on offer (Donegal have already secured their Division 1 berth for next year) play each other over the two remaining rounds (next Sunday, it's us v the Dubs and Kerry v Tyrone, the following Sunday it's Tyrone v us and Dublin v Kerry), the final placings will be directly impacted by how these clashes turn out. Things are complicated further by what's happening as regards points difference - a crucial factor, as it will determine final placings if two or more counties end up with the same number of league points.

Currently, we're second on 8 points (with a +9 points difference), Dublin are third on 6 points (+22), Kerry are fourth, also with 6 points (+5) and Tyrone are 5th, with 6 points too (-5). The immediate point that leaps out here is the enormously positive points difference enjoyed by the Dubs, arising from the hidings they gave to Cork and Fermanagh in their last two outings. This means that any county finishing level on league points with the Dubs is certain to finish behind them on points difference.

Okay, so what's likely to happen?

Let's, for starters, assume that we lose to the Dubs and Kerry beat Tyrone next Sunday. We'd then be level with Dublin and Kerry on 8 points, with an inferior points difference to the former but our relative position to the latter dependent on how badly we fared and how well they did in our respective outings. Continuing this example, if Kerry then beat Dublin in the final round, they claim the second playoff place with the Dubs finishing third, providing we lose to Tyrone (if we beat Tyrone, we'd finish third). However, even if we do lose to Tyrone (as well as the Dubs), we're still likely to beat them to fourth place, unless they hammer us, as our points difference is significantly better than theirs.

Now, let's assume that Tyrone beat Kerry while we're losing to the Dubs, with Tyrone beating us in the final round as well. Our fate then hangs on the outcome of the Kerry/Dublin clash. If the Dubs win that one, we're safe in fourth place, with Kerry losing out (hurrah!). However, if Kerry win, we end up level on league points with them but, unlike the earlier example with Tyrone, this time we'd be the ones likely to lose out on points difference and so finish fifth. This means that there is still a possibility that we could find ourselves in fifth place when the music stops on 8th April and it's the reason why Johnno is incorrect to be claiming that we're home and hosed as regards our Division 1 status for next year.

Monday, March 26, 2007

U21 defence starts against Galway

Mayo's defence of their U21 Connacht and All-Ireland titles will start with a tough assignment away to Galway this coming Saturday. Galway hammered Leitrim by a whopping 23-point margin in their refixed preliminary round match in Ballinasloe on Saturday, winning by 3-20 to 0-6.

My thanks again to the excellent Leitrim GAA website for providing this result, the only place where I could find any mention of it, either on the web or in the papers. You have to admire the way that Leitrim GAA provide details of matches such as this week after week, despite the fact that, so often, the results don't go their way. The official Mayo GAA website is, by comparison, a bloody joke. It's poorly laid-out and never contains any timely information. Leave it to the Western, lads!

So, a full weekend of football lies ahead for the county. An U21 clash with the Old Enemy on Saturday and what promises to be a real humdinger of an NFL match with the Dubs on Sunday. And the clocks have gone forward: Summer football is drawing ever nearer.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Cork 2-8, Mayo 1-12: Killer seals cracking comeback win

Under the lights and in front of the TV cameras down at Pairc Ui Rinn last night, Mayo pulled off a superb comeback to beat Cork by a single point in their NFL Division 1A clash. Six points down at the break and with midfield totally beaten, our second defeat of the campaign looked a certainty. However, Mayo stormed back into the match in the second half and a point in injury time from Aidan Kilcoyne won it for us. Here's Setanta's take on the game. And, for good measure, RTE's and the Sunday Indo's.

Early on, it looked as if Cork were going to do to us what Kerry did in last year's All-Ireland. Using their early midfield dominance, they rained ball into their 6'7'' full-forward, Michael Cussen, and a glut of scores ensued. Cussen himself fisted a free from Masters into the net after ten minutes and later he broke another incoming ball into the path of corner-forward Kevin O'Sullivan who hit home Cork's second goal. We were 2-5 to 0-5 down at half-time and a chastening defeat appeared to be on the cards. However, as Eugene McGee noted in his half-time analysis on Setanta, Mayo's backline wasn't actually playing all that badly but Cussen was clearly proving a handful. With Kilcullen having been booked early in the game, he was obviously somewhat compromised in terms of grappling with the Cork full-forward. Losing a man in such a situation would almost certainly have resulted in a pasting for us.

