BACK ON TRACK Mayo stars Lee Keegan and Fionn McDonagh are pictured training with Westport at St Patrick’s Park last Wednesday evening under the watchful eye of Westport coach Martin Connolly. Pic: Conor McKeown
Billy Joe Padden
ARE you thinking what I’m thinking? That this might be Mayo’s year after all.
An All-Ireland Final on Saturday, December 19, possibly to be decided on penalties.
It would be some way to start the Christmas, that’s for sure!
But all of that is for another day. First there is the small matter of the championship actually going ahead and Mayo won’t be looking past Leitrim on October 31/November 1.
For what it’s worth, I’m in full agreement with the idea of a knock-out championship that finishes before the end of the year. I can see the merits of the suggestion of an open draw championship, but if we’re going to call it an ‘All-Ireland championship’ this season it has to bear some sort of resemblance to the competition that’s been played for more than 120 years.
To break with tradition at such short notice, after all that’s happened in 2020 already, would have taken the shine off the eventual winners’ achievements.
Ultimately, you want the 2020 championship to carry the same weight as all the ones that have gone before. By playing it under the old knock-out system, and leaving the provincial championships untouched, the GAA have copperfastened the integrity of the competition in my opinion.
As a group, I think the Mayo players will be very open-minded about the prospect of a knock-out championship. It’s new and it’s different. Of course, this group also have plenty of experience of do-or die football after their exploits over the last four seasons.
They’ve played a plethora of back-to-back knock-out championship games since 2016, and most of the time they’ve operated well in those sort of pressure situations.
On the face of it they should have no problem getting their heads around the whole ‘lose and you’re out’ concept because they’ve been down that road so many times, and played some of their best football when everything’s been on the line.
I have to admit that the last two rounds of the National League being played caught me by surprise. Maybe that’s because I’m thinking of the pretty dire situation that Mayo are in when you look at the league table!
But considering how narrow the window is for inter-county activity — starting on October 17 and finishing two months later — I just wonder how important it is to play off those two rounds of National League?
Obviously the people who make these decisions at Croke Park are thinking of the format of the 2021 championship and which teams will be operating in Tier 2.
I’d be fairly certain that James Horan’s opinion on playing out the last two rounds against Galway and Tyrone will be shaped by the results of those matches, and how they impact on Mayo’s status as the longest-running tenants in Division 1.
If Mayo pick up points and stay up, then you get a great bounce going into the Connacht championship because you’ll have got good results against two good teams.
On the flip-side, if Mayo don’t get the results they need and go down, then it will be all about picking players up and rebuilding some confidence in the space of seven days.
And that’s something worth bearing in mind; there is only one week between the happy or unhappy ending to the National League and the start of the championship.
That leaves you with very little time to sort out whatever physical or mental issues that might need to be addressed.
So relegation would leave James Horan and his sports psychologist with some work to do before the aforementioned Leitrim game.
Fairness the name of the game for clubs
THERE’S been a lot of talk over the last few weeks about county players being back with their clubs, and how that’s all going to work between now and September 14, when inter-county panels are due to officially return to collective training.
I’m not privy to the ins and outs of how the arrangements are working in any county, but my own view would be that county players should be left to train with their clubs between now and mid-September.
Sure, if there are assessments or squad meetings at weekends with the county set-up, I don’t see a problem with players going to them.
But I would be fairly sure that most inter-county players are looking forward to training and playing with their clubs in the weeks ahead.
I always found that there is nothing like playing games to get you fit, and county lads will know after a couple of club games where they are and need to be.
So I would imagine that you’ll see county players train with their clubs most evenings, while availing of their county running programmes or conditioning sessions to top up if they feel they need a little extra.
James Horan is going to expect his players to be 90% ready for championship football when he gets them all back on September 14.
They’re not going to have that top level of match fitness, obviously, so the last 10% of conditioning will have to be added on fairly quickly.
That means that these are the weeks when everyone from Keith Higgins to Aidan O’Shea will be working on things like stamina, endurance and skills, ahead of playing the club matches that are pencilled in for August.
Once they get a few of those club games under their belt, they’ll know exactly where they stand in terms of their energy levels, fitness, conditioning and skills.
There has to be element of fairness when it comes to county players being available to train and play with their clubs, and the GAA have to show leadership in that regard.
We’ve been told over the last while that the GAA have prioritised the club game this year, so the last thing you want to hear is that some clubs are getting a raw deal.
The GAA need to ensure that there’s fairness in terms of the amount of preparation time that each inter-county squad gets to do before the season starts in mid-October.
It needs to be monitored, Croke Park needs to provide guidance on it to County Boards, and every county needs to arrive at September 14 from the same starting point.
If that doesn’t happen then what have we learned from the shutdown?