Escape from Cloone

Connacht Under 21 Championship Preliminary Round 

Mayo           0-13 

Leitrim        0-09 

Cloone 

Maybe there was an arrogance about Mayo, maybe Leitrim were genuinely a very talented team or maybe Mayo have been talked up too highly but this game was a lot closer than many people expected it to be and much closer than the final four point margin might suggest. 

Mayo, make no mistake, were extremely lucky to escape from the village of Cloone deep in County Leitrim with their place in the semi-final secured as Leitrim managers Mickey Moran and John Morrison nearly had the last laugh on their old friends in Mayo. 

Two injury time points made the game safe for Mayo but it was Leitrim who were doing all the pressing in the second half and had they a bit more composure in front of goal, we could have witnessed an absolutely huge shock. 

Mayo went into this game with a much vaunted reputation but Leitrim showed no respect for paper verdicts and tore into Mayo from the off. 

They kicked the first two points and had in players like roaming full-forward Wayne McKeon, corner-forward Adrian Croal, centre-half forward Eoin Ward and midfielder Tomas Beirne players who were asking questions. 

CRUCIAL: Alan Freeman's four points in Cloone proved all too vital.

Mayo started out with Aidan O’Shea at top of the right and Neil Douglas on the edge of the square but none of the Mayo forwards found much in the way of space against a sticky Leitrim defence and Mayo kicked eight first half wides, following the example of the seniors from Sunday. Douglas did get Mayo off the mark and well taken long range scores from midfielder Shane Nally and O’Shea had the sides level at 0-3 each. 

But it was clear that Mayo were getting nothing easy and it was worrying how quiet a lot of key Mayo players were. 

Still an improved second quarter, helped hugely by Alan Freeman roaring into the game after a very ineffective first quarter, put Mayo in some control. The Aghamore man put the frustrations of last Sunday behind and after the lively Nally pointed, Freeman superbly fielded a Robert Hennelly kick-out to set a move in train which ended with a Neil Douglas pointed free. 

Moments later Freeman scored himself, fielding a long-ball into the full-forward line and blasting over although goal was on his mind. 

O’Shea – a rare effort off his right – and Eoin Ward traded points and Mayo led by 0-7 t 0-5 at the break. 

Two quick points after the resumtion from Freeman (a free – Neil Douglas had been off target a few times in the first half, an interesting reverse from last Sunday) and Douglas from play had Mayo four points clear and we waited for Mayo to kick on. 

It never came and Mayo seemed to go into themselves and sit on their lead. Centre-half back Conor McCawley pointed for Leitrim after shipping a monster shoulder from Lee Keegan (Mayo’s best defender) and it was very much game on when substitute Shane Flanagan pointed to leave the gap at two. 

The momentum was certainly with Leitrim with the excellent Wayne McKeon pulling the strings and Mayo hearts were in mouths when Kevin Conlon pulled on a loose ball in the square. Thankfully Robert Hennelly emerged from the scrum with the ball and Mayo were still in front. Hennelly, in fact, was exemplary in all he did on the night. 

Freeman put Mayo three in front but Conlon cut the gap to two and Mayo just couldn’t get on the ball around midfield, despite having Aidan O’Shea out around midfield by this stage. Mayo had been on top in midfield in the first half but started to tire in the second period and became very ragged, a real worry for management.

Ray Geraghty – only seconds on the field after replacing another sub’ Niall Prenty – pointed with his first touch but Adrian Croal cancelled that out. 

Croal then had a wonderful chance to set up a grandstand finish with a straightforward 25 metre free but he was off target and Mayo could breathe a massive sigh of relief. 

Neil Douglas and Man of the Match Alan Freeman, who had both toiled ceaselessly in the inside line, finally made it count late on with a point apiece and Mayo were clear from danger. Just about. 

An improvement will be needed against the Rossies on Paddy’s Day. More of the same and we’ll be out and manager Ray Dempsey will be keenly aware of that. 

