Drop fears eased but not eradicated as Mayo and Tyrone target Division One survival
Allianz National Football League Division One: Mayo v Tyrone (tomorrow, 2pm, MacHale Park)
BELTS may have been loosened a notch after last weekend’s results, but only victory in Castlebar tomorrow afternoon will allow either Mayo or Tyrone to breathe easily heading into the final weekend of the League.
Both have enjoyed/endured stop-start campaigns thus far and, prior to last weekend, were nervously looking over their shoulders after slipping to a third League defeat in gameweek four.
Paired against Division One’s two basement dwellers, Donegal and Kildare, it was getting towards must-win territory for Tyrone and Mayo. For the Red Hands especially, a loss to Donegal would have seen them leap-frogged by their Ulster rivals.
Without the injured Paddy McBrearty - and with Michael Murphy still working his way back to fitness - they were no match for Mickey Harte’s men in the end, while Mayo all but sealed Kildare’s fate in Newbridge.
Relegation fears eased, but not eradicated.
Both sit on four points as they prepare to take the field at MacHale Park tomorrow – whoever wins will secure their safety, with the loser left to hope Monaghan can keep Donegal on track for the drop.
And, if recent history is anything to go by, there will be little to choose between Tyrone and Mayo.
The 2016 All-Ireland quarter-final remains fresh in the memory, a day when Tyrone managed to kick themselves out of it en route to a one-point defeat.
Darren McCurry was guilty of missing one of those late, late chances to level, and he won’t get the chance to right that wrong tomorrow after opting off the Red Hand panel earlier this week.
It has been a frustrating season for the Edendork man, given only a handful of minutes here and there as Mark Bradley, Lee Brennan and Connor McAliskey have been largely favoured in the forward line.
Last year’s League encounter illustrated again how well matched these counties are. And on a beautiful sunny day in Omagh, Harte was once more left to curse Tyrone’s profligacy in front of the posts, kicking wide after wide before Kevin McLoughlin’s stoppage time winner ensured the points headed out west.
Securing their Division One status is a huge incentive as both attempt to iron out the creases ahead of another tilt at snatching Sam from the clutches of the all-conquering Dubs.
Despite falling short against Jim Gavin’s men last summer, neither Mickey Harte nor Stephen Rochford has attempted to reinvent the wheel, sticking largely to the same style of play while trialling some new blood.
Lee Brennan looks to have established himself as Tyrone’s main scoring threat and, like Bradley – who scored a clever goal against Donegal – is capable of leading the line and bringing others into play.
The Trillick ace was brilliant in the first half against Dublin in Omagh, and it will be interesting to see how he performs against a Mayo back line trying out the likes of Caolan Crowe and Eoin O’Donoghue.
Niall Sludden lasted just 20 minutes of last year’s League encounter before a soft black card and, in suggest a congested field, they missed his ability to find gaps and maximise space.
The Dromore ace was at his influential best against Donegal last week and, considering he was man-marked by Lee Keegan that day in Omagh, is clearly seen as a huge threat by Rochford.
However, a cursory glance through the Mayo outfit - even though experimental in parts - screams big-game experience, and the likes of Aidan O’Shea, Andy Moran, Keegan, Kevin McLoughlin and Cillian O’Connor were crucial in ushering them across the line against the Lilywhites.
Another close encounter awaits no doubt but, in recent times, Mayo have always found a way to beat Tyrone. The same outcome is expected tomorrow.
Tyrone: M O'Neill; HP McGeary, P Hampsey, C McCarron; C Meyler, F Burns, P Harte; C Cavanagh, P McNulty; M Donnelly, N Sludden, C McShane; L Brennan, C McAliskey, M Bradley