What needed fixing in the second half was midfield, as that was where all our problems were starting from. We were never going to win ball in the air against Kavanagh and Murphy so the obvious Plan B was to start breaking it, crowd the sector out and try to snaffle up the loose ball. The tactic worked against Fermanagh last time out and soon it became apparent that it could work here as well. With more ball coming into them, Mayo were soon attacking with intent (shades now of the Dublin game last year rather than the final) and Conor Mortimor finished a fine move - involving David Heaney, Kevin O'Neill and the overlapping Peadar Gardiner - with the goal we so badly needed. This meant that, with only six minutes gone in the second half, we were back on level terms.

It still looked like we might fail narrowly to get anything out of the game, with Masters - who ended the night with six points - a constant threat. However, Cork never managed to get more than two points ahead of us after Conor's goal and Masters' final score twenty minutes from the end - which restored their two-point cushion - was also the last one of the night for the home side. It wasn't enough for a win, however, as points from Andy Moran, Marty Mc and Killer instead sealed victory for our lads.

This was a cracking result, one that will do wonders for the team's morale. Despite shipping those two early goals and battling to stay in it in the first half, they recovered superbly to dig out the win. While we were obviously caught on the hop in the first half by the threat poased by Cussen (though, in true Eurovision fashion, we should expect that every county will this year try to ape Kerry's successful tactic last year of deploying a big man in the square), Johnno's second half tactics were spot on. Once the supply to Cussen was choked off, we had a chance but we still needed scores ourselves to get back into it. Conor, once again, showed his worth to the team, with his 1-4 contribution earning him a second-successive MOTM accolade, but it was good too to see the scoring duties being shared around, with two points each from Killer and Marty Mc and a point each coming from David Heaney, Pat Harte, Andy Moran and KoN.

The win makes Division 1 football next year more likely, but we're not there yet. We're currently second in the table, on 8 points, and will remain there until next weekend's matches providing Donegal beat Kerry this afternoon. If Kerry win (and I think the cute hoors just might do so), we'll be level at the top on 8 points with both of them, though (unless Kerry paste them, which I don't think they will) with an inferior points difference, we'd drop to third in the table.

The Dubs are two points behind us but they annihilated hapless Fermanagh last night and so have a massively superior points difference to us (we're +9 but they're +22). If Tyrone beat Limerick today - which surely they will - they'll be level with the Dubs on points, but behind on points difference. Our two final matches are against the Dubs (next weekend) and Tyrone (the weekend after) so we can't afford to be complacent as both could yet overhaul us.

However, after last night's win, the aim now should be a top two finish in order to reach the play-offs. To keep on track for this, we need to beat the Dubs in Castlebar next weekend. They're showing good league form too and they also have a score to settle with us, but, having got into the habit of kicking their asses last year, we'll be looking to give them second helpings in McHale Park this day week.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Pundits and bookies back Cork to win tonight

Tonight’s match under the lights at Pairc Ui Rinn represents an important test for Johnno’s developing Mayo. Home advantage, Cork’s apparent greater need for the points on offer, our lengthening injury list (which is now approaching alarming levels), the ridiculous travel arrangements the lads have to endure today and, possibly, the home side’s regular exposure to playing matches such as this one under lights, all indicate that a win for Cork could be on the cards. At least that’s what RTE, Setanta and the Irish Times all think so Johnno is right to be cautious about our chances. Paddy Power also agrees with this assessment, with the Rebels quoted at 10/11 to win, while Mayo are available at 6/5.

It has all the indications that we could be in for a tough evening. If Cork tear into us the way Fermanagh did and hit us with a few early scores, we could be in real bother. We’re weak at midfield – although David Heaney should do better there than James Nallen did the last day – and so if Cork win lots of ball - which they should with their pairing of Murphy and Kavanagh - and move it quickly inside, they could punish us fairly hard. If midfield becomes the problem I think it might, then the temptation will be to handpass our way from one end of the pitch to the other, which, as the Clones match showed (and common sense would suggest), is not a sensible tactic for a game played in March. At least the weather should be okay tonight compared to Clones and the pitch cannot be as bad as St Tiernach's Park was but a short-passing game would, I fear, still be a route to nowhere for us.