Mayo: Robert Hennelly (Breaffy); Pat Mulchrone (Burrishoole), Shane McHale (Knockmore), Michael Gallagher (Achill); Lee Keegan (Westport), Eoghan O’Reilly (Castlebar), Sean Prendergast (Claremorris); Ger McDonagh (Castlebar), Shane Nally (0-2, Garrymore); Cathal Carolan (Crossmolina), Kevin McLoughlin (Knockmore), Jason Doherty (Burrishoole); Aidan O’Shea (0-2, Breaffy), Neil Douglas (0-3, 1f), Alan Freeman (0-4, 1f). Subs: Niall Prenty (Ballyhaunis) for Carolan; Ray Geraghty (0-1, Ballintubber) for Prenty. 

Leitrim: P Farrelly; P Maguire,C Egan, J O’Brien; J Beirne, C McCawley (0-1), D Tiernan; K Moran, T Beirne; A Hickey (0-1), E Ward (0-2), M Beirne; K Conlon (0-1), W McKeon (0-1f), A Croal (0-2, 2fs). Subs: N O’Connor for J Beirne (inj); S McWeeney for O’Connor (inj.); S Flanagan (0-1) for Hickey; E Mahon for Conlon; M Quinn for M Beirne. 

Referee: Michael Duffy (Sligo).

Under 21s start the drive for five

Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly’s success in Connacht with the Mayo Under 21s for their four year tenure was nothing short of phenomenal. While they may have underachieved somewhat outside the province, four Connacht titles from four attempts was pretty good going, especially considering they had no Connacht minor winning teams to backbone their teams.

LEGACY: Mayo's Under 21 success in 2006 is the greatest legacy that Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes left but they also won four Connacht titles in a row and Ray Dempsey will aim to make it five this year.

And now they’ve handed the mantle over to Raymond Dempsey who has more than learned his trade at minor level. After a shaky first year – more later – Dempsey brought Mayo to two All-Ireland minor finals in a row and was extremely unfortunate not to win at least one.

But what those two minor teams bring, combined with the class of ’07, is a serious collection of players for the Under 21 grade this year and Mayo have a serious panel. Many are talking of the All-Ireland potential in that side but it can be an unpredictable grade and you can be sure Raymond Dempsey is paying little heed to such predictions.

Leitrim is who we play on Wednesday in Cloone in our opener and the team has been named.

It is: Robert Hennelly (Breaffy); Pat Mulchrone (Burrishoole), Shane McHale (Knockmore), Kevin Keane (Westport); Lee Keegan (Westport), Eoghan O’Reilly (Castlebar), Sean Prendergast (Claremorris); Shane Nally (Garrymore), Ger McDonagh (Castlebar); Cathal Carolan (Crossmolina), Kevin McLoughlin (Knockmore), Jason Doherty (Burrishoole); Neil Douglas (Castlebar), Aidan O’Shea (Breaffy), Alan Freeman (Aghamore).

A number of interesting talking point from that team. Two that immediately spring to mind are where Kevin McLoughlin and Shane Nally play. Both have earned their spurs in defence but have been moved forward. Dempsey clearly feels Nally’s leadership and dynamic play will offer an outlet at midfield – one area where Mayo are not full of options.

And he knows plenty of McLoughlin’s ability in the forwards. He will have witnessed him play there this year for their club Knockmore and when Dempsey was Knockmore minor manager he had McLoughlin playing at full-forward. He has picked McLoughlin, who he has also named as captain, at centre-half forward and it could be a role that the capable footballer could do very well in.

CAPTAIN: Kevin McLoughlin

Other interesting selections are the moving of the spine of last year’s defence to the flanks. Westport men Kevin Keane and Lee Keegan looked favourites for the full-back and centre-half back spots respectively but Ray Dempsey clearly thinks differently.

We were taken by the displays of Shane McHale in the club championship this year and so, clearly, was McHale’s clubmate and Under 21 manager Dempsey. It is fair going to send Kevin Keane to the corner. I’m not sure Keane will be comfortable there but Dempsey clearly feels McHale is the better option at full-back.

