Mayo vs London (McHale Park, Sunday 14:00)*
This Sunday afternoon the most novel provincial final in decades, if not ever, will take place in Elverys McHale Park, Castlebar. Mayo, the reigning Connacht champions will host a London side playing in their first ever provincial showpiece. From the outset I am going to make it abundantly clear that I believe there will be only one outcome from this game and that is a heavy Mayo victory.
London has done phenomenally well to reach the Connacht final. For only the second time ever they won a Connacht championship game when they overcame Sligo and they followed that up with a fantastic replay victory over Leitrim in the semi-final. The London players and management are in McHale Park this Sunday on merit and they fully deserve their day in the sun.
However, Mayo are one of the top three or four sides in the country and harbour genuine hopes of ending this season with Sam Maguire making a trip west for the first time in 62 years. If they want to keep up those hopes then they have to give London the respect and preparation that they would give to any top side like Dublin or Donegal and that will mean taking the game to the Exiles from the very off and not letting up for even one minute of the game.
James Horan’s first championship game in charge was against London in Ruislip in 2011 and nobody is under any illusions as to who should have come out on top that day. Trevor Mortimer and Kevin McLaughlin stole a draw for the westerners that day before Mayo came out on top in extra-time. There are a large number of players still involved on both sides and the Mayo lads will be aiming to prove a point about that result. Donal Vaughan and James Horan have admitted to still regularly thinking about that result and Sunday is their chance to put it to bed.
Mayo showed against Galway and Roscommon in their two games so far that they are a top side and one capable of punishing mistakes and killing off a team once they get the chance. Infact, unlike previous Mayo sides, they are creating their own chances to kill off the game and they are taking these chances.
Players like Kevin McLoughlin, Alan Freeman, Aiden & Sheamus O’Shea, Keith Higgins and Donal Vaughan have improved their display with each game and are beginning to look like players that could lead Mayo to the promised land. That is before you even mention the all-stars Lee Keegan, Alan Dillon and Ger Cafferkey.
The Mayo bench is stronger than it has probably ever been and that is, ironically, thanks to the injuries which the side has been hit with in recent months. Barry Moran, Andy Moran, Michael Conroy, Cillian O’Connor and Jason Doherty are all to come back into the starting line up and that competition for places is proving to be a huge advantage for Mayo this season. By the time those players do come back into the starting line-up, which is by no means a guarantee, then the lads who played in their places will have match practice and will be chomping at the bit every time they get on the field of play and will be able to deliver.
This Sunday offers Mayo a great, and lucky, chance to ease some of these players back into consideration. Conroy, Andy Moran and Jason Doherty all appeared for their clubs in recent weeks and look to be available for selection while Barry Moran and Cillian O’Connor will be there or thereabouts. Donal Vaughan and David Clarke have lost their fitness race but in players like Chris Barrett and the returning Robbie Hennelly, James Horan is able to call upon experienced and top class players to fill the void. The restructuring of the back line which sees Keith Higgins slot into the center back position is definitely worth keeping an eye on and now gives Mayo probably the most potent half-back line in the country.
London can call on players like Tony Gaughan, Lorcan Mulvey, Ciarán McCallion and Sean Kelly, who are all good intercounty footballers but they are missing Mark Gottsche, who has been their best player of the past three seasons, and are not in the same league as the Mayo players. They should enjoy this Sunday and take away from the experience because in round four of the qualifiers wait Cavan or Derry and on their day the London players can certainly put it up to either of those sides. But I do worry that the heavy beating which is expected this Sunday could set London back, especially if it is followed by another heavy defeat.
Mayo should have this game home and hosed by half time but unlike in their other Connaught championship games they cannot afford to take their foot off the gas and ease up in the second half. The bench is currently so strong with returning players that anybody on the field who is seen to be easing off will be quickly replaced by the management and someone of the calibre of Cillian O’Connor or Andy Moran will come in looking to make a statement ahead of the all-Ireland series.
The bookies are rarely wrong but I believe that their spread of 17 points is going to be way off the mark. Mayo will give London the full respect that they deserve and that means that we could be looking at an Armagh-Leitrim type result this Sunday. Not a great advertisement for keeping the provincial championships but try telling that to any London supporter in Castlebar. The occasion will be fantastic, even if the match turns out to be nothing more than a training session.
MAYO: Robert Hennelly (Breaffy); Tom Cunniffe (Castlebar Mitchels), Ge Cafferkey (Ballina Stephenites), Chris Barrett (Belmullet); Lee Keegan (Westport), Keith Higgins (Ballyhaunis), Colm Boyle (Davitts); Aidan O’Shea (Breaffy), Seamus O’Shea (Breaffy); Kevin McLoughlin (Knockmore), Alan Dillon (Ballintubber), Richie Feeney (Castlebar Mitchels); Andy Moran (Ballaghaderreen), Alan Freeman (Aghamore), Darren Coen (Hollymount/Carramore)
*Live on TV3