Could Mayo’s relegation be a blessing in disguise?

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For the first time in 23 years Mayo find themselves in Division 2 of the National Football League. A one-point defeat to Tyrone last weekend condemned them to the second tier after a spirited fight to stay up. Previously, Mayo had beaten Galway by a record score to give themselves a chance of survival. As a result, it was somewhat surprising to see Tyrone eight-points up at half-time. Despite threatening a comeback for the rest of the game, James Horan’s side came up short to finish 7th in the table. But, the Mayo side is very much a team in transition. Therefore, Mayo’s relegation to Division 2 may prove to be a blessing in disguise.

The Mayo team of the 2010s is arguably the best team to never actually win an All-Ireland. Defeats in the 2012, ’13, ’16, and ’17 finals have meant the Sam Maguire has still not entered Mayo since 1951. Furthermore, they reached semi-finals in 2011, ’14, ’15, and ’19.

Yes, many of the key figures of that decade are still in or around the Mayo squad. But, they are not the young, promising, sprightly footballers they were when they first arrived on the scene. For example, Cillian O’Connor won Young Footballer of the Year for the first time in 2011. That is now almost ten years ago.

Likewise, Aidan O’Shea made his senior debut in 2009 and is entering his thirties.

2020 will be the first year that Mayo enter a Championship without Andy Moran since 2004. Furthermore, the likes of Donal Vaughan, Keith Higgins, Seamus O’Shea, Tom Parsons, and Colm Boyle have seen their game time reduce in recent seasons. In addition to this, these veterans have begun to accumulate more injuries than ever before.

Even Lee Keegan is in his thirties now. It seems like an age ago that his battles with Diarmuid Connolly were unfolding in the Croke Park arena. Recently, the marauding half-back has been deployed in the full-back line as Mayo’s key man-marker.

As a result, the time for Mayo to introduce some new blood has long past. Unfortunately, this year’s sprint-like Championship has meant Horan may have to rely on his tried and tested members. But, when Division 2 rolls around next season, Mayo can finally inject new life into their team. This is why Mayo’s relegation could turn out to be of benefit.

The Up-and-Coming

Despite Mayo’s relegation, they very nearly clung onto Division 1 status. This was largely thanks to some of the younger players James Horan put his trust in.

Against Galway, Mark Moran took the plaudits for his performance at centre-forward. Then, it was Tommy Conroy who drove the charge against Tyrone. In addition to this, Eoghan McLoughlin of Westport put in two big displays in the half-back line and Oisin Mullin’s runs from corner-back were almost unstoppable at times.

These four examples are all players who are under 22 years old. This just shows that there is a pool of talent coming through the ranks in Mayo. Furthermore, David McBrien and Paul Towey are two more U20 players that have already earned senior debuts.

Before the lockdown, Belmullet’s Ryan O’Donoghue had been the one to turn heads and did so again in just 20 minutes against Galway.

If these youngsters continue to develop in the manner they have demonstrated, they will be valuable assets to the Mayo team and could launch the return to an All-Ireland showdown.

All of this is not to say no player has broken into the side in recent years. To illustrate, Paddy Durcan has nailed down one of the half-back spots and become one of the best players in the country on his day.

Similarly, Cillian O’Connor’s brother Diarmuid brought his U-21 form straight to senior and has never looked back.

Other examples of players to come to the fore in recent years are Stephen Coen and Matthew Ruane. This duo were the midfield pairing when Mayo won the U21 All-Ireland in 2016. However, it is only now that it seems like either is on course for an extended run in the team.

On the other hand, many have failed to kick-on from initial runs in the senior teams. For young footballers, one of the hardest things to do is maintain form. Just ask any of James Carr, Conor Loftus, Fionn McDonagh, Fergal Boland, or Eoin O’Donoghue.

With that in mind, the prospect of playing Division 2 football is one that Mayo should embrace. Now, this is not to undermine Division 2 by any means. Instead, it should be taken by the Mayo contingent as a good level at which to filter players into their senior team.

The competition Mayo will face in Division 2 is not to be scoffed at. In fact, it will require seven good performances to ensure promotion. On the other hand, it can a very slippery slope in the other direction.

But, these League games will be a chance for Mayo’s youngsters to make their mark and ease the transition. In Division 1 it is much harder for youngsters to do so. For example, Mark Moran introduced himself with a man of the match performance against Galway. However, when he was given special attention from Tyrone, he was anonymous.

In conclusion, Mayo’s relegation is far from the be-all and end-all. In contrast, it could prove to be a blessing in disguise. James Horan has a nicely balanced squad at his disposal. If he uses the next six months wisely, he could have Mayo’s next generation of title challengers.

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