The selection of the half-back line is more along practical terms I feel. Lee Keegan is an impressive player but not a great holding centre-half back in my opinion. He could thrive on the wing while he might expose his defence in the centre. Eoghan O’Reilly is a disciplined defender who defends first. Call me old fashioned but that’s what I like from a number six.

A quick glance at the bench shows how strong this Mayo team is. That none of last year’s minor full-back line of David Gavin, Keith Rogers or Michael Walsh can make the team is an indication of how strong the defence is. It is with some surprise too that we hear that Jason Gibbons hasn’t been picked at midfield but strength in depth could be an issue in attack. Aidan Walsh and Andrew Farrell are good options and the returning Cathal Freeman will be a big boost too.

But the first thing that strikes one about the attack is the sheer ability of the Mayo starting six. Cathal Carolan was one of the underrated stars of last year’s team while McLoughlin and Jason Doherty will provide plenty of guile in the half-forward line – although don’t be surprised to see Doherty switch with Aidan O’Shea.

PICK ME UP: Aidan O'Shea will hope that the Under 21 championship will provide that after a very indifferent start to the NFL.

The big Breaffy man is struggling for form at senior level. Hopefully the Under 21 championship will be the platform for him to get back on track. We can secure ourselves in the knowledge that his ability is still not in doubt, just a bad rut he is in.

And then there’s Neil Douglas and Alan Freeman. Douglas is the real deal I think and could set this championship alight. We’re fans of Alan Freeman here as well. But we don’t think John O’Mahony helped him at the weekend. Carrying a bug into the game, he was started after a fitness test when resting him ahead of Wednesday might have been more judicious.

Even at that, the bigger problem was allowing Freeman’s confidence to slip and slip by leaving him on frees for far too long. But what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger and how Freeman bounces back will be the mark of him.

We’ll be bluntly honest. Leitrim will present no difficulties for Mayo on Wednesday. It will be Roscommon who will provide a meaningful test but Wednesday might tell us how well we’re moving.

We’ll report back from Cloone late on Wednesday night.

The Dubs mug us

IT felt like we were gone back in time. Back to the mid 1990s when John Maughan got Mayo to an All-Ireland final despite kicking nearly 20 wides a game.

Frees from Maurice Sheridan were our main supply of scores and if we had him today, we’d have taken the Dubs too. But our problems with frees were symbolic of our overall difficulties in scoring today.

Eighteen wides. Think about it. Frightening. Add in the amount of shots that hit the post or dropped short (I counted eight) and you realise how wasteful we were. We had over twice the amount of chances as Dublin and lost. That is not meant to happen in Gaelic football.

Just one of those days? If only. Sure, you can have days where shots go a yard outside rather than inside the upright. But what was frustrating today about Mayo was our naiveity. We had achieved results against Galway and Tyrone by using a strong running game.

Dublin were always going to set up with version of the blanket defence, cutting off space for such a running game. So we would look for another style of football. Wouldn’t we?

Ah, no, we wouldn’t.

Time after time Mayo players ran into the tackle and hadn’t the physical strength to brush off a single Dublin player, not to mind the two or three that they actually ran into, more often than not.

And where did Mayo try to run? Through the middle time and time again, where the space was most congested.

We played with no brains. It must be pointed out that there are two alternative ways to play the blanket defence. One is to spread the play wide and stretch the opposition. We didn’t do that.

In fairness the players did try to utilise the other option which is a high ball into a big full-forward. But Aidan O’Shea is a long way off his best at the moment and that tactic bore little fruit for us.

What was most frustrating about today though was our frees. Alan Freeman was having one of those where nothing would go right for him. It was clear midway through the first half that he wasn’t striking the ball confidently and considering that he is only new to the side – John O’Mahony hadn’t the confidence in him to pick him in the team earlier in the week – he should be relieved of freetaking duties at such a stage. It would be different if he was an Alan Dillon, someone whose confidence wouldn’t be in bother from a couple of misses.

