By James McMahon
Mayo have already cleared the first hurdle in their defence of the Connacht title and the smart money is on them to jump the remaining two obstacles as they bid for a fourth consecutive Nestor Cup.
A sizeable contingent from the county travelled to New York last weekend to witness a comfortable 4-18 to 0-08 victory. Next up for the Green and Red is a date with either Roscommon or Leitrim in the provincial semi-final on 8 June.
London, last year’s finalists, welcome Galway to Ruislip on 25 May, with Sligo awaiting the winners in the other last-four clash on 21 June.
This year’s Connacht final will be played on 13 July. The winners will represent the province in the All-Ireland quarter-final on 3 August.
So that’s the schedule. The question is who can put it up to James Horan’s men in the west this year?
Despite losing the last two All-Ireland finals, Mayo footballers still believe they can reach the Promised Land come September. How useful a strenuous Connacht campaign will be in that pursuit is open to debate.
Last year the side won the province at a canter and yet produced their best display of the summer when they subsequently trounced Donegal in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Galway and Roscommon will be out to improve on their poor showings in the 2013 campaign. Sligo’s one outing last year saw them lose to London in Ruislip – a result that ultimately was to end Kevin Walsh’s reign as manager.
As for the Exiles? The element of surprise is certainly gone. That said Paul Coggins’ side won’t lack belief for the visit of Galway.
Leitrim are now under the management of Sean Hagan and will be seeking to beat the Rossies at the Hyde for the first time since 2000.
The Tribesmen have to go back to 2008 for their last Connacht victory. Recent underage success has not yet translated into something tangible at senior level. Last year’s qualifier defeat to Cork did see them play with much abandon and gave hope of better days. However, their league campaign was patchy and they just about survived in the second tier
Michael Meehan has taken a break from the game in order to recover fully from an ankle problem. After being dropped for the league clash with Armagh in March, Gary Sice left the panel.
Better news for coach Alan Mulholland is the form of former Kildare player James Kavanagh and Eddie Hoare, with the latter showing well in the half-forward line during the league.
Galway will feel that they have the wherewithal to get past London and Sligo respectively and so claim a place in the Connacht final. However, recent history has told us that they do slip up when least expected, so nothing can be taken for granted. The defeat of the U-21s against Leitrim back in March serves as a further warning.
Mulholland is now in his third year at the helm and needs a good summer. The pathway is there for his charges to be competitive well into the campaign. But are they good enough to navigate it with conviction?
The year started well with a consecutive FBD victory. Hopes were high that promotion out of Division 4 could be achieved. However, a surprise away defeat to Waterford derailed that prospect. A subsequent loss at home to Tipperary ended it.
Success for Leitrim in the Connacht minor league and the U-21s getting to the provincial final lifted spirits during the spring. That said the seniors face a tough opener away to Roscommon.
As always they will be well supported but as of now Leitrim’s best hope of making an impression this summer looks like coming via the qualifier route.
London’s run to last year’s Connacht final saw them play four games. Add in their All-Ireland qualifier tussle with Cavan at Croke Park and it really was a remarkable few months for Paul Coggins’ outfit.
It all kicks off again for them against Galway at Ruislip. Are they good enough to claim another big scalp?
Their league campaign this spring was disappointing. It was a similar case last year. Therefore all eyes will be on how they shape up against the Tribesmen.
Mayo’s recent dominance in the province was well and truly highlighted last year when they swept Galway and Roscommon aside en route to a 45th title. Both counties could well stand in their way again as they bid to add to that haul.
The Mayo team that started against New York featured 12 players that lined up to face Dublin in last September’s All-Ireland final. Keith Higgins reverted to defence, while up front James Horan gave a start to Diarmuid O’Connor, a brother of Cillian.
Indeed it’s in the forward division where many feel Mayo need to improve. Questions arise as to whether Seamus O'Shea can really prosper at centre-half-forward and is Andy Moran the man best suited for the number 14 role?
Alan Dillon’s return to action at Gaelic Park is a plus as the Green and Red look to utilise their full capabilities.
A trip to Hyde Park to face Roscommon (assuming the Rossies beat Leitrim) will be a test for Mayo, though they should have enough on hand to set up another final appearance and claim a fourth consecutive title.
After promotion from Division 3 and their U-21s getting to an All-Ireland final, Roscommon’s graph is on the rise. A potential meeting at home with Mayo in the semi-final should be their target, but manager John Evans will no doubt have them focused on their opener against Leitrim.
In Senan Kilbride and Donal Shine, the Rossies have two of the best forwards in the game and Evans will be looking for some of the U-21 stars to step up and press for places in his starting XV for the summer.
Roscommon won’t win Connacht this year but are more than capable of having a decent run through the back door.
The Yeats County will have to beat either London or Galway to reach a third Connacht decider in five years. After their surprise defeat in Ruislip last year, they won’t lack for motivation against the side from the English capital.
If Galway is the opposition before the Sky cameras on 21 June then Sligo will be seeking a third consecutive championship win against their more illustrious rivals.
Pat Flanagan arrived late on the scene as Sligo boss. He safely kept them in Division 3 of the league.
The side won’t lack for motivation in front of their own fans and in David Kelly and Mark Breheny they have attackers who could cause trouble for any opposition in the province.