Mayo motivation uncertain so Derry may secure League final spot

Oak Leafers travel to Castlebar looking to get back to winning ways

Derry came within a whisker of causing a massive shock against eventual All-Ireland finalists Mayo in last year's Qualifiers
Derry came within a whisker of causing a massive shock against eventual All-Ireland finalists Mayo in the 2017 Qualifiers

Allianz Football League Division One, round six

Mayo v Derry (Hastings MacHale Park, 3.45pm Sunday)

THE last time these two counties met in the League in Castlebar, a decade ago, it was Derry who sent out a second string side.

Now, even though the scenario is similar, with the Oak Leafers flying high and Mayo needing to do more to reach the next stage of the League, the sense is that it’s the hosts who might field a weakened team.

Even though they’re defending League champions, Mayo manager Kevin McStay certainly seems wary of the prospect of reaching the final for a second consecutive season.

Part of the rationale is that last year’s final triumph against arch-rivals Galway was swiftly followed by Connacht championship defeat by Roscommon.

Also, although this year’s provincial opener for Mayo is ‘only’ against New York, that match is on April 7, and clearly they wouldn’t like to be in a League final just a week earlier.

Derry, though, will surely want to win this, even with a home game against struggling Roscommon still to come.

That’s just one of the differences to 2014, which was a round seven encounter. Back then there were League semi-finals and Derry’s place in the top four was already assured, whereas Mayo knew they had to win to join them.

Now another victory is probably needed for Derry to reach their first Division One final since, yes, 2014 – when they lost to heavily to Dublin after seeing off, yes, Mayo in the semi-finals.

Jim McGuinness and Mickey Harte will meet again, with the latter now as Derry boss.
Jim McGuinness and Mickey Harte will meet again, with the latter now as Derry boss.

Besides, Oak Leafs boss Mickey Harte has already had his ‘take it easy’ time, resting half his first choice side last time out against Dublin, at least for the first half, resulting in a comfortable five-point win for the visitors to Celtic Park.

Pulling punches isn’t really in the Tyrone native’s nature, however, so we can surely expect Derry to be much closer to full strength for this St Patrick’s Day clash.

There is the reported pre-Championship training camp in Portugal in early April to factor into the Oak Leaf schedule too, but as huge as their Ulster clash against Donegal is, it’s not until the second half of the month.

One intriguing element about this match-up is that Mayo and Derry are far from frequent rivals.

Indeed they’ve only had one League meeting since 2014, in the following year, mostly due to Derry’s drop down through the divisions from 2015 onwards, right down to the basement level before climbing right back up.

There was also a crazy Championship clash in 2017 – in Castlebar, in round 2A of the All-Ireland SFC qualifiers. A look at the result, an 11-point home win, would seem standard, as Mayo were then the second best team in the country while Derry had been demoted from Division Two earlier that season. Yet the 2-21 to 1-13 scoreline disguises that the game went to extra time.

There are a few survivors from that time – including Paddy Durcan, Aidan O’Shea, and Cillian O’Connor on the home front, Brendan Rogers, Chrissy McKaigue, Ciaran McFaul, Shane McGuigan, and Niall Loughlin among the visitors – but there may be some period of sizing each other up on Sunday.

A draw this time would probably do Mayo well, ending any lingering threat of relegation, although realistically it’s highly unlikely that they will go down even if they collect no more points.

Whatever teams McStay and Harte select, there’s enough squad quality and desire to impress among non-regulars to suggest a close encounter.

Mayo have been fairly consistent in their scoring so far in this campaign, averaging just over 15 points per game, with a high of 18 (2-12) in the opening win over Galway and a low of 14 (1-11) in the loss away to Tyrone.

Derry have averaged almost 18 points, greatly boosted by their goal-scoring, with eight netted already. Only Kerry have prevented Harte’s men getting a major score – and the Kingdom still lost that round one game.

Notably, though, Mayo have only conceded one goal, the brilliant finish from Tyrone’s Darragh Canavan in that defeat in Healy Park.

Derry’s goalscoring threats come from all over the pitch, and from deep, and if they field a more settled side again they can do damage to a Mayo outfit that’s still experimenting and testing out combinations.