But Mayo didn’t make any switch, even though Neil Douglas, a very reliable freetaker, was on the field midway through the first half. And then Enda Varley, who was doing okay on the right side with the frees, saw Conor Mortimer come in and take a free off him. Are we making it up as we go along on the sideline?

Defensively we were decent with Keith Higgins outstanding for three quarters of the  game. However he did struggle somewhat with Bernard Brogan. More worryingly was how much trouble Conal Keaney caused Ger Cafferkey.

At midfield it was noticeable how light Tom Parsons and Ronan McGarrity, while on the field, were against Eamonn Fennell and Ross McConnell. Seamie O’Shea did help matters though and seemed to be the only Mayo player capable of breaking the tackle regularly.

So a game that leaves more questions than answers. Its probably as well we lost though or else these questions might not be posed at all.

So where are we now?

Two league games played, two wins, four points. Add in the FBD title and things are going great for us, aren’t they?

Well, yes, its four points we didn’t really expect to have. I would have been happy with two and was probably expecting less.

Does this start to the league mean that our reserved expectations coming into this year were too negative?

I’m not so sure. Sure, we’re moving well and that’s to be welcomed. The four points also help to point us away from relegation trouble and give us a platform for going on to win the competition – no one else seems to want it so why not go for it?

But I think most Mayo supporters and, more crucially, all players and management will realise that the Galway result was one that was a bit skewered. Early in the Joe Kernan epoch and with Galway showing the signs of heavy training, time will tell us where both teams stand for championship.  Certainly we can only hazard a guess at the moment.

And Tyrone? Well the loss of three key players for Mickey Harte’s men through retrospective refereeing decisions had them well hamstrung, especially when you add in the injured Stevie O’Neill and the resting Brian Dooher.

It was a great result to come away from Omagh with the win though. But Tyrone looked like a team in second gear for much of the  game.

So nothing to be happy about? Not quite. The character Mayo showed in Omagh was impressive and the pace Mayo have shown in both games is striking. Midfield duo Ronan McGarrity and Tom Parsons look up for it – McGarrity especially – while Seamus O’Shea has really impressed as well. Andy Moran looks the real deal on the  half-forward line and Mark Ronaldson and Enda Varley have helped to make competition for places in the full-forward line as competitive as I can ever remember.

I’d still have questions about our defence when on the back foot and that is a verdict I’ll have to defer for another day.

Where will we be after Dublin? Well a win won’t count for much, it will be seen as just a sign that its the same old story for the Dubs. Another false dawn, yada yada yada.

And defeat? Well it won’t be seen as a great Dublin victory because the media are careful, finally, to talk too much about them. So in terms of where our standing will be afterwards, its a no win.

But John O’Mahony, fresh from his Operation Transformation losses, will be keen to keep the momentum up and a win over Dublin will point us in the way of a good crack at winning the competition. Sure, its only the league, but national titles are not to be sniffed at in Mayo. We should know that more than anyone.

But, and here’s the maddening thing about the league, even if we win it we won’t really know where we stand.

Hmmm . . . we’ll take that

I gotta admit I didn’t see this coming. A seven point win over Galway and regrets that we didn’t win by more.

Being honest I was tipping Galway as a decent bet at 11/10 this weekend. Its great to be wrong!

The major caveat from today’s performance is that Galway were dire but we’ll concentrate on the positives first.

Mayo’s attitude was very impressive. There was a real hunger to our play. Guys were flying forward to support play and getting back as quick. When Galway were in possession they got hit and hit hard. Tackling was intense.

We had great pace today and we used it. Gardiner, Vaughan and, to a lesser extent in terms of pace, McLoughlin attacked with intent from defence. McLoughlin, being the best footballer of the three, was the most productive. He will be a fixture in the Mayo team for years to come, including this year.

