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.

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