On a limited supply of ball, economy of effort is likely to be very important tonight. We kicked a fair few wides in the first half in Clones but were far tighter in the second half, picking off scores with isolated attacks while Fermanagh were wasting plenty of chances at the other end. I wouldn’t expect Cork to be as wasteful as Fermanagh were (they haven’t that great widester Tom Brewer playing for them, for starters, and they do have James Masters) which means that our lads will have to make even better use of whatever ball they get. This is, I know, a tall order.

It’s an important match for the two Aidans – Campbell and Kilcoyne – who both experienced victory over Cork in last year’s U21 All-Ireland final. We’ll need a few scores from both lads if we’re going to have any hope of taking something from the game. Alan Dillon and Ger Brady will have to put in improved performances and, needless to say, we’ll need all the points that Conor is able to poach. Andy Moran will also need to put in yet another tireless 70 minutes, most likely further out the field than where he's been named in the starting lineup. Johnno still has to figure out what formation works best for the players he has – a two-man full-forward line comprising Conor and Alan Dillon doesn’t rock my boat, I have to admit, especially if high ball is being sent into them.

The sideline will be enormously important tonight as well, especially before the lads take the field. Johnno needs to get it into the players’ heads that any notion that Cork have a greater need of the points is just rubbish. If we want to make the playoffs – a reasonable target to aim at, I would have thought – then we need to win not only tonight’s match but next Sunday’s home clash with the Dubs as well. So, any thoughts that this is a “must win” for Cork but merely a “nice to win” for us - a suggestion made by a contributor to the other day - have to be nipped in the bud. Johnno could do worse than take a leaf from the book of that celebrated Corkonian, Roy Keane, who this week questioned the motivation and will to win of the Irish soccer team in fairly trenchant terms. I hope Roy isn’t using the weekend off to psyche up his county’s Gaelic football team!

Finally, a reminder that the match is live on TV on Setanta Ireland tonight, for all those in the land of cable (in particular, that of NTL) and for those who subscribe to the channel on Sky. Radio commentary is, of course, also available on MWR.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Mort's metatarsal

The injury that Trevor Mortimor sustained in the kickaround with the U21s last weekend is far more serious than was first indicated. According to the Mayo News, he's gone and broken one of his metatarsals - those pesky little bones in the foot that footballers these days seem to be forever snapping.

Once upon a time, none of us knew that we had such things as metatarsals in our bone structure. But then along came David Beckham and broke the second metatarsal in his left foot in the run-up to the 2002 World Cup finals. Cue daily medical updates and a general media frenzy. The humble metatarsal hasn't looked back since. When Wayne Rooney followed suit (fourth metatarsal, right foot) shortly before last year's World Cup finals, another media scrum ensued.

Trevor's injury won't generate the same kind of media interest but, thanks to Becks and Shrek, we know a fair bit about how long he's likely to be out. Medical reports suggest a 4-8 weeks recovery period but it can often be longer (Arsenal's Robin van Persie broke one at the end of January and there's no sign of him returning to action two months on) so it could be of the order of 10-12 weeks. That would mean that, assuming we make it there, the earliest we could reasonably expect him back would be for the Connacht final on 8th July. There appears to be little chance that he'll be back in time for the clash with Galway on 20th May.

It's tough luck on Mort, who has had a rough enough time over the past two seasons what with injuries and suspensions. His performances so far this year, notably against Fermanagh a few weeks back, gave room for hope that he was recapturing the form he showed in 2004. Now this.

With David Brady and Kevin O'Neill still out, Ciaran Mac hampered with a recurring back problem and the unfortunate Ronan McGarritty's future prospects up in the air, we're having little luck as regards injuries. To make matters worse, all five are experienced campaigners and so we'll definitely miss their input in the coming weeks. We could certainly do with them down in Cork tomorrow night.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Two changes for Saturday night

Johnno has named the team for Saturday night’s clash with Cork and here it is:

K O'Malley; L O'Malley, J Kilcullen, K Higgins; E Devenney, BJ Padden, P Gardiner; P Harte, D Heaney; A Campbell, A Kilcoyne, G Brady; C Mortimer, A Dillon, A Moran

There are only two changes from the Fermanagh game, one of which is enforced. As expected, James Nallen doesn’t hold his place in midfield with, predictably enough, David Heaney coming in to partner Pat Harte. The injury Trevor Mortimor sustained against the U21s last weekend was obviously serious enough to keep him out of action and, with Kevin O’Neill still out as well, Johnno has given a first league start to Aidan Kilcoyne, at centre-forward. The rest of the team is the same as that which started up in Clones the last day.