Our two experiements in attack worked wonderfully well. Seamus O’Shea put in a man of the match display from a starting position of centre-half forward. Dropping back to help out in midfield he won a lot of ball and showed some great physical play, something we’ve been lacking.

In corner forward Enda Varley showed well once he found his feet. Could have ended up with two goals but will be happy with the one he scored and gave a smart, close-range pass to Trevor Mortimer for the second goal. He has the ability and, like O’Shea the elder, will be buoyed from the confidence this display will have given him.

Crucially, for me, our two midfielders, Tom Parsons and Ronan McGarrity, upped their performance and workrate big time. When both are in the zone they have a lot to offer. They weren’t there at various stages in 2009 and nor were they in the FBD. Today showed us what they are capable of and lets hope its the beginning of something. O’Shea, dropping deep, helps their dynamic too.

Defensively we’ve a lot to find out about ourselves yet because Galway just weren’t a testing team due to their inability to get the ball in. But Keith Higgins did look very good in the corner.

Galway look like a team not treating the league too seriously. If they are, then the Sligo game will be the Connacht final. We know they struggle at midfield but Mark Lydon and Joe Bergin were beyond useless today. The only players that leave with any credit are Bradshaw and Armstrong. And Meehan when he came on. That he didn’t start indicates how Galway treated this game

We won’t read too much into this just yet but here’s hoping we can take some decent momentum to Omagh on Sunday. And, crucially, we’ve two points in what is going to be a tough league campaing.

So long James and David – we owe ye so much

THAT'S WIDE!: David Heaney instructs the umpire as Mark Vaughan takes a late free in the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final. See number one below.

I must admit that the heart strings are pulling at me as I write this because we will no longer see two of the greats of the modern generation wear the Mayo colours again.

The retirements of James Nallen and David Heaney may have been coming; heck they may even have been unavoidable but it can’t not make me feel emotional about the end of an era.

A WATCHING BRIEF: It will be a view from the stands that two legends of Mayo football, David Heaney and James Nallen, have of Mayo football for 2010.

Time will wait for no man but it is a poor world if we cannot reflect on what people have brought to us when their careers finish and James and David have been the two greatest servants of Mayo football in the last 20 years and I know I am not exaggerating in saying that.

Over on gaaboard.com there has been a infantile debate about whether James Nallen is a legend or not. To anyone in Mayo the answer is not in doubt. But I would go further in terms of James and David – the men were true warriors of Mayo.

No men did more in the last fifteen years to bring us to the promised land. I’m filled with anguish when I realise that neither will ever hoist the Sam Maguire on a September Sunday. Is there two more deserving men of All-Ireland medals (James does have his glorious club medal with Cross’) on the island of Ireland? I think not.

So, when looked at in those stark terms, their careers have ended in failure. That’s the view others may have but, of course, it is not a view I subscribe to.

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it – winning the All-Ireland is where we want to see ourselves but if we can’t enjoy the journey then we may as well throw our hat at it. And James and David have given us some wonderful moments on that journey.

FLEDGLING STAR: James Nallen in action against Kerry in 1996. See number 2 below.

Sunday sees the start of Mayo’s 2010 National League campaign but Team Mayo will look different without these two greats. I won’t say whether it will be better or worse without them because that would bring up a futile argument about ‘sell-by dates’ that is not the theme of this entry. But we will be lacking a special something.

James came on the scene at senior level in 1996. Prior to that he had played in the unsuccessful Under 21 finals of 1994 and 1995. He made these teams despite not playing minor for the county. That gave us a sign of his commitment and application and, boy, how much more of that we would see over the years. Despite being posted in Maynooth and then Galway with continuous work and studies, James never let club or county down and his commitment to both is, truly, the stuff of legend. Tales of him travelling to midweek Crossmolina sessions, despite instructions to ‘do his own thing’ in Galway are common currency.

After those Under 21 defeats, All-Ireland Senior final defeats followed in ’96 and ’97 to make it a pretty heartbreaking first four years wearing the county colours for James but he was undeterred and went on to be, to my mind, the outstanding centre-half back of this generation.

