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Home victories crucial for Mayo

Sean Rice

Seán Rice

IT’S worth repeating that home victories are crucial. In their remaining away matches ­– against the likes of Dublin and Tyrone ­– Mayo can’t afford to rely on the luck that spawned their win over Kerry in Tralee.
Nor, conversely, can they afford to lapse at home to the same lamentable extent of their defeat by Monaghan at MacHale Park, the previous week.
Mayo have not always capitalised on the advantage that home games provide. Lodged in the psyche is some kind of perverse belief that you don’t have to work as hard to earn a home win, that the benefit of a big home following and the experience of knowing every inch of your own pitch is worth a head-start of several points.
It is all of that if you play to your real strength. But that’s the mental snare that Mayo have failed to avoid on occasions. They walked headlong into that trap in the Connacht Championship last season, and again against Monaghan a few weeks back.
Mayo host Roscommon on Saturday night, a Roscommon that has not had much luck in their opening games of the league and who on the surface might seem to suggest the easiest opposition of Mayo’s remaining home league games.
An intense rivalry between them has grown up in recent years. Roscommon’s advance through the league divisions has fuelled their ambition. A Connacht title and beyond is not an unreasonable aspiration. But Mayo and Galway stand stubbornly in their way.
Insignificant though the result was, their latest loss to Mayo was the FBD League game in which they seemed to be coasting to victory until they conceded three goals in the final minutes.
Ballaghaderreen’s Andy Moran scored two of those goals, the winner arriving with the second last kick of the game. It must have left the Rossies wondering what they have to do to loosen Mayo’s grip on their minds.
That blip will be raw in their memory when the ball is thrown in on Saturday night. It could be the motivating force in their bid to upset the odds and reignite hope of retaining their league status.
And unless Mayo rediscover for 70 minutes the form they showed for 35 minutes against Kerry, the Rossies will realise that burning ambition. Mayo cannot afford to lapse back into the drab form that pedalled their football against Monaghan and half of the game in Tralee.
It’s not easy for them. Because of their All-Ireland exertions, they are less prepared for the league than most other teams. Yet more is expected of them. They do not have Dublin’s resources to adequately replace so many star absentees. After the All-Ireland disappointment, minds must be re-adjusted and ambition sharpened quickly.
The strength of the team Stephen Rochford fields will depend on who is available to him. One certain absentee is Tom Parsons, given a red card in the final seconds of the game against Kerry. He’ll be missed from midfield, a sector for which cover is not plentiful.
It provides an opportunity for perhaps Danny Kirby to flag his credentials or Jason Gibbons to re-establish his claim. Interesting too will be whether the manager retains Cillian O’Connor at centre forward, where he performed so well in Tralee.
Whatever the selection, a return to the listlessness of their show against Monaghan will be tantamount to throwing a lifebelt to Roscommon, who are fighting desperately for survival in a hotly contested division.

Westport in wonderland as youth prevails
WESTPORT were magnificent in Croke Park on Sunday. Playing football like a flowing stream, their young side swept away not only their hardened opponents, but also the rooted belief that youth is no substitute for experience.
The pace and vision of their football in the first half was a stunning reminder of the dizzy heights reachable when precocious talent with no mental baggage is allowed free rein.
More evident of their confidence was the calmness of Westport’s resistance in the final stages of the game when it seemed all of their first-half brilliance was about to end as an ‘if only’ story of another unfilled Mayo dream in Croke Park.
Grimly they held on as if determined to win if only for their injured full-back Kevin Keane, who was forced to retire early in the game with an injured leg. He had been a pillar of their defence all through the campaign, and his absence would have been a reasonable excuse had they lost. Shane Scott had just snapped up their opening score, an equalising point, when Keane was injured in a tangle on the right-hand side of the defence.
You could almost hear the cry about another piece of Mayo misfortune when their anchorman was withdrawn. His youthful colleagues, among them a bunch of Leaving Cert students,­ were of a different frame of mind, however.
As if inspired, they commenced to garner a clutch of brilliant scores that left Colmcille’s reeling in shock. All over the field Westport were on fire, first to the ball, supporting one another as if they had extra players on the field, and back, most of them, like spectres helping to frustrate the efforts of the Meath men to score.
By the 25th minute Fionn McDonagh and Colm Moran had reeled in three points apiece with another chalked up by Shane Scott, who was having a blistering game in the middle of the field. Only one team was playing.
But the real test of Westport’s character had yet to come. The lustre of the 20 minutes that had gone before was dimmed when Jamie Conlon got behind the defence to round off with a goal the good work of Graham Reilly.
Their confidence, however, remained intact and was epitomised in the cracking response of Leaving Cert student Oisín  McLaughlin. Somehow he won possession from two opponents near the left-hand sideline, ghosted down the left wing at electrifying pace before planting the ball in the net.
Throughout that first half Westport were composed and brilliant beyond the years of the their youngest players. And when they kicked the first of their ten wides after the break, we wondered had all that calmness begun to fragment.
As he had done in the first half, Scott settled them somewhat with another of his select left-footed points. Meath had come out determined to disrupt them. And when Ben Brennan belted a rather loose ball into the net, you felt they were gathering a winning momentum. And yet Westport did not freeze.
Once again McLaughlin rescued them with his second goal ten minutes from the end. It was enough to provide his colleagues with the requisite amount of resolve and courage and skill to survive even the unnerving final minutes after conceding a penalty.
From the despair of losing senior status, Westport have now become the shining lights of intermediate football and an example to struggling clubs. Well done.

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