The backline is now starting to look settled, though how settled they look under the lights on Saturday night is a different question. While Heaney will bring a more combative approach to midfield, we’re likely to struggle - given Nicholas Murphy’s presence - to win primary ball there. This should mean plenty of ball coming into our backs and it will be a good test for them to see how they cope with that. The wobble the last day has me slightly worried – we wobbled against Kerry last September too and found ourselves comprehensively filleted inside ten minutes. Saturday night will be a big test for all the backs but how Keith Higgins handles James Masters is likely to be of particular interest.

I think we’ll miss Trevor Mort in the forwards. He had a good match there the last day and while he does favour keeping it in the family in terms of how he distributes ball, Conor did nothing wrong with the ball he got, scoring four fabulous points from play on that glue pot of a pitch. Conor seems to play better when the big brother is around and we’ll need a good performance from him if we’re to get anything out of this game so it would have been good to have both Mortimors in the starting fifteen. That said, I’m delighted to see Killer get a starting berth and I’d like it even better to see him put in the kind of performance that would ensure he retains his place for the Dubs the following weekend. Think last year’s U21 final against Cork, Killer! Think 1-6! Kill! Kill!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Some team news for Saturday's match

There's a short report in today's Indo that provides some details about how the sides are shaping up for the match on Saturday night. It confirms what was already known about the injuries to Messrs Brady, O'Neill and Mortimor but states that Ciaran Mac definitely won't feature in the Pairc Ui Rinn clash. No surprises there, I guess. The report also states that Cork's wing-forward Kevin MacMahon, who missed the Dublin game due to 'flu, is recovered and available for selection.

The report also quotes Cork selector John Corcoran who says they remain confident of escaping the drop to Division 3 for next year. After playing us, they have Fermanagh (away) and Limerick (at home) in their final two outings so they could conceivably finish on 8 points. Corcoran claims this could be enough to claim a play-off place but I don't think he's got the maths right there: I think ten points will be needed to have any hopes of a top two finish. It would, however, be enough for them to retain their Division 1 status and so, no more than ourselves, they'll have every incentive to battle hard to secure the two league points on offer.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

It's a long way to Pairc Ui Rinn

Indeed it is, especially if you're planning on doing the trip by bus. Those nice people at the AA (think roads, not booze) compute the distance from Castlebar to Cork city at a tasty 173 miles, which they claim could be covered in three hours and thirteen minutes. And the rest: Gort alone takes half an hour to get through and, although the Ennis bypass is now open, there are still plenty of towns to get stuck in on the way. Castlebar to Cork by bus? Well over four hours, maybe even getting on for five. Not an inviting prospect, that's for sure.

Why is all this relevant? Well, it's stated in an article in this week's Mayo News that the plan for the team getting to Cork for Saturday night's match involves trekking down ON THE DAY by bloody bus (sorry, coach, i.e. a bloody white bus), playing the game that evening and then travelling straight back up. It gets better: there's a whole slate of county league matches taking place on Sunday so anyone not completely knackered by the time the magical mystery tour gets back from Cork in the wee hours of Sunday morning will be by the time the final whistle sounds at their league clash the following day.

It's also worth pointing out that our final three league games are on over the coming three weekends. Has anyone given any thought to the likely impact on the county panel from exposing them to two competitive fixtures (one of which takes place 173 miles away, accessible only by bloody white bus) within 24 hours? The risk of injury must be heightened, both arising from the journey itself and from the effect of throwing tired limbs into the fray twice over a single weekend. I'd say that these insane arrangements make it a racing certainty that we'll end up with a few absentees for the visit of the Dubs the weekend after next. Are they travelling down by bloody white bus, I wonder?

Little news of note as yet about the team. The same Mayo News article confirms that David Brady will miss the match, with Kevin O'Neill's participation still uncertain too. Trevor Mortimor is also a bit doubtful having got clocked in a trial match against the U21s (hardy U21s coming through, it would appear) but apparently Ciaran Mac made a 15-minute appearance in the same match, so he must be getting close to a return to active service. Take your seat on the bloody white bus, O Great One.