The sight of James bursting out of defence, ball tucked under his oxter, setting up another attack, was his trademark but he was, of course, far from a one trick pony. His pace and athleticism meant he was a wonderful covering defender too and he read the game very well. Very few centre-half forward shone playing against James.

More than all of his traits as a player James was a wonderful leader. He had an onfield presence that led a wonderful example for his teammates. I’ve heard newcomers to the panel in recent years say how much confidence they picked up from just being around James. It might be a word here, an action there. The man had and still has an aura that speaks of control and calm in the most inobstrusive way.

NO COMPROMISE: James Nallen celebrates with Sean Cavanagh, Martin McGrath and Dessie Dolan after series success over Australia in 2004.

Not that he was a lightweight. No, James could give and take it. But he preferred to play football and encapsulated the Corinthian spirit better than any other Mayo man I’ve ever seen.

David Heaney joined up with James on the Mayo senior squad in 1997, just two years out of minor. Incredibly he lined out at midfield in the All-Ireland semi-final and final of that year in Croke Park so there was a certain symetry with the fact that David played his last game for Mayo at midfield in Croker, in last year’s quarter-final defeat to Meath.

That he started where he finished was hard done considering his travails around the numbers 1-15. The debate will still rage – where was David Heaney’s best position? The most common answer will be wing-back but he rarely had the chance to shine there.

His selflessness meant David always went where he was needed most. He has played at centre-half forward, full-forward, midfield, every position in the half-back line, full-back, and, even in goal, when called on in an emergency against Galway in an FBD game in the late 90s.

In fact a little known fact is that had David Clarke picked up an injury in New York for last year’s Connacht Championship opener, it was David Heaney who was on standby as Kenneth O’Malley couldn’t make the trip.

So versaitility became his curse. It was full-back we saw him at most, in a firefighting role after the retirement of Kevin Cahill left us without a natural full-back. David looked comfortable most of the time there but, no more than Seamus Moynihan with Kerry in the same position, David looked like a trapped lion, unable to gallop around the open prairies of the field.

HEROIC: David Heaney makes an inspirational burst against Fermanagh in the 2004 All-Ireland semi-final replay. See number 3 below.

Always he was a leader. 2006 saw him as captain under Mickey Moran and a great captain he was. It was just a pity that management naivity saw him isolated on Kieran Donaghy in that final and we all know what happened there.

Like James Nallen, David Heaney’s commitment was fantastic. Based in Galway, a successful career as a Quantity Surveyor and further studies provided plenty of excuses to walk away before now. But, a trip to Australia aside, David was always at Mayo’s call.

There can be no doubt that James and David gave us so many good moments. Often, when a player retires, you hear the comment: ‘he owes us nothing’ from supporters. That’s nonsense. Truth me told we owe James and David so much.

With that in mind we will look back at their best moments:

10: James Nallen, Crossmolina v Ballaghaderreen, Mayo SFC Quarter-Final, McHale Park, Castlebar, October 2009

We didn’t know it at the time but it would be James Nallen’s last victory at McHale Park, the home of so many of his triumphs over the years. Ballaghaderreen were fancied to win and Andy Moran was giving James’ younger brother Tom plenty of it in front of the Crossmolina goal. Momentum after half-time was with Ballagh’. But John Maughan, fitting that he be the boss of Crossmolina at this juncture, decided to send James back from midfield for some firefighting.

Soon the threat of Andy was neutralised and Cross’ tightened their grip on proceedings and won by three points. They would hit the wall against the Kevin O’Neill inspired Knockmore in the semi-final. But, while not knowing it at the time, it was great to see James do it ‘once more with feeling’ before he hit on his merry way. And fitting too it was to see that he was picked on the 2009 Club Stars team at midfield.

9, David Heaney, Connacht Final 2009, Mayo v Galway in Pearse Stadium, July

There was a lot of shock when David Heaney was picked at midfield for the semi-final against Roscommon but by the time the Connacht final rolled along, he was playing with all the swagger of youth. Popping forward for two points, he helped Mayo into a controlling position that, ultimately, and just did enough to wrest the Nestor Cup back.

