Saturday, May 20, 2023

By Mark Ronaldson
Mayo’s group for the All-Ireland Series certainly could not be called The Group of Death. A group containing the current All-Ireland champions and National Football League winners should not be labelled The Group of Dearth either though. Kerry, Cork and Louth provide Mayo with a mixture of challenging, winnable and fresh tests. When you consider the fact that Mayo will get a trip to an exotic southern location in Round 1 and have a novel pairing with minnows Louth in Round 2, then one may even call this fun and interesting group The Group of Mirth.
Although a fairly daunting prospect, Mayo’s opening round encounter with Kerry is a plum draw for the team and its supporters. A sunny May weekend getaway to Ireland’s prime holiday destination is always an appealing prospect. Throw into the mix a Saturday championship tussle between two quality teams and you have the makings of one of the great Mayo away-day jaunts. Carlsberg don’t do road-trips but if they did…
For all the excitement this fixture throws up, it is really hard for supporters, punters and analysts to have any idea how it will pan out. I’m sure Mayo’s management team have prepared the team well but even they will be a little uncertain about Mayo’s chances on Saturday. The six-week break has thrown up all sorts of opportunities, problems and questions. There’s no doubt that Mayo needed a break – they looked mentally and physically flat against Roscommon. Whether they needed as long as a six-week hiatus from competitive action remains to be seen.

Kerry and Mayo supporters watch the teams parade ahead of the 2019 All-Ireland SFC Quarter-Final Phase 1 clash at Fitzgerald Stadium. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie</span>

This weekend’s championship encounter reminds me of the olden days when there could have been a six or eight-week gap between the last league game and the opening round of a Connacht Championship clash. With no form guide, the vacuum in the build-up to the game would be filled with rumour, conjecture and speculation about injuries, challenge matches and who was moving well in training.
We are not privy to much information from the Mayo squad, apart from the 26-man match-day squad which was released on Friday, but are hoping that Mayo can reclaim their early season form and burst back into life soon with the All-Ireland race entering the home straight.
I expect a fully rejuvenated, re-energised, sharpened and clear-thinking Mayo side to emerge over the coming weeks. The possibility of seeing all of that on Saturday though seems unlikely. An away trip to Killarney to play a finely-tuned Kerry team is as tough as they come. Even if Mayo were in rude health and fully back up to match speed then the chances of winning in Fitzgerald Stadium would still be slim. Maybe, though, we are as well to get the toughest game out of the way early in this next phase as we blow out some black smoke and look to recalibrate our play ahead of the more winnable encounters ahead. A loss at the weekend would not have fatal consequences for Mayo’s season. And actually, with very few expecting a Mayo win, there is absolutely nothing to lose. Mayo are always a dangerous beast when unfancied outsiders and The Kingdom will be well aware of that.
While Kerry had a very underwhelming league campaign, their victories against poor Tipperary and Clare sides showed signs of a team finding their groove again and whose forward play was beginning to get slicker. But they haven’t had the easiest few weeks either with the very sad passing of Ellen Clifford, beloved mother of stars Paudie and David, and that is bound to have had a profound emotional impact on the camp.
As intimidating an opening as it is for us, Kerry would also have wished for an easier first fixture than a Mayo team that have been a bit of a thorn in their side in recent years.
Come what may in Killarney, Mayo should still progress with ease through Group 1.
Looking at the broader picture, this All-Ireland Series group stage will be interesting because it’s new but it seems like an awful lot of games to eliminate just four teams. It’s crazy to think that a team could possibly qualify for a preliminary quarter-final in third place with only one point, if they had a favourable score difference.
The GAA are hoping that the lure of third place for struggling teams will help avoid dead-rubber games in the final rounds but I think a relegation-type system would have introduced more jeopardy and tightrope stuff.
Still, it will take a few tweaks and iterations over the coming seasons to find the ideal championship structure going forward but I get the sense that we are on the right road.
Of course, it would be lovely to finish first in the group and needing ‘only’ six big championship games in nine weeks to win Sam but finishing second and having a home preliminary quarter-final would not be a bad scenario either. Seven games in nine weeks will be doable too given the fact that Mayo have a largely injury-free 36-man squad who have had a nice mix of rest and training in recent months.
Beating Louth at home will virtually secure some form of qualification. I cannot remember the last time we played the Wee County competitively but recall playing them in a challenge match in Garrymore in 2009 in Aidan O’Shea’s breakout season in the middle of his Leaving Cert. Mayo’s neutral fixture against Cork will likely be played in Cusack Park, Ennis. This is a venue that has been a happy hunting ground for Mayo in the past and is a great arena to play and watch football.
So, Mayo could not have asked for much more from the draw for the new-fangled All-Ireland Series.
The next few months are not so much about Mayo’s opponents, though, but rather how Kevin McStay has rallied the troops and sold the dream to his charges again.
By all accounts, the Mayo players and management have used the time wisely. They spent a weekend in Cong training and relaxing in and around Ashford Castle. I’ve seen groups of the Mayo lads out socialising and enjoying themselves in Galway City and it is clear from some players’ social media accounts that they got away to sunnier climes for mini-breaks too. After an intense league campaign, it is great that players got this golden R and R time away from the pressure-cooker of intercounty football. Those leisurely few weeks flying under the radar should be invaluable in preserving and sustaining Mayo’s heads and legs when things get hot and heavy in the next eight weeks.
Here’s hoping that bodies are mended, minds are recharged and game plans refined as we explore new horizons in the reconfigured All-Ireland Series. Let the fun recommence!


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