Johnno reckons (same article again) that it'll be hard to get anything out of the Cork game. He's been saying that every game so far. I believe him this time, even if he is a politician in the making. I'm not sure what Johnno'll say in the event that we don't get a result down in Cork but I'm getting my shout in early - I blame it all on that bloody white bus.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Galway v Leitrim drowned with the shamrocks

Galway and Leitrim were meant to face off at Pearse Stadium yesterday in the U21 Connacht championship for the right to meet the reigning U21 Connacht and All-Ireland champions (that's our lads) on the 31st of this month. However, the match was rained off and is now refixed for Ballinasloe next Saturday (24th) at 3.30pm. My thanks to the excellent Leitrim GAA website (one which, incidentally, puts Mayo's official site to shame) for this information, which the national media deigned not to carry. RTE's sports news (about which there's a rant brewing but not one to be had now) was full of the rugby yesterday evening (the momentous cricket story was only bubbling up at that stage) and only covered the club final action from Croker. Not to worry, I thought, it'll be on Aertel. Hmmm. If there is a more useless information service out there anywhere (and there's another rant queuing up to be had about this so-called service), I'd like to know about it. Up to last night, the fixture was listed but the scores were left blank, as if they couldn't be arsed to fill it in. Then today, they put up the score as "Galway 0-00, Leitrim 0-00". The first-ever scoreless Gaelic football match, I thought, until the good people of Leitrim set me straight. One more reason to shout for them the next day against Galway.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Johnno on the Clones match

The Messiah has been giving his reaction to Sunday's win over Fermanagh in Clones. First off, he makes it clear (rightly) that the six points we've now got does not guarantee us Division 1 football next year. Of course it doesn't: Donegal are the only ones in that happy position at this stage, with ourselves, Kerry, the Dubs and Tyrone fighting for the other three slots. With ourselves and Kerry on six points and Dublin and Tyrone on four, it's very tight and it's easy to see us slide to fifth, were we to lose down in Cork while Dublin and Tyrone have their expected wins over Fermanagh and Limerick respectively. So The Man is spot on there. He's also right that we can expect a backlash from Cork, following their craven capitulation to the Dubs at Parnell Park, and we know - from the way that they hammered Tyrone two weeks previously - that they can do far better, especially at home under the lights at Pairc Ui Rinn. This will definitely be a tough one for us.

Johnno also had kind words to say about the defence which, after that opening wobble, performed very well. Johnno appears to be building the side from the back and it looks as if he's now got the backline he wants. I'd say that the back six that took the field in Clones will all be there when we face Galway in May, unless one of them gets injured or is taken severely to the cleaners in the interim. Needless to say, the same can't be said (for various reasons) of midfield or the forwards but, by the end of the league campaign, we'll have a good idea as to what the team for Galway will be.

In terms of injuries, Johnno says that Kevin O'Neill could be back for the Cork game but that David Brady is unlikely to make it. Pity - this is the kind of game where we could really do with DB's combative presence but it will be good to have KoN back on board. I wonder will this mean giving him another run at centre-forward? In which case, what happens to the younger Brady? Finally, Johnno confirms that Ciaran McDonald is on the way back, but not just yet. He won't be back "for the next game or two" according to The Boss but this leaves open the possibility that he might be back in time for the Tyrone match, where our possible participation in the play-offs could well be decided. It would have been nice to have him back to the face the Dubs: bet they would have loved to have seen him too. Maybe he could have, just for them, reprised his winning point into the Hill, only this time into the Bacon Factory End.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Defence of our U21 titles starting soon

We'll be putting our Connacht and All-Ireland U21 titles on the line soon enough, with this year's championship having got underway over the past few weeks. Indeed, Kerry have already been eliminated by Clare in Munster (yippeee!) and, as this is an old-style one-loss-and-you're-out championship, they're out of the reckoning. So too are the Dubs in Leinster. I'm kinda sorry to see the Dubs go because after last year's epic Senior semi-final, it would be nice to get into the habit of kicking their holes on a regular basis.

We're likely to have a similar start to the U21 campaign as we have at Senior level. Galway must first dispense with Leitrim at home on Paddy's Day but, assuming they do, we play them away on 31st March. There's no word yet about where this will be or what time the throw-in is but, no doubt, all will be revealed nearer the date. Sligo are at home to the Rossies in the other semi-final on the same day.

