Allianz Football League Division 1
Laois v Mayo
Two of the nearly teams of the last decade or so will go head to head in Portlaoise on Saturday evening when Laois and Mayo meet. Both of these teams have threatened to make a big breakthrough but have often fallen flat on the big stage when it seemed that the world was at their feet.
Mayo really are the perennial bridesmaids of Gaelic Football as evidenced by their All-Ireland final defeats to Kerry in 2004 and 2006. So often in recent years, Mayo have looked like the real deal in the early stages of the year before disappointing their loyal band of supporters on the big day in Croke Park.
Indeed, they seem to have some twisted may of torturing their fans as it is when the people of Mayo are most expecting to do well, the team seems to fail. And when Mayo’s fans are not expecting anything, the team will pull off a major scalp before yet again failing within reach of the ultimate prize.
This year promises to be a good one for Mayo, probably meaning that they will be relegated from the league and will exit the championship before the end of July. However, one can never write them off either as on their day they are really capable of beating anyone, as Cork found out last year. This year, they welcome back Conor Mortimer from a cruciate ligament injury and probably even more important, all-star forward, Andy Moran has made a good recovery from the broken leg he suffered late last year.
When you throw in goal-poacher supreme, Jason Doherty as well as team captain, Alan Dillon into the equation one gets the impression that this could well be the best Mayo forward line in a generation.
The spine of the team remains very strong with the O’Shea brothers vying for midfield berths while the free-scoring centre-back, Donal Vaughan is one of the best players in the game for that position. If Mayo get off to a good start in the league, they will certainly be in contention for one of the coveted semi-final spots.
In the history of the GAA, Laois are the one side who have failed to capitalise on a run of enormous success at underage level. Since 1996, they have won three All-Ireland minor titles and a provincial title at under 21. Their lone senior Leinster title success in 2003 is scant reward for the amount of talent that has gone through the underage ranks in that time.
Players of the calibre of Joe Higgins, Tom Kelly, Chris Conway and Brian McDonald passed through, winning just the one medal at senior level. Too often, Laois footballers have hit the headlines for the wrong reasons and they have gained a reputation for partying hard. That sort of attitude is not going to cut it as senior level anymore given the amount of effort put in by the top teams.
The smartest decision taken by the Laois county board in the last few years was to bring in former Armagh player, Justin McNulty as manager as this ‘Northern’ attitude is definitely something that could benefit Laois. While a string of underage players have blown their chance at bringing Sam back to the midlands, there is still hope and a lot of talent within the county.
They enjoyed a good win over an experimental Wexford side in the O’Byrne Shield last weekend, but McNulty is not getting carried away just yet. After all, Wexford will play in Division 3 of the NFL while Laois are in with the big boys after earning an unlikely promotion last year. Some of the heroes of 2003 such as Ross Munnelly and Padraig Clancy are still on the scene but by enlarge this will be an unfamiliar looking Laois team.
The more one thinks about this game, the more I think that Mayo will win it. The simple facts are that Laois are just too unpredictable and amazingly it looks as if Mayo have the greater firepower.
Laois: Eoin Culliton, Cahir Healy, Kieran Lillis, Peter O’Leary, Darren Strong, Shane Julian, Conor Boyle, Brendan Quigley, John O’Loughlin, Ross Munnelly, Kevin Meaney, Colm Begley, Paul Cahillane, Padraig Clancy, David Conway
Mayo: David Clarke, Lee Keegan, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins, Peadar Gardiner, Donal Vaughan, Richie Feeney, Seamus O’Shea, Patrick Harte, Kevin McLoughlin, Alan Freeman, Alan Dillon, Conor Mortimer, Barry Moran, Andy Moran