GAA Football

Mayo should survive thanks to a rare home comfort

Aidan O'Shea has been a handful for the Donegal defence when he's played at full-forward in recent meetings. Picture by Philip Walsh
Cahair O'Kane

Allianz National Football League Division One: Mayo v Donegal (tomorrow, 2pm, MacHale Park)

IT would be fair to suggest that when the League began, most would have expected it to be Donegal that would need the points to save themselves.

But they have been, in the context of the winter retirements, the most impressive team in Division One this season.

With Dublin facing Monaghan, it's Rory Gallagher's side that remain in pole position to reach the League final. Victory would make them certain, but a draw would quite possibly be enough.

One major barrier to a positive result is the absence of Ryan McHugh. As Gallagher admitted earlier in the week, he'd quite happily have sacrificed the Kilcar man for this game in the hope of some relatively good news about his ankle injury.

And his prayers were rewarded. McHugh will be out for three weeks. While his form has been superb and he will be a huge absence in terms of winning in Castlebar, that is a small price to pay in the grand scheme.

Karl Lacey made his return from injury for the final 20 minutes of last Sunday's draw with Monaghan, while Patrick McBrearty also played the last half hour. Expect both to start tomorrow.

Mayo were also able to bring in Aidan O'Shea for his first taste of the League towards the end of their win over Tyrone in Healy Park, a result borne of a performance that mirrored their gutsy display in the All-Ireland quarter-final last year.

He has caused problems for Donegal when he's played on the edge of the square against them and it would be no surprise to see him partner Andy Moran in the inside line.

As much as they've played each other in some major encounters and they've both taken scalps off each other, this is a rivalry that simmers rather than sits just beneath the boil.

Mayo have had the upper hand since the 2012 All-Ireland final, losing just once in the last five, including two All-Ireland quarter-finals.

The 2015 Championship meeting at that stage propelled Mayo into a semi-final with Kerry. The replay was refereed by Cormac Reilly, who hasn't taken charge of a Mayo game since that afternoon in Limerick.

That has been the week's subplot of choice in many quarters but it's a mere distraction from the business of tomorrow afternoon for Stephen Rochford's side.

Their fate is very much in their own hands but if Cavan wanted further hope that they might yet survive Division One at Mayo's expense, they will find it in the form of the westerners' home record.

Since the start of this decade, they've hosted 27 National League games in Castlebar and they have lost more of them than they've won.

13 defeats, 12 wins and two draws, and only three of those wins in the last three years, is not the kind of return that would make visiting teams fear MacHale Park in the way they probably should.

In spite of that they've retained their top-flight status the entire time, and even a point against Donegal tomorrow would be enough to sustain that record for another season.

"It hasn't been good for a number of years,” said Rochford of that poor record which stretches back through James Horan's time.

“I don't know why that is. Maybe if we sort that out we wouldn't have to be wondering where we are at the bottom of the table around the end of March.”

Two years ago, they met on the final day with Mayo needing at least a point to be sure of safety. They got it. Don't bet against another draw here.

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