A new dedicated website for the U21 championship was launched yesterday by the tournament sponsor, Cadbury, and this provides plenty of information on fixtures/results etc. There doesn't appear to be any date fixed yet for the Connacht final but the All-Ireland semi-final (where the Connacht champions play their Munster counterparts) is set for 21st April, with the final on Friday (why dah?) 4th May.

With no back-door, this could be a short campaign but it would provide the perfect lead-in to the Senior championship if the lads could repeat the heroics of last year.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Substitution at yesterday's game

Here's a brief video of one of the substitutions Mayo made yesterday in Clones. The announcer says that Ger Brady is coming off but I think the individual leaving the field looks a little different . . .

Fermanagh 1-7, Mayo 0-12: rain, mud and two points

The weather forecast was right: it rained all day in Clones yesterday. The forecasts about the match were right too, but we had to fight hard enough in the rain and the muck to grind out the two-point win. The playing conditions were woeful, on a heavy, leaden pitch where the ball refused to bounce and which made an error-ridden game a certainty to happen.

In such circumstances, a good start looked vital because scores should have been hard to find. So, when Fermanagh raced into a 1-2 to 0-1 lead after only ten minutes (and they should have scored at least one other goal before then), we looked in big trouble. Midfield (shorn of Brady and McGarritty) looked a disaster zone and Fermanagh's quick, accurate passing enabled them to open up our defence at will. The fact that it was their All-Star full-back, Barry Owens, who waltzed through our backline to score the goal showed how lively and fluid they were. Our lads looked as if this was the last place in the world they wanted to be.

But, as is often the case, the goal conceded was a blessing in disguise as Mayo quickly realised their predicament and upped their workrate accordingly. Andy Moran moved out to an increasingly crowded midfield and stopped us hemorrhaging primary possession so, at last, we could start to attack ourselves. We went on to take complete control for the remainder of the half, reeling off six points without reply to reach the break two in front. The only worry by then was the number of wides - we had clocked up half a dozen at that stage - but we seemed to be scoring for fun, with Conor Mort on fire and Campbell, Dillon and Trevor Mort scoring too. Correction - that wasn't the only worry. Conor had, by then got his customary booking (for, I think, his customary bit of lip at the ref) but when he hauled down one of their backs as they tried to break out of defence soon after, it looked like an early bath was on the cards. This time, however, we got the benefit of dubious refereeing with Conor getting the black book waved at him and we could breathe again. That decision, given Conor's performance, was instrumental in our claiming the points.

The second half was really messy. Fermanagh, knowing that defeat would mean certain relegation, battled hard and they continued to snap up plenty of loose ball around the middle. They couldn't do anything with it, however, and, with far less ball, we nicked a few more points to edge further ahead. Eventually, they got a point from a free - after a 40 minute shut-out - and that signalled a more determined fight-back. They got as close as two points to us but no closer and so we ended up going home with the spoils.

On a day like yesterday, the result was everything and the win helps to keep us in the top four in the Division. We're still third, level on points with Kerry but slightly behind them on the points difference. We're not guaranteed Division 1 football next year but two more wins in our final three matches and we will be. Given the strong opposition in Division 1A (compared to 1B, where Westmeath and Louth lead the way - hello? Anyone at home?), this is good going.

Performance-wise, yesterday was hard to judge given the condition of the pitch and the incessant rain. Kenneth O'Malley did nothing wrong in goal and he's a big lad with a monster kickout so Clarke could be warming the bench from now on. After the early wobble, the backs did okay. Kilcullen is obviously growing into the full-back role and BJP is settling nicely into the centre-back position. Both put in good performances as did Liam O'Malley and Keith Higgins in the corners. I like the look of Devenney - he took off a few times yesterday and seems to have plenty of speed but he's also tenacious defensively. Gardiner was okay too. The biggest criticism of the backline as a whole was that we tried to work our way out of defence with short handpasses, not the kind of game that gets you anywhere fast on a wet, boggy pitch. When we tried to alternate it with long ball the passes often went astray but, when we found the forwards, we quickly opened the Fermanagh backline up. We should really have got at least one goal but Niall Tinney was in cracking form between the sticks for them and managed to keep the ball out of the net more than once.

