Galway can push for home in League final but bigger days could lie ahead

Fionn McDonagh could return to the Mayo fold in tomorrow's Division One final against Galway. Picture by Sportsfile
Neil Loughran

Allianz Football League Division One final: Galway v Mayo (Sunday, Croke Park, 4pm – live on TG4)

KEVIN McStay wasn’t about to start delving into Mayo’s strategy for the weeks ahead when he faced the media moments after last Sunday’s defeat to Monaghan, but there are sure to have been some detailed conversations since about how best to navigate tomorrow’s Division One decider.

League finals, with their Croke Park double-headers and promise of a national title, carry something in prestige. But when a huge Championship clash lies just around the corner, demanding full focus after a draining spring campaign, decisions must be made.

“There’s no issue about how we approach it,” insisted the Mayo boss at MacHale Park.

“We settle now, take a look at the tape, see what we can pull out of this game, have a look at the squad we have available for the final, and then we go up and we compete – absolutely flat out – to have a go at winning the title.”

Flat out, have a go… but how much?

With a Connacht quarter-final against Roscommon the following Sunday, do Mayo go full pelt against Galway and hope to strip away some confidence from their opponents ahead of a possible provincial semi-final return? Or do they hold a little back and keep the thing fresh for the one that really matters?

Finding a halfway house is not easy, but the developing strength of a Mayo panel that has previously struggled to cope without key men affords McStay greater options.

A few years back it was unthinkable that they could truly compete with the best in the absence of Cillian O’Connor. Of Lee Keegan. Well Keegan retired before the League even started, while O’Connor’s involvement has been severely hampered by niggles bookmarking both ends of the campaign.

There is a natural reluctance to read too much into results at this time of year, but Mayo could hardly have asked for any more - playing with a pace and a dynamism that has made them easy on the eye, and apparently finding a way to best utilise the brute strength and ball-winning ability of Aidan O’Shea inside.

Having made 10 changes for the visit of Monaghan, including handing first starts of the year to Robbie Hennelly, Pádraig O'Hora, Michael Plunkett, Jason Doherty, Kevin McLoughlin, Frank Irwin and Conor McStay, it is likely tomorrow’s starting 15 will more closely resemble McStay’s strongest suit.

Jack Coyne and Jack Carney came off the bench against the Farneymen, it would be a surprise if they aren’t restored to the starting line-up alongside Diarmuid O’Connor, Fionn McDonagh and Ryan O’Donoghue, who was only brought on for the final six minutes last weekend.

Cillian O’Connor and Enda Hession? Unlikely, but not out of the question.

“They got bangs and belts in training, and one in the challenge game,” said McStay, “so the expectation I’m hearing from the medics and the S&C boys is they’ll be ready to rock come the Championship.”

As for Galway, this is a free hit knowing they don’t return to competitive action until April 23 against either Mayo or Roscommon. Like their Connacht counterparts, the Tribe are shaping up well.

Building on the impressive progress made last year, and the belief that comes from their charge to an All-Ireland final, Padraic Joyce’s men look even better placed to challenge for the big one again.

Kerry may still be shaking off the traditional effects of a post-All-Ireland hangover, but Galway left a mark on them in Salthill last Sunday. Not just by winning and booking a place in the League decider, but in their physicality, and the manner in which they effectively nullified a star-studded Kingdom attack.

Like McStay, Joyce has a few decisions to make in terms of personnel. Being able to spring a pair of forwards like Robert Finnerty and Damien Comer from the bench shows Mayo aren’t the only ones with a panel that is growing in stature. It is likely both will be held in reserve again, with the Galway boss knowing there are aces up the sleeve if need requires.

West is best? Kerry, Derry and Dublin, maybe one or two others, will hope to have something to say about that once the real business gets under way, but there is no doubt Galway and Mayo will take some toppling this year.

Both will be keen to lay down another marker on Sunday – with Mayo having one eye on the following weekend, it could be the Tribesmen who push for home this time around.