Sunday, March 12, 2023

With the championship rapidly approaching— and without wanting to get too far ahead of ourselves – Kevin McStay and his selectors undeniably have some great headaches at this stage of the campaign, writes Mark Higgins

Mayo manager Kevin McStay before last Sunday’s NFL Division 1 match at Dr Hyde Park. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Mayo maintained their unbeaten record in Division 1 of the National League at Dr Hyde Park last Sunday, withstanding a late Roscommon rally to emerge two-point winners and leave themselves on the brink of qualifying for a second successive Division 1 final, a third in the space of five seasons.

There had been a few raised eyebrows around the Hyde in the lead-up to the game when word came through that Kevin McStay was to make no fewer than five changes to the team announced during the week. The worry was that making such significant alterations to a team who had won their previous two games, against the two most recent All-Ireland champions, by a combined total of 17 points may create some unnecessary disruption.

But as McStay explained after the game, all of the changes had their bases in logic. Switching out Colm Reape for Rory Byrne, for example, allowed the Mitchels custodian some valuable game-time for the first time in this year’s league. With some uncertainty still hovering over when Robbie Hennelly will see a return to action, the chances of Byrne being pressed into action at some stage over the course of the championship remain relatively high.

In the backline, it was a straightforward case of giving both Paddy Durcan and Sam Callinan minutes. Durcan, Mayo’s captain, will be in the championship team providing he’s fit. Callinan’s place is much less secure, with the Ballina man battling against all of Enda Hession, Jack Coyne, Rory Brickenden and the soon-to-return Padraig O’Hora and Michael Plunkett for a spot in the full-back line. But the youngster – who is still eligible to play under-20 this year, remember – turned in an excellent performance, keeping the highly-rated Ben O’Carroll scoreless.

The most interesting changes though were made in the full-forward line, where McStay decided to withdraw Aidan O’Shea and Ryan O’Donoghue, two of his best performers in the recent wins over Kerry and Tyrone, and give their starting berths to Tommy Conroy and Cillian O’Connor, both making their first starts of the season.

McStay had several reasons for the switches – “It’s multi-factorial,” he said – but the underlying idea is to build depth in the playing panel. Quietly, without much fanfare, Mayo have been doing just that over the course of this league season. They have been lucky with injuries so far, granted, but with frontline players filtering back into the match-day 26 on a weekly basis now – O’Hora was the latest returnee to the squad on Sunday, although he wasn’t called into action – Mayo’s strength in depth is looking increasingly good.

Nowhere is that more evident than in that full-forward line, where Mayo suddenly have at least five players competing for just three positions. O’Donoghue, O’Shea, Conroy, O’Connor and James Carr have all performed well with the chances they have been given over the last few rounds: could you predict, with any confidence, what Mayo’s starting inside line will look like when these two teams meet again in the opening round of the Connacht championship in just over a month’s time?

There may be some scope for positional switches if McStay wants to squeeze more than three of them into his team; O’Donoghue has played at centre-forward for Mayo in the past, although given the sparkling form of Jack Carney, it’s unlikely that the Kilmeena man will lose his grip on the number 11 jersey. What about the prospect of Conroy at wing-forward though? Or the idea of holding O’Shea or O’Connor, or both, in reserve to be used as impact substitutions? It’s a great headache for McStay and his selectors to have at this stage of the campaign, with the championship rapidly approaching.

That Connacht quarter-final was certainly there in the back of supporters’ minds on Sunday, although it was interesting to hear how the upcoming rematch was framed by both managers in the aftermath of the game. Their takes could hardly have been more contrasting. McStay made the bold claim that Mayo have barely even thought about the championship yet, preferring to focus on the week-to-week responsibilities of accruing league points and building that squad depth. That may start to change for the final two round-robin games against Donegal and Monaghan with safety in Division 1 now assured, but publicly at least, Mayo are not looking too far ahead.

Davy Burke, meanwhile, made no secret of the fact that the championship meeting between the counties is very much on the Rossies’ radar.

“Were Mayo showing their full hand today? Were Roscommon showing their full hand? There’s lots of stuff at play here and yet we went down to a kick of the ball. So what do you think is going to happen on Easter Sunday?” asked the Roscommon boss after the game.

Clearly, the respective viewpoints of the two camps were coloured by the result on Sunday; it probably serves Burke’s interests to suggest that Roscommon were holding something back, and to at least imply that Mayo were doing the same. His team had been second-best for most of the contest before their late rally brought a closeness to the final scoreline that wasn’t really reflective of the game as a whole, and Burke wanted to plant the seed that Roscommon will bring an awful lot more to the table when they arrive at MacHale Park on April 9.

But Mayo have other business to attend to before then. After a third straight win, and with the other counties in Division 1 all taking points from one another, it would now take a very unlikely sequence of results for Mayo not to reach a league final on the first weekend in April. A win or a draw from either of their last two games will see them over the line in that regard, and even that may not be necessary.

There’s a weekend off before a trip to Ballybofey on March 19 to take on a Donegal team who are rooted to the floor of Division 1 and in dire need of points to stave off relegation. But on an unbeaten run of five games and with the playing corps looking deeper and stronger with every passing week, Mayo are in terrific shape.

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