Midfield was a disaster zone. Nallen is transparently past it and was completely at sea there yesterday. Ger Brady tussled and fought beside him (he swapped places with Harte) but it was only when Andy Moran came out that we began to win any ball in the sector. With DB and Ronan out, we need to find a functioning midfield, and fast. I'm more than a little surprised that Johnno didn't try out some other options in the area yesterday - was this because we haven't any? What about Barry Moran and Seamus O'Shea?

Conor Mort was clearly the pick of the forwards, with seven points, four of which were high quality ones from play when we were in real need of scores. A welcome return to form for the younger Mort. Trevor played well too, one of the few who seemed to revel in the muck. He put himself about a lot and was involved in much of the play going forward. Andy Moran was excellent as well - he didn't score (the only one of the starting six not to) but he did an enormous amount of work. Campbell, Brady and Dillon were all quieter but they all scored and that made the difference on the day.

None of the subs made any impact, apart from Heaney who got booked almost straight away, with the foul resulting in a pointed free for Fermanagh. Austie did nothing with the fair amount of ball that was pumped into him. His claims to a starting position look to be receding. Marty McNicholas came on for Harte in injury time but that was purely a tactic to run down the clock.

Positives and negatives, then. Midfield has to be sorted before the trip to Cork in two weeks time. A win there would be just great: it has to be viewed as winnable, given how crap Cork were against the Dubs but our record against Cork is poor and our returns from matches played down there is poorer still. Johnno said after yesterday's game that "the league starts now" so we should be aiming to start with a win.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Team and previews for tomorrow

Well, the team has finally been announced for tomorrow's clash with Fermanagh in Clones. Despite all the talk about expected absentees, the only three missing are DB, KoN and, of course, Ronan McG. The team is:

K O’Malley; L O’Malley, J Kilcullen, K Higgins; E Devenney, BJ Padden, P Gardiner; P Harte, J Nallen; A Campbell, T Mortimer, G Brady; C Mortimer, A Dillon, A Moran.

It would appear that Liam O'Malley, Enda Devenney and Aidan Campbell have recovered from their respective ailments and, thanks to this, changes have been kept to a minimum. The entire backline is unchanged from the Limerick game, James Nallen and Pat Harte come in for DB and Ronan at midfield, with Conor Mort filling KoN's place by returning to the full-forward line and Aidan Campbell making the consequent shift to the half-forwards.

Two talking points, I guess. First, why Nallen rather than Heaney at midfield? Does this, as a contributor to suggested yesterday, mean that Heaney's days in a Mayo jersey are over? It's beginning to look as if this could be the case, though apparently he's doing exams at the minute and so he might have been excused for the trip. Second, what's the story with the forward line? Alan Dillon at full-forward again? Tomorrow, where he'll be up against Barry Owens, an All-Star full-back, should tell us all we need to know about that particular experiment.

The previews, predictably, all go our way. RTE, the Indo, the Irish Times and all expect us to win. So do I and, for the first time this year, I'm actually going to see them play. The forecast for tomorrow is bad (rain, rain and more rain), it'll involve a 180-mile round trip but that's what being a supporter is all about, isn't it?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Injuries mount ahead of Fermanagh match

It looks as if we'll be forced to field a much-changed side for the NFL clash with Fermanagh up in Clones on Sunday. David Brady and Kevin O'Neill are definitely out, along with the unfortunate Ronan McGarritty, but our problems don't end there. The Mayo News reports that Enda Devenney and Aidan Campbell are both doubtful, which is an unfortunate development as the two had just broken into the side and they had both done enough against Limerick to hold their places the next day. Today, the Indo reported that flu-victim Liam O'Malley is also rated doubtful for Sunday and that David Clarke (currently no.2 in the goalkeeper pecking order) is carrying a back injury.

So, if we assume all the doubtfuls are definite absentees, we'll need a corner back (Dermot Geraghty?), a half-back (Aidan Higgins?), two midfielders (Pat Harte and David Heaney?), a half-forward (Killer? Alan Dillon to switch back out from full-forward?) and a corner forward (got to be Conor Mort, hasn't it?). Well, at least there are plenty of back-up options and it will give more players the opportunity to shine. However, in the same Mayo News article, Johnno laid it firmly on the line when talking about new players coming in, when he stated "there’s no hiding place now. When people are given an opportunity they have to perform".

He ain't wrong there. Like the Limerick game and, in view of the upcoming clashes with Cork, Dublin and Tyrone, this is a must-win game if we're to retain our Division 1 status next season. I'd say Johnno was well hacked off with the flat performance against Limerick and he'll be looking for a significantly improved outing the next day.

