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New faces show same old spirit

Sean Rice

Seán Rice

ON the road again, fresh in mind and heart, facing the same old mountain, following the same old dream, reciting the same old mantra, Come On Mayo.
Hopeful voices echoed around Clones on Sunday as the Allianz league was unleashed. And Mayo suitably responded. Not with the glamour that might be expected from All-Ireland finalists, but with some eye-catching potential, and a performance wrung from hard, practical graft.
For a long time Mayo teetered on the balance. Uncompromising tackles set the scene for a character test of those striving to emulate absent heroes.
In the absence of Lee Keegan, Keith Higgins, Chris Barrett, Seamus O’Shea, Donal Vaughan, Tom Parsons, Cillian O’Connor and Jason Doherty, the young aspirants measured up reasonably well.
In the end, however, it was the leadership of a younger member of the ‘old’ squad that rescued the game. From fifty metres out near the right-hand sideline, Paddy Durcan floated the ball over the bar to steal a win that up to that moment could have fallen either way.
It was courage and competence personified at a vital moment of the game. And relief was audible in the applause of the big Mayo contingent at Clones. Two valuable points were reeled in and a more lively start begun to the league than those of the past two years.
It has come though at a cost. Some ten minutes from the end Colm Boyle was assisted from the field, adding a further casualty to the list of the injured. A reckless tackle on the Davitts man may well have ended his interest in the remainder of the league.
And his loss would be enormous. In every facet of the game, Boyle was the essence of leadership. His judgment, his tackling, his reading of the game inspired the younger members on a day when their nerve and character were sorely tested.
None reacted more notably to his example than corner back Eoin O’Donoghue. The young Belmullet man fitted the Mayo pattern like a glove, defending and attacking and scoring a vital point in the first half in a quality performance.
Having had to do without Ger Cafferkey for the past couple of seasons, it was good to see him back in action at full back, back to his old self, his pre-injury competence. In the absence of so many regular defenders that’s a bonus.
Three changes were made in the selected side. One of those, Shane Nally, replaced Michael Hall and lined out at midfield. Having played most of the league matches last season, the Garrymore man was unlucky not to find a permanent championship place.
On Sunday he made a solid contribution to Mayo¹s victory and a good argument for permanency.
The work rate of Stephen Coen was also notable. Interchanging sometimes with Nally, depending on the flow of the game, Coen brings to the play the diligence and persistence of his under 21 days.
Midfielder Jason Gibbons ingrained his character steadily on the game, fielding well and in the absence of Seamus O’Shea was an adequate replacement. With a bit more positivity in taking on opponents, he could enhance his performance even further.
Neil Douglas, drafted into the side in place of Jason Doherty, marked his return to the county side with an assured performance. His place-kicking was of particular note, two struck over the bar from the 45m mark in the second half.
At full-forward Evan Regan was a central figure in most of the attacks in the first half finishing one fine move begun by Boyle with a point. He faded somewhat afterwards and the remainder of his four points came from frees.
The other change was the selection of Andy Moran in place of first choice Conor Loftus. And you get from the player of the year what you expect, undiluted effort. Two defenders were deployed to nullify his effectiveness. In the circumstances some ball to him was poorly delivered.
Team captain Aidan O’Shea led by example with a full-blooded, committed performance, shrugging off the customary attention that his presence attracts.
From the other members of the All-Ireland squad came also the expected rigorous contributions of Brendan Harrison, Kevin McLoughlin and Diarmuid O’Connor, who has yet to regain that old ebullience that won him so much distinction at minor and under-21 level.
Monaghan were without their ace forward, Conor McManus, and their aggressiveness cost them a couple of dismissals, but their style on heavy ground will cause trouble to some opponents.
To have cleared the first hurdle will ease Mayo into the competition a little less apprehensive that the last couple of seasons. But there will be no complacency.

The Kingdom come
NEXT Saturday evening, Kerry come to MacHale Park braying for revenge. That semi-final defeat last August still rankles. For once they have fallen behind Mayo in the pecking order.
And that hurts.
Dublin have stolen their thunder, and elbowing them further down the line Mayo have pinched their pride and sharpened their hunger for retribution.
It can only be a source of concern for the kingdom that they have been unable to keep pace with the rise of the Dubs. They have failed to energise their annual challenge with new talent and renewed confidence. The old majesty has begun to fade.
Their defeat last season bore out the widespread belief that they were an aging side and in need of new blood if that old swagger is to return. Surprisingly, Eamon Fitzmaurice stuck with the most of the old guard.
Only Bryan Sheahan and Jonathon Lyne have retired . . . which would seem to suggest the others are still awaiting the call and reluctant to bow to the inevitable.
But Fitzmaurice surely has to plan with new blood in mind. Their four all-Ireland minor titles, together with under 21 success, suggests they are not short of young talent. Sean O’Shea, Jason Foley, Tom O’Sullivan, and Brian Begley are champing at the bit . . . and clearly ready for promotion.
Wonder minor David Clifford, who scored 4-4 in last year’s All-Ireland minor final, is also in the side.
So they come prepared.
The home venue ought to be a bonus for Mayo. But MacHale Park has not been the happiest of hunting grounds in the league.
At home they seem to be under greater pressure, more tense, more nervous.
They lost to Monaghan and Cavan (who were demoted), there last season, two needless losses that had them struggling later to survive. Yet they beat Kerry and Tyrone away.
It makes it more difficult for them on Saturday if injury has ruled out Colm Boyle. He was so essential to their win at Clones that no replacement would seem adequate. The vacancy does, however, provide an opportunity for one more budding hopeful.

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