By Anthony Hennigan
The instructions as per the match programme for last Sunday’s clash of Donegal and Mayo in Ballybofey were almost military clear, right from the “three-minute warning” given to the teams before Amhrán na bhFiann, for which “players should stand to attention respectfully facing the flag”, down to the “30 seconds” that would be provided to the players after the anthem, “to allow for any team huddles or warmups before they are required to get into position for the start of the game.”
And the instructions continued: At 16:19 Mayo would “leave the field immediately on the half-time whistle,” after which Donegal would follow suit “once Maigh Eo have cleared the tunnel”.
Either the message wasn’t delivered or simply ignored because when half-time arrived the Mayo players gathered about 20 yards in from the sideline and allowed the Donegal team to exit the stage first. It was just about the only chivalrous act from Mayo on a day where they inflicted Donegal’s heaviest defeat of the season and practically relegated their hosts to Division 2 in the process.
It’s a result, of course, that also confirmed what we had been suspecting for some weeks; that the Green and Red would secure an appearance in the National League final for the second time in twelve months. But their odds of doing so had dramatically increased even before a ball was kicked in Ballybofey.
The results of the evening previous, where Galway and Kerry both recorded victories, meant that whatever the fate of Mayo in their final two games of the campaign, the one certainty was that only one team – Galway – could possibly accumulate a higher points total, and that the very worst Mayo could expect was to share second place with one or more teams. Even in that scenario, it was hard to imagine scoring differences or head-to-head form denying Mayo their place in the league decider but on Sunday last, Kevin McStay’s team decided to remove all doubt as to their prospects and became the first confirmed finalist with an eleven points demolition of the Tir Chonaill side which was every bit as comprehensive as it sounds.
It’s reckoned in Donegal that the first league game between the counties was played on November 24, 1940 in Ballina. A look through the archives says that Jack Carney scored two points from the half-forward line for Mayo that day, in what ended as a 1-10 to 0-5 win for the Green and Red. 83 years later Jack Carney was on the scoresheet again from the half-forward line for Mayo, the Kilmeena man’s tenth-minute point giving them the lead for the first time. They were never again to trail.
This Sunday’s tasty-looking clash of Galway and Kerry is potentially to decide who will challenge McStay’s men for the National League trophy in Croke Park the following weekend. A win for the Tribesmen in Salthill and a Connacht derby is guaranteed but a Kerry victory would allow for the possibility of a four-way tie for second place between those two, and Roscommon and Tyrone, should that pair pick off home wins against Donegal and Armagh respectively.
It’s probably best for a moment to forget about any moral responsibility upon Mayo to do all in their power to beat Monaghan on Sunday – and how anything less could influence the relegation battle between the Farney men, Donegal and Armagh – because as much as there is now the opportunity, which he is taking, for McStay to tinker with his ‘strongest’ XV and avail of the double-bonus of game-time for so-called fringe players and a weekend’s rest for others amidst a hectic schedule of matches, it’s seldom a Mayo team has gotten itself into a position to go an entire seven rounds of Division 1 football unbeaten, which is exactly what a victory over Monaghan would accomplish.
“We’ll do what’s best for Mayo next Sunday and for what we need to get out of the competition,” said Kevin McStay when asked about the potential of resting players. “This is the first time we’ve been able to sit down and think about life beyond qualification so that’s what we’ll do.
“We’re competitive animals, we’re going out to play a match, you couldn’t be advising someone to pull the handbrake.
“We have to honour the competition, [but] we have to do right by us first, and my sense is that we’ll do exactly what we did last Sunday and that’s get ready for the next match. It has served us really well, going from game to game and being very focused on the next challenge.”
Last night (Friday) it was confirmed that seven players will make their first starts of the season for Mayo on Sunday.
Robbie Hennelly returns to between the posts while there’s sure to be plenty of interest in Jason Doherty’s deployment at centre-back in a defence that also sees Pádraig O’Hora, who appeared as a substitute against Donegal last Sunday, and Michael Plunkett line out for their first starts of 2023. In attack, Knockmore’s Kevin McLoughlin and the Ballina Stephenites duo of Frank Irwin and Conor McStay are also selected.
There are further changes too, with Donnacha McHugh featuring in a novel full-back line alongside the Ballina duo of O’Hora and Sam Callinan.
The flatness last Sunday of Donegal who, it’s worth remembering, had drawn with All-Ireland finalists Galway only two weeks earlier having also beaten All-Ireland champions Kerry in the opening round, and who as a county had never lost a game on home soil to Mayo, was only one of several strange aspects to last weekend’s GAA action.
It’s rarely you’ll see Kerry men getting excited about league football, even when they win the bloody thing outright, so their leaps of joy, their fist-pumping and general goading of Roscommon players at the full-time whistle in Tralee, after they had scrambled a stoppage-time goal chance to safety to hold on for a one-score win, were certainly a surprise for what it seemed to suggest about the trajectories of Kerry and Roscommon at present. The reaction of Jack O’Connor’s players was more like what you’d expect had they held out on the last Sunday of July in Croke Park, not when they had just won a league game at home against a county without a top-flight title – league or championship – since 1979.
The Kingdom might be the defending All-Ireland and National League champions but they certainly aren’t playing like it, and while Roscommon have now lost three games in-a-row, you could argue they’ll have gained more confidence from their consecutive defeats to Mayo and Kerry, because of how strongly they finished both matches, than from their opening three wins against Tyrone, Galway and Armagh, who were only wakening from winter hibernations.
Davy Burke has lit a fire in Roscommon bellies that will understandably leave Mayo supporters fearing an ambush on April 9, regardless of what the Green and Red may or may not achieve in advance of that Connacht SFC opener at MacHale Park.
And there were strange goings on in the Athletic Grounds too, where you had Armagh goalkeeper Ethan Rafferty scoring his side’s only goal of the game from all of 55-metres. And yet in scenes, like in Tralee, that you’d normally only expect to witness during championship, it was the Galway management who at full-time were embraced in a victory dance on the touchline, after an error in the fundamentals of goalkeeping by Rafferty i.e. being outjumped at the back post, contributed greatly to Armagh’s demise. That late Matthew Tierney goal ended up more than what the home side had scored in the entire second-half, as Kieran McGeeney’s team coughed up a four points lead to remain heavily threatened by relegation.
But if you really wanted strange, then you had undoubtedly the best team in Division 3A of the Allianz Hurling League – Mayo – finishing in fourth place and so ending up stuck in that sixth tier for another year. Mayo had a scoring difference that was 22 points greater than the Roscommon team that topped the division, 56 points greater than the Armagh team that finished in second and 72 points greater than third-placed Monaghan, but in particular paid a heavy price for the three league points dropped to the Rossies and Fermanagh, in rounds one and two, in the absence of Tooreen’s All-Ireland Club contingent.
Were Mayo to improve on last year’s championship performance that saw them reach the Christy Ring Cup final, then a title win in 2023 could conceivably see them playing championship hurling in 2024 against the likes of Offaly, Laois and Carlow in the Joe McDonagh Cup yet league hurling against the likes of Louth and Monaghan, who they beat by a combined total of 47 points over the course of the final two weekends.
I guess that’s what you call finishing on a high.