No news yet on the team but that's normal. It'll probably be in the papers tomorrow but, given all the injuries, we mightn't see it till Saturday.

In other news,
Kevin McStay has an interesting article in the Mayo News about Johnno's first hundred days. The activity might not have been as frenetic as what one would expect to see at the start of a new US Presidency but, as Kevin shows, Johnno will have had a busy time putting in place plans and programmes for the year on both the playing and the (often-forgotten but increasingly important) non-playing side.

That's it. Back tomorrow, assuming the team is announced.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Ronan's cancer scare confirmed

The bad news about Ronan is covered in the national media today, where it's been confirmed that he's suffering from testicular cancer. As the Indo reports, Ronan isn't the first high-profile GAA player to contract this problem, with Kildare's Dermot Earley and Cork's Joe Deane both having successfully recovered from it in the recent past. In Deane's case, he was operated on after last September's hurling final and is already back training and playing with the Cork hurlers. Let's hope Ronan's recovery is as swift.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Ronan McGarritty withdraws from panel due to illness

It was announced by John O'Mahony on Mid-West Radio this evening that Ronan McGarritty has withdrawn from the Mayo senior panel due to a serious illness. Rumours had been circulating earlier in the day to this effect, although with no names being mentioned. The condition is understood to be serious, though not life-threatening, and there is every hope and expectation that Ronan will make a full recovery.

We can all become very passionate about football and we can, in the immortal words of Bill Shankly, take the view that it's more than just life and death. Then, along comes news like this to prove that such a viewpoint is, at best, more than a little glib. Sport can seem so central to what many of us think and do but this kind of development shows that what happens on the playing field - including how the beloved teams we follow with such devotion perform - is less important than we often let on.

Get well soon, Ronan - I'm sure all of Mayo is rooting for you at this difficult time.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

We have been warned!

There was an article by Ian O’Riordan in yesterday's Irish Times (I've linked it but it's premium content so you'll only be able to see it if you subscribe to which was ostensibly about this weekend's Sigerson finals but was, in reality, an interview with current Kerry captain, Bryan Sheehan, about the Kingdom's prospects for 2007. In it, Sheehan lets the world know (as if we need reminding) that those scheming hoors in the South-West are hatching plans for back-to-back All-Irelands this year.

Sheehan says "the two in a row is the major driving force behind us this year. We do feel we have the players to go on and do it". For good measure, he thinks they'll challenge for the league as well, stating "we're not just trying to stay safe in the division. We're determined to reach the knock-outs." This is the confidence that winning 34 All-Irelands gives you, I suppose (just as it was when Paul Galvin, that little runt, proclaimed his delight at winning "his first" All-Ireland medal in 2004).

The main problem for Kerry is, in a word, Tyrone. This is also a problem for Mayo, as we shall see. It all began when Kerry got clobbered and clattered by Tyrone in 2003, following which they decided to get stronger and meaner and to get their revenge. Tyrone, however, didn't play ball: in 2004 their heads were, understandably, all over the shop following Cormac McAnallan's shock death and so, instead of a rematch with the Northerners, Kerry had to be content with poor, soft Mayo as All-Ireland final opponents. Result: 1-20 to 2-9, as I painfully recall.

At the start of 2005, there was plenty of loose talk from Kerry about the two-in-a-row and how it hadn't been achieved since 1990 and wasn't it Cork that did it then and wouldn't only be right, nay proper, for the Kingdom to claim the mantle of back-to-back champions, yada, yada, yada . . . But back came Tyrone (in the process even recovering from being robbed of the Ulster title by a refereeing performance that made Graham Poll look competent) and, boy, they took considerable glee in giving the Kerrymen an almighty root up the hole in that year's final. Cue mad as hell Kerrymen looking for revenge in 2006 but, once again, those pesky Tyrone boys just refused to come out to play. This time Armagh got to take some of the brunt of Kerry's righteous indignation but, once again, we have to take our more than generous helping of it in the full glare of the All-Ireland final.

If there's a pattern here, then we can expect Tyrone to re-emerge from the bushes this year, poised and ready to deliver another knockout punch to the would-be two-in-a-row champions. If they manage to do this - and they could - then we'd be well advised to steer clear of the All-Ireland final in 2008, especially if Kerry are in it . . .