The GAA’s template for the 2021 season was formally revealed on Monday and will see the inter-county season take place in the first half of the new year before the focus turns to the club game from August through December. Following consultations between Croke Park’s management committee and the county chairpersons over recent months, the so-called ‘split season’ model will be pursued in 2021 while public health restrictions for the Covid-19 pandemic are still in place.
The calendar will see the National League commence on the weekend of February 27-28 and continue through until early April. The inter-county football championships will then begin on the weekend of April 17-18, with the All-Ireland final fixed for July 17-18 before the club season kicks off in the following weeks.
Under the model, inter-county training can begin on the weekend of January 16-17, less than four weeks from now. The prospect of gearing up for another inter-county campaign may hold little appeal for the Mayo players right now after last Saturday evening’s All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin but the rapid-fire turnaround will bring preparations for the new season into very sharp focus for James Horan and his management team after Christmas.
Under the new template, the National Leagues are to be subdivided into two groups in each division, based on the geography of the competing counties. Mayo, who will be playing Division 2 football this spring following their relegation from Division 1, are set to be placed in a group alongside Meath, Westmeath and Down. This will be the nominal ‘northern’ group, with Cork, Clare, Laois and Kildare competing in the ‘southern’ group.
Each team will play the other teams in their group once and there will be semi-finals and finals between the groups for promotion and relegation, meaning every team is guaranteed at least four and possibly five games in the league.
Mayo’s primary focus for the league campaign will be gaining promotion back to Division 1 at the first attempt, which will essentially require finishing in the top two in their group and winning a semi-final against a team from the other group. That should be eminently doable for a team that went toe-to-toe with Dublin for 50-plus minutes but Horan may also use the league campaign to continue the process of blooding new players into his team.
Mayo carried a panel of 41 players over the course of the just-finished inter-county season. Some of those players, such as Seamus O’Shea, Donal Vaughan, Colm Boyle and Keith Higgins, saw little or no game time over the course of the campaign and may have difficult decisions to make over the Christmas period about whether or not to return for another year. That said, the prospect of a shortened season that is guaranteed to run no later than July could potentially encourage those experienced players to continue on for one more year.
But for the younger players on the extended Mayo squad, the league campaign could serve as an ideal proving ground for them to stake their claim for a place in the championship side, as Oisin Mullin and Tommy Conroy did this year. Players like Rory Brickenden, David McBrien, Jack Coyne (named-checked by Horan in his post-game comments on Saturday) and Paul Towey, all of whom were involved in the Mayo camp over the last few months, could be given the opportunities to show what they can do.
Then there are the players returning from injuries. Long-term absentees like Brendan Harrison and Jason Doherty were also still technically part of the Mayo panel this winter and while it remains unclear whether either of that pair will be fully ready for a return to play by March, Horan would surely prefer to get some game time in their legs before the defence of the Connacht championship begins in April. The same applies to the likes of Bryan Walsh and Mark Moran, both of whom played some part in the 2020 championship but missed out on the 26 for the final.
James McCormack is also returning from injury and will be hungry for minutes, while players like Eoin O’Donoghue, Fionn McDonagh, Fergal Boland and Darren McHale will also be aiming to claim or reclaim their places in the pecking order. Whether there is scope for any new additions to the panel is difficult to say. 41 is a big number of players as is, and even if some of those players do decide to call it a day or to hold off on a return to training until later in the spring, there are plenty of willing candidates already at Horan’s disposal.
Whereas in a normal year the county management would have club, under-20 or college teams to look at for new recruits between inter-county seasons, the break between the 2020 and 2021 seasons is so short and devoid of action that trying to identify potential new players is largely pointless. Put simply, there’s nothing Horan will know about any footballer in the county come February that he doesn’t already know now.
In one way, the quick resumption of inter-county activities could serve Mayo well. The panel will not so much break up for the winter as press pause for a couple of weeks before they get back at it. Whatever doom and gloom is left from another All-Ireland defeat will quickly need to make way as the games come up fast. The wheel won’t stop turning.
“Next year’s season will come on very quickly so we’ll have to move on very quickly,” said Horan on Saturday night after emphasising the positive aspects of Mayo’s 2020, namely the emergence of Mullin, McLaughlin, O’Donoghue, Conroy and co. With those young players in harness and momentum behind Mayo despite Saturday’s loss, they can hopefully look ahead to 2021 with confidence. ‘There’s always next year’, as the saying goes, and next year arrives in no time at all.