By Mark Higgins
Kevin McStay will lead Mayo into competitive action for the first time under the MacHale Park floodlights this Saturday night as Galway arrive to Castlebar for the first round of the National League.
It will be the second meeting of the old rivals in the space of a fortnight, following on from their FBD League semi-final in Bekan, but the intensity of the fare on offer this Saturday evening should be a world removed from what we saw in the Air Dome earlier this month.
Galway make the journey up the N84 for their first competitive game since pushing Kerry right to the brink in last summer’s All-Ireland final. Padraic Joyce’s men are defending Connacht champions and turned Mayo over on their last visit to MacHale Park, when they emerged one-point winners in last year’s Connacht quarter-final.
They will be aiming to underline their status as top dogs in the province, with half an eye on a potential Connacht semi-final between these two sides in less than three months’ time.
Joyce will be without a handful of his first-choice players for the opening round of the league. Shane Walsh will only rejoin the county squad after the All-Ireland club title debacle with his adopted Kilmacud Crokes and Glen is sorted out.
After helping Moycullen reach the All-Ireland Club SFC semi-final, Peter Cooke has rejoined the Galway panel after missing out on the 2022 campaign and is named on the bench for tonight’s clash while is club-mate Dessie Conneely is named at corner-forward alongside Damien Comer and Robbie Finnerty, who has been in outstanding form for DCU in the Sigerson Cup over the last few weeks, although Ian Burke is not named in the match-day squad despite returning to the squad after a two-year absence.
Billy Mannion of Mountbellew-Moylough is an emerging player generating plenty of excitement in Galway football circles but rhe full-back is named on the bench here, while Corofin goalkeeper Bernard Power had possession of the number 1 jersey in both of Galway’s FBD League games (against Leitrim and Mayo) but Conor Gleeson’s prolonged club campaign with Dunmore MacHales was certainly a factor there and it’s Gleeson who starts between the sticks.
Moycullen’s three Kelly brothers all had long club campaigns which only ended at the All-Ireland semi-final stage at the start of January. Paul and Eoghan both came on against Mayo in the FBD, and both have played Sigerson for the University of Galway in recent weeks, and all three will start tonight – this being Sean’s return to competitive action for the Tribesmen this year.
Mayo and Galway haven’t actually met each other in the National League since 2020, in the first game back after the first Covid stoppage, when Mayo put a ferocious 15-point beating on the Tribes in Tuam Stadium. Both counties have spent time outside of Division 1 in the intervening couple of seasons; Mayo were relegated by Tyrone in their very next game and rebounded up in 2021, while Galway were sent down in 2021 and bounced straight back up last year, albeit after losing the Division 2 final to Roscommon.
Prior to that game in an empty Tuam though, Galway had a strong recent league record over Mayo, with wins in both 2018 and 2019. 2019 was the last time the counties met in the league in MacHale Park, a night on which a Danny Cummins goal was enough for Galway to hold off a late Mayo fightback and earn a 1-11 to 0-12 win.
Less than four years have passed since that last encounter in Castlebar but both playing squads have undergone dramatic changes in that time; of the 18 Mayo players that featured that evening in March 2019, only Stephen Coen, Diarmuid O’Connor, Matthew Ruane and possibly Fionn McDonagh and Aidan O’Shea are likely to play a role this weekend.
Kevin McStay will be eager to get the campaign off to a winning start on Saturday night; with a trip to the Athletic Grounds to face Armagh coming eight days later, before the reigning All-Ireland champions Kerry come to Castlebar for Round 3 on February 18, a bright start would be very welcome for a new management ticket still finding their feet in the job.