It was a performance all the more incredible when you consider David only returned to the Mayo panel in May, after the NFL. With Ronan McGarrity just back after a facial injury David needed to stand strong and tall. He wasn’t found wanting.

8, James Nallen, David Heaney et al, 2007 Championship Campaign

Imagine for a moment. You are James Nallen or David Heaney. Kevin O’Neill or David Brady even. You’ve suffered All-Ireland anguish in the 90s and 00s. The most recent mere months before, a hammering by Kerry, again. You are in your 30s. You owe nobody anything. No one would blame you for walking away. But you front up, go again and do what you can to set your county back on track. Heroic.

7, James Nallen v Michael Donnellan, various stages in the 1990s and 2000s

Two lean, cerebral athletes. It was nearly a pity to pit them against one another but one attacked and the other had to defend. Thing is James put Michael on the back foot plenty of times too. They enjoyed an enduring rivalry full of mutual respect and rarely much separated two greats of the modern game.

WHEN LEGENDS MEET: The healthy respect between David Heaney and Padraig Joyce defined their duels as much as anything. Here PJ congratulates David after Mayo's 2009 Connacht Final success.

6, David Heaney v Padraig Joyce, various stages in the 1990s and 2000s

Like Nallen v Donnellan, Heaney v Joyce seemed de-rigeur for Mayo Galway clashes either side of the millennium, with Tom Nallen giving the Swinford man an odd break from the merry-go-round. But it wasn’t that Heaney particularly needed it. He has Joyce sussed which is some achievement given that PJ is the pick of a modern generation of amazingly talented Galway forwards. They also enjoyed a wonderfully sporting rivalry.

5, James Nallen, All-Ireland Club Final, Crossmolina v Nemo Rangers, 2001

While his Mayo career ended short of the promised land, James managed to achieve something which people who have won both say is the most special – to win a club All-Ireland with neighbours and friends. He was, along with Ciaran McDonald, the key man for Crossmolina on an inspirational journey for the town and the county.

It was a much deserved medal for James and a great lift for the county.

4, James Nallen and David Heaney, International Rules success, 2004

Saying you played for your country in the International Rules may not carry as much credit as soccer or rugby internationals but being picked out from all Gaelic footballers in the country to take on the Aussies in the hybrid code is not to be sniffed at.

James and David both featured strongly in 2004 as their old foe Padraig Joyce captained Ireland to a series victory.

3, David Heaney, Mayo v Fermanagh, All-Ireland Semi-Final Replay, Croke Park, August 2004

We all thought we’d have no problem sorting out Fermanagh in this replay. The draw had been an apparition, hadn’t it? Well the second game was going just like the first except this one could have slipped away from us. We needed someone to take the game by the scruff of the neck. David Heaney was playing at full-back but didn’t like what he was watching out the field. He made a stand. Two inspirational runs would set up two crucial late scores for the brothers Mortimer and we were in the All-Ireland final by the skin of our teeth with no man more to thank than Heaney.

2, James Nallen v Kerry, All-Ireland Semi-Final, August 1997, Croke Park

Admit it, this goal is the first moment you thought of when you saw this list, right? Well it is a truly classic modern Mayo moment. Nallen was at the start of the move, forcing a turnover off Sean Burke deep in our own half and after exchanging a long one-two with Liam McHale (we’ll leave his debatable ‘control’ aside) before rifling the ball into Kerry net. In fact the goal was so good that Mayo ‘keeper John Madden had to look at the replay – he was starring at the big screen when Kerry caught him off-guard with a rapid goal in response!

