Summer really is on the way. It’s not just the incessant sunshine and the temperatures edging above the mid-teens (although these factors undoubtedly help) but it's also the fact that the first Connacht final of the year, at U21 level, takes place this afternoon. McHale Park is the venue for today’s showdown between the reigning Connacht and All-Ireland champions (that’s our lads) and the Rossies, a match that will pit Mayo’s U21 management team of Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly against their former mentor, John Maughan. It's also the first time for a Mayo side to take on a team managed by John Maughan in a championship encounter. This could be useful preparation because, if we get past Galway on 20th May, we're almost certain to be facing him again in the senior final in early July.
Mayo had an impressive seven point victory over Galway in their opening U21 match last weekend but they’re likely to face a tougher battle today against a Roscommon team that is well populated by players who tasted All-Ireland minor success with their county last September. Roscommon’s senior team has been in the doldrums for a number of years – a situation that hasn’t altered appreciably since Maughan’s arrival last year – but the unexpected All-Ireland success at minor level last year offers the county a chance to build a senior team that is once again able to compete seriously with Mayo and Galway. Today’s U21 final marks an important step on this developmental road so, from our perspective, it would be an opportune time to bugger up their succession planning and help to claim the future for ourselves.
Our prospects haven’t been helped by the injury that goalkeeper Kenneth O’Malley sustained playing for the seniors against the Dubs last Sunday, one that will keep him sidelined until after the U21 All-Ireland final next month. He’ll be a big loss to the team but Mayo, captained by Mark Ronaldson, still have a number of survivors from last year’s U21 squad and so it’s a realistic hope that this experience will help push today’s result in our favour.
Tomorrow it's back to NFL action, with the final round of regulation matches prior to next weekend's playoffs. While the outcome of our match with Tyrone up in Omagh is of no real relevance to us, it is to Tyrone who are battling to retain their Division 1 status following an uncharacteristically inconsistent league run. Tyrone know that if they lose to us they're very likely for the hop, unless, of course, their chums in Kerry bail them out by scalping the Dubs. We can therefore expect to encounter Tyrone in their meanest and most uncompromising guise tomorrow.
That said, while a few of our regulars sit this one out, Johnno has resisted the temptation to field a B team and has instead picked what looks on paper to be quite a strong side. We're clearly not just going there to fulfill the fixture and Johnno appears to want to keep the winning run going ahead of next weekend's outing to Croker for the semi-final. One noteworthy aspect about the Mayo team for tomorrow is that James Nallen - who partners Pat Harte at midfield - becomes the player to have played most matches (123 in all) with the county team. While he is undoubtedly in the twilight of his inter-county career, Jimmy has been a marvellous servant to The Cause over the years and, appropriately enough, he'll captain the side at Omagh tomorrow.
In terms of predictions, Paddy Power come down firmly on Tyrone's side for tomorrow's clash - they're on offer at 8/15, while we're available at 15/8. That's good odds for us, I think. Elsewhere, RTE and the Irish Times follow Paddy Power's lead by backing Tyrone (on the not unreasonable basis that they have something to play for while we don't) while Setanta plump for us (without really saying why). This will definitely be a tough one to get anything out of but it would be great to be heading for Croker with another win under our belts. If it's a tight match with ten minutes to go, would you bet against us?