Saturday, March 18, 2023

You wouldn’t have thought it while scraping the snow off your shoes last week but the summer, at least in the GAA sense of the term, really is just around the corner. St Patrick’s Day is upon us, the Irish rugby team are about to complete just their fourth Six Nations Grand Slam in their history, Mayo are on the precipice of qualifying for their third National League final in the last five seasons and, most important of all, the draws have been made for the Mayo club championships.
Those draws, held at MacHale Park last Wednesday week, serve in a sense as the ceremonial beginning of the Mayo club season. Granted, a handful of the divisional competitions are already underway. And there is still some housekeeping from the Covid-impacted seasons of 2021 and 2022 to tidy away, with the County Cups from both of those seasons set to be concluded in the next week or two. But late-March, early-April is when the whole thing really stirs into life.
The club championships won’t begin until August, after the inter-county season comes to its end, but the draws bring everything into sharper focus. When clubs know who they’ll be facing on the opening weekend of the championship, they have a target to aim for.
At the senior grade, for example, Ballina Stephenites now know that their road back to a county final and a chance to go one better than last year’s final defeat begins with a trip to play Breaffy, two clubs with some interesting recent history between them. Ballyhaunis, back up at the senior grade, will gear everything they do between now and August toward being ready for the ten-minute spin up the road to face Aghamore in Round 1. Another East Mayo derby awaits Ballaghaderreen and Charlestown in Round 3, a game that could very well decide which of the two neighbours advances from Group 2.
This column was knocking around MacHale Park for a few hours last Sunday, firstly taking in a semi-final of the aforementioned 2022 County Cup (where a couple of injury-time wonder-scores from Evan Regan dragged the Stephenites to victory over Mitchels) and then heading into the main arena to see the Mayo hurlers potentially turn their listing season around with a crushing win over Monaghan.
Weather-wise it was still very much winter, all grey skies and squally rain, but what struck just walking around the campus was the sheer scale of the activity. Everywhere you looked, some team or another was in action, even aside from those two matches mentioned above.
Up on Mulvey Park, a group from the Mayo hurling academy were training. Mitchels themselves were running an underage blitz on Munnelly Park throughout the afternoon. The Mayo under-20s were in getting fed after a session as they prepare for the start of their Connacht championship campaign next month.
Watching it all happen you could certainly understand the logic behind the Mayo County Board’s plans, announced late last year, to develop these facilities further into their new ‘Leadership Academy’, which they plan to have completed by 2026. There is a vibrancy in Gaelic Games in this county, particularly at underage, that has developed almost in spite of the facilities available. Imagine what might be achieved if and when the facilities can match the ambition.

Mayo fans on Hill 16 during the 2022 All-Ireland SFC quarter-final against Kerry at Croke Park. Picture: INPHO/Evan Treacy

Elsewhere, at the tip of the sword, the Mayo footballers make their way to Ballybofey this weekend knowing that a win over Donegal will seal their place in a National League final. Mayo have never won a league game in Donegal but Kevin McStay has yet to taste defeat as Mayo senior manager and with the Tír Conaill men struggling at the foot of the Division 1 table, this seems like an ideal opportunity to claim a first-ever victory in the Hills.
The early months of McStay’s tenure could hardly have gone any better. Even allowing for a slightly shaky opening night, when they needed a last-gasp Ryan O’Donoghue point to rescue a draw at home to Galway, Mayo have been a thoroughly refreshed and rejuvenated side this spring. Young players like Jack Carney, Enda Hession, Jordan Flynn and Bob Tuohy have stood up and laid their claim to starting places in the championship side and there is no higher praise for the job McStay and his coaches have done to date than to say that Lee Keegan and Oisin Mullin are yet to be missed.
Obviously it’s still early days, and nothing bar the FBD has been won yet. The real test of the new management won’t come until later in the year, beginning with the visit of Roscommon to Castlebar on Easter Sunday in the opening round of the championship and continuing on into the new-look All-Ireland series in May and June. If things do go awry, a bright start to the league won’t last long in the memory.
But you take a look at the landscape of the football championship and you do start to wonder who Mayo need to be afraid of. The Dubs look like a spent force. Kerry have been very slow to reload the guns after lifting Sam last year. Armagh and Derry are rising forces in Ulster but neither are yet proven at the business end of the All-Ireland series.
The two most impressive teams so far this year, outside of Mayo, are probably the two nearest neighbours. If all goes to plan, Mayo will meet both Roscommon and Galway in the championship before April is out; we should have a much clearer picture of where all the pieces stand in Connacht by the May Bank Holiday.
A significant victory McStay and co have already achieved, aside from the unbeaten run, is in restoring the positivity around the county team. There had been some dark talk, after a relatively poor and somewhat fractious 2022 season, that the connection between the team and their famously fervent supporters had been damaged, that the emotional charge that had been such a critical component in Mayo’s adventures over the last decade or so had been dimmed, maybe irrecoverably.
Those ominous soundings never really rang true; one down year was never going to put much of a dent in a relationship as deep and complex as that between the Mayo footballers and their fans. But like even the best of relationships, it was in need of an occasional freshening up, and freshened up it has been. We’re back to a place where Mayo’s followers are ready to live and die by their team. That the connection has been repaired so quickly suggests the rift probably wasn’t as serious as it was made out to begin with.
And in all honesty, how could it have been? As those kids racing around Munnelly Park in the rain and the muck on Sunday would gladly tell you, Gaelic Games are intrinsically linked with the process of growing up in Mayo. It’s in the blood and it’s impossible to get away from, even at those moments you wish you could.
Long may it last.

Signing off…
This will be my last Backchat column in the Western People as I am moving on to try something new. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it and thanks for all the feedback, good and bad. All the best, and Mayo for Sam.

Comments are closed.

Contact Newsdesk: +353 96 60900

More Connacht Sport

Mayo native appointed as manager of Sligo

Rowe on the scoresheet again for Bohs

Similar Articles

Irish rugby legend to repeat his walk to Mayo