Mayo unlikely to treat London lightly in novel Connacht final encounter
Intense competition for starting places ensures James Horan’s men will be fully focused
Andy Moran: returns to Mayo’s starting line-up following his recovery from a cruciate injury. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
It really is terribly unfair to think one of these teams are being specially flown in for the occasion, dined and pampered all the way, have the rest of the world shouting them on, and will be hailed as heroes whether they win or lose.
It’s not like London has the smallest of any playing population, and what exactly have poor Mayo done to deserve such indifferent sentiment? The championship, it seems, still favours some teams over others.
Mayo, in fairness, are also being careful to remind themselves of all this. Though they are unbackable favourites, manager James Horan is not falling for any of this pre-match emotion, or indeed lack of it, and is instead treating it like any other championship game.
The challenge then lies exclusively with Mayo, and how much they can learn from the game that will set them up for the more daunting prospect of an All-Ireland quarter-final in Croke Park, against one assuredly battle-hardened team.
A third Connacht title in succession is nothing to be sniffed at either – especially given Mayo last achieved that over 50 years ago, in 1948-49-50.
The fact that Mayo have already beaten two relatively strong quality teams in Galway and Roscommon by a combined total of 26 points (while London beat Sligo and Leitrim by a combined total of two points, the bare minimum) suggests the likely outcome here, but again Mayo won’t be distracted by that. Horan’s team are playing for places the next day and possibly beyond that, and now is the time to start shining, especially with some first -choice players still struggling with injury.
Among them is last year’s vice captain and first choice goalkeeper David Clarke, and with his number two Kenneth O’Malley also sidelined with injury, Rob Hennelly unexpectedly gets his chance between the posts again, and presumably wants to make the most of it.
The Breaffy player was forced to opt out last season due to work to commitments. This is his chance to make amends.
Equally determined to lay down some kind of marker is last year’s captain Andy Moran, back in the starting forwards for the first time since tearing his cruciate in last year’s quarter-final win over Down. Moran will want to prove he has put his injury woes behind him.
Cillian O’Connor will be watching eagerly from the bench too, waiting for the chance to prove he’s over the worst of his shoulder injury. Defender Chris Barrett and forward Darren Coen do start and will want to seize that chance too, while the likes of Donal Vaughan and Mickey Conroy also wait anxiously on updates from the physio room.
Having seen 14 different Mayo players score in their opening two games, Horan also knows his team’s versatility and that raises yet again their own personal stakes. Enda Varley has hit 1-4 already and yet doesn’t make the starting 15.
This then is the challenge facing a London team contesting their first ever Connacht final and the reality of the overwhelming affection towards them. The spirit within the team, carefully nurtured by manager Paul Coggins over the last three years, will ensure they do rise to that challenge, but the worry is over how long they can maintain it.
They poured everything into the first 35 minutes of their semi-final replay against Leitrim, going 2-10 to 0-2 up at half-time, then holding on by a single point.
But then sometimes the journey is not always about the destination.