by James McMahon
The longest day of the year has passed and the Mayo footballers finally enter the championship fray against Leitrim in the Connacht semi-final.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny will be on hand to officially open Elverys McHale Park on Sunday – and the home side will be looking to further illuminate the occasion with a display that will mark them out as genuine contenders for honours this season.
It’s eight weeks since James Horan’s side last saw competitive action. Cork, with a strong second half display, edged past them in the Allianz Division 1 decider.
In truth, the Rebels deserved their success, based on a strong second half display and a level of intensity which Mayo could not live with.
Yet, when the sides met in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final, it was the westerners who showed the required toughness at crucial periods to fashion a four-point win, albeit against opposition who were short key personnel.
Mayo will look to reach those levels again in the months ahead, with the view amongst many that they will comfortably retain their provincial title. That assessment gained greater credence after Sligo upset Galway a fortnight ago, thereby ruling out a provincial decider for the green and red in Salthill.
James Horan, as you would expect, is keen for his side to focus on the task in hand and is not looking beyond the Leitrim challenge.
Speaking in the Connacht Telegraph, he said: "Look, any championship match is always dodgy. Leitrim may be operating out of Division Four but no more than ourselves, they found it difficult to come through against London so the championship is really the tester. Each game is different and they will be coming to Castlebar looking for a win."
Leitrim survived the last day in Ruislip, but only just. Emlyn Mulligan was their star-man as they eked out a one-point win. The character they showed three ago will have to come through again if they are to be competitive in Castlebar.
Joint managers Barney Breen and George Dugdale have made three changes to the side that prevailed in the English capital.
Daniel Beck comes in for James Glancy at corner-back and Enda Williams takes over at centre-back, with Melvin Gales’ Fabian McMorrow moving to full-back in place of Ciaran Egan. Shane Moran lines out at midfield in place of Daniel Lowe.
Mayo's XV includes three players, making their first championship starts.
Westport duo Kevin Keane and Lee Keegan will line-out in defence. Danny Geraghty from the Ballintubber club comes in to partner Barry Moran in midfield.
Aidan O’Shea is still unavailable due to a long-term groin injury, with captain Andy Moran named at full-forward. Conor Mortimer is a surprising withdrawal – given his excellent league form.
Much will be expected of Alan Freeman and Jason Doherty in the inside forward line as Mayo eye a comfortable victory before setting their sights on Kevin Walsh on Sligo.
Mayo: D Clarke; K Keane, G Cafferkey, K Higgins; L Keegan, D Vaughan, C Boyle; B Moran, D Geraghty; K McLoughlin, C O’Connor, A Dillon; A Freeman, A Moran, J Doherty.
Leitrim: C McCrann; D Beck, F McMorrow, P Maguire; C Clarke, E Williams, W McKeon; D Sweeney, S Moran; P Brennan, E Mulligan, P McGowan; R Cox, J Glancy, A Croal.