1, James Nallen and David Heaney, All-Ireland Semi-Final v Dublin, Croke Park, August 2006

It was not so much their on field roles in this game but their leadership of Mickey Moran’s men, along with Kevin O’Neill, Ciaran McDonald and David Brady it should be added, that was exceptional. Heaney took the lead and decided to warm-up in front of the Hill and Nallen backed him to the hilt. The older players deserve huge credit for their roles in 2006, taking on much of the responsibility of management. The lads laid down a marker in front of the Hill – we will not be moved. And when Mickey Moran asked them to desist, David Heaney was polite but firm: ‘we will not be moved’. And they weren’t and Mayo ended up with arguably our best victory of modern times. Leaders of men both. Enjoy the retirement lads. Ye’ve been an inspiration to so many.

Mayo team picked – let the countdown commence

John O’Mahony has named his first team for this year’s National Football League. And there’s a few interesting selections for the clash with Galway.

IN AT NUMBER 13: Garrymore's Enda Varley

Two really. Seamus O’Shea at centre-half forward and Enda Varley at right-corner forward. We spoke of the merits of both players in recent weeks and are glad to see management going with them.

But we have to wonder why Seamus O’Shea is being picked on the forty. A hardworking, physical midfielder he is. A creative, ball playing centre-forward he most certainly isn’t. Perhaps he will drift back as a third midfielder or maybe switch to the wing with either Andy Moran (preferably) or Trevor Mortimer coming inside. We’ll soon find out but we have to wonder why he wasn’t picked at midfield. Have Tom Parsons and Ronan McGarrity done enough to nail down those two positions? No is my asssessment.

You must wonder how Barry Kelly feels. Picked out  of position at centre-half forward for two FBD games but didn’t put a foot wrong. Excels when moved to midfield. Now sees an even more out of position man on the forty ahead of him and two lads who never rose above the mediocre picked ahead of him at midfield.

Its good to see Enda Varley start in the corner and both he and Mark Ronaldson could work well of Aidan O’Shea on the edge of the square. O’Shea, of course, made his senior NFL debut last year against Galway in Tuam and gave Finian Hanley plenty of it. Be warned Mr Hanley, he’s bigger and stronger now. Our two corner forwards could do well considering they are on an attacking minded defender (Gareth Bradshaw) and a rookie (Donal O’Neill).

Elsewhere in the Mayo team there’s no major surprises. David Clarke starts in goal. Ger Cafferkey is returned to full-back with two wing backs alongside him – Donal Vaughan and Keith Higgins. Peadar Gardiner and Kevin McLoughlin flank either side of Trevor Howley in the half-back line. Parsons and McGarrity are at midfield with the Moran-SO’Shea and T-Mort half forward line in front of them.

It would have been nice to see guys like Alan Feeney, Barry Kelly, James Kilcullen and James Burke given a shot but our manager clearly feels this is a must win game for this league campaign – he’s probably right given how our fixtures fall.

Still, it is interesting to see the Galway team in comparison. Michael Meehan not picked. Would Mayo ever be willing to leave a player of his calibre on the bench for a league game? I doubt it. But Joe Kernan knows exactly how good Meehan is and what he can offer. He needs to learn more about the likes of Sean Armstrong, Nicky Joyce and Michael Martin, so he has went for that full-forward line. By the way I worry that that trio could have our full-back line in a world of trouble.

For all my criticism of Parsons and McGarrity they still will be looking at trying to at least break even against Mark Lydon and Joe Bergin. Seamus O’Shea will probably be helping them out too.

The countdown continues.

Mayo: David Clarke; Donal Vaughan, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Peadar Gardiner, Trevor Howley, Kevin McLoughlin; Tom Parsons, Ronan McGarrity; Andy Moran, Seamus O’Shea, Trevor Mortimer; Enda Varley, Aidan O’Shea, Mark Ronaldson.

Galway: Paul Doherty; Gareth Bradshaw, Finian Hanley, Donal O’Neill; Declan Meehan, Gary O’Donnell, Niall Coyne; Joe Bergin, Mark Lydon; Paddy Kennedy, Paul Conroy, Niall Coleman; Sean Armstrong, Nicky Joyce, Michael Martin.