AS the championship looms, one question hangs earnestly over Mayo expectations. Can they find once more the compelling inner force that has propelled them to Croke Park for the past six years ... or have they reached the end of their ambition?
Can the legs respond once more to the call of the soul? Is there left in them enough passion, enough energy, enough resolve, the dogged determination, to find that place in history deserving of a side of their stature?
Nothing they produced in the league suggests that the holy grail is any closer than it has been those last six, glorious, agonising years. But having ditched so much of their social lives in pursuit of that elusive dream, you know that if it escapes them again it will not have been for want of trying.
That’s the calibre of those men, so committed, so industrious. But try as he might, Stephen Rochford has not yet been able to find enough talent of similar quality to seriously challenge for places most in need ... specifically in the forward line.
No poverty exists at the other end, where understudies have made a successful transition. In no time at all, Brendan Harrison and Paddy Durcan have slotted into the defence with such ease you would almost forget they contested their first All-Ireland last September.
Hard to believe that Tom Cunniffe was once a pillar of reliability in the corner now occupied so convincingly by Harrison, and that Durcan competently fills the wing berth where Colm Boyle and Donal Vaughan once prospered. It is to their credit that a defence rigged up because of the absence of full-back Ger Cafferkey has crystallised into an efficient block through which no forward finds easy passage.
And that’s before Cafferkey makes a return. Sufficiently recovered from the debilitating knee injury that ruled him out last season, the Ballina Stephenites man is rebuilding his dream and may soon be testing the water for a comeback.
Good news for Rochford. And expect a fierce effort from all of the current defenders to keep Cafferkey out ... that combative instinct in all competitors that tries to prevent someone from stepping where they step.
Another successful transition has been that of Young Footballer of the Year Diarmuid O’Connor, who has knitted into the team so seamlessly that without him at full flow, Mayo are a much less potent side. He is the third of the trio to start for the first time in the All-Ireland.
Whether these young men can inject adequate momentum into the side to compensate for whatever slippage may have begun among the older guard remains to be seen.
No ‘permanency’ has yet been found for Stephen Coen, who captained the successful under-21 side ... mainly because the positions to which he is most suited – midfield and defence – have not yet yielded up a vacancy into which he could easily slot.
With Tom Parsons and Seamus O’Shea presumably in possession of the midfield places and Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle and Paddy Durcan most likely to form the half-back line, the young Hollymount man – who more than adequately filled the vacancy that arose after Lee Keegan was black-carded in the All-Ireland final replay – will be left on the sideline champing on the bit.
To have Coen pushing from the bench will be seen by Stephen Rochford as a vital constituent of his plans ... where eager subs are no less important than the first 15 of the entire squad.
What Mayo would do to convert the gifts of the young man into a forceful attacker where the need is greatest, where physical strength is not in abundance.
Already they may have in mind a place up front for Shane Nally, an impressive performer in the league although by no means an established forward. The Garrymore man was more prominent in last season’s league, but somehow failed to impress the selectors in the championship.
Mayo’s attacking options look limited
STEPHEN Rochford’s choice up front is pretty limited. Of ten forwards given trials in the FBD League in January, only Fergal Boland survived to claim a first-team place in the Allianz league.
The trial up front of David Drake and Nally in the latter games of the league is an indication of the dilemma in which the selectors find themselves. The leaning of both is towards defence. Whether they can be moulded for attacking positions only time will tell.
Liam Irwin, a successful under-21 product, is perhaps one with the natural potential to fill a trouble spot. But the Breaffy man is out of the panel and unlikely to be recalled.
Neil Douglas, Mayo News Club Stars Player of the Year in 2016, and equally adept with left and right foot, has also vacated the panel, and the game is the poorer for his loss. Bigger, stronger men are now more in demand. But with the exception of Douglas, and perhaps Conor O’Shea, who among the present batch of forwards is equally skilled with both feet?
There was a time when we thought Alan Freeman embodied the vitals to successfully lead the attack. For some reason his potential was not realised, and he, too, has left the scene.
Nor have the selectors seen fit to retain Jason Gibbons. Ever since picking up a shoulder injury in last year’s Connacht semi-final, the Ballintubber man has struggled to keep pace with spiralling All-Ireland demands. At his best he is a loss.
His accuracy throughout the league has won praise for Danny Kirby. Unlikely though to retain his midfield berth in the championship, a position might be found for him up front where his height could enhance scoring opportunities for Cillian O’Connor, Aidan O’Shea and Andy Moran.
But then Conor O’Shea is also knocking on that door, threatening the breakthrough that his physical attributes have been promising. And Barry Moran looms large in the background. And Fergal Boland and Conor Loftus are sniffing for first-team places. Boland is clearly a young man with vision and a star of the future ... when eventually his gifts are physically underpinned.
Useful though they were – if only to prove that no stone is being left unturned in their search for one further quality forward to complement the talents of those in place – no one will be satisfied with the results of the league experiments.
So barring injury, and the unlikelihood that Ger Cafferkey will have had enough game time to be in the running for a recall, Stephen Rochford in all probability will keep faith with his All-Ireland final lineout for Mayo’s opening game of the championship against Sligo on May 21.
That may ensure victory over Sligo at MacHale Park, but come season’s end, forward frailty could again deny Mayo, and we may be left to look longingly once more at the Sam Maguire clasped fondly in other hands.