Tyrone must buck themselves up - and buck trend of home losses to Mayo
Allianz Football League Division One, round six: Tyrone v Mayo (Healy Park, 5.45pm tonight)
THE likes of Antrim and Kildare – most counties, really – may wish for, nay demand, home advantage. Tyrone, though, would rather have travelled anywhere else for this evening fixture.
If Castlebar weren't currently out of commission, it would have been first choice: the Red Hands have won on their last four visits to Mayo's home and are desperate to record only their second league victory this season, with a daunting journey to Kerry awaiting them in round seven.
On the other hand, Mayo will be delighted to make the trip north, knowing that they've won the last two league meetings in Healy Park, in 2019 and 2017. History and form all point to another away victory.
That would send the Red Hands closer to the drop and Mayo nearer to the final; the Red Hands might have to rely on today's opponents doing them a favour against Kildare next weekend in Carrick-on-Shannon.
Tyrone have the small consolation of being the last team to record a home win in this fixture, but that came back in 2014, a 2-15 to 0-15 success. The away side has won seven of the last eight encounters, following a draw in Mayo in 2009.
Recent history is one area of concern; this season's form is more of a worry, both in terms of themselves and Mayo.
The Red Hands have averaged a point per home game so far, starting with a draw against Monaghan, then edging out Kildare, before succumbing limply to defeat by Dublin last weekend. The gulf in class last Sunday was much wider than the eventual five-point margin.
Joint-managers Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher were able to field 11 of the starters from last year's All-Ireland SFC Final triumph over Mayo, but Tyrone still looked far short of that level, even with the welcome return of Ronan McNamee to full-back.
Cathal McShane was one of the four changes, making his first senior start in two years, but the Leckpatrick man looked lethargic and made limited impact in open play.
Darragh Canavan did show promise and threat in attack, but Killyclogher wing-forward Nathan Donnelly, who has started all five league games so far, was withdrawn at the interval after an ineffective first half. So too, though, was reigning Footballer of the ear Kieran McGeary.
Conn Kilpatrick did at least demonstrate why he was in contention for a midfield All-Star last year, but the man who did get one, Brian Kennedy, was notable by his absence. Tyrone will want the Derrylaughan giant on the pitch tonight.
They could also do with getting Mattie Donnelly back, and Conor McKenna into the starting line-up – while maybe the unsung Michael O'Neill offered more to the team than many realised.
If team announcements are to be believed, Mayo manager James Horan has made five changes to the side which started the narrow loss to Kerry, including bringing Aidan O'Shea deeper, to centre half-back, in a re-shaped defence.
The midfield remains the same, but Fionn McDonagh, Paul Towey, and the experienced Jason Doherty are apparently included in a new-look attack. The match-day 26, it seems, has no place for Paddy Durcan or Diarmuid O'Connor. We shall see.
Until their one-point loss in Tralee Mayo had been flying. Held to an opening draw in Sligo by Donegal, they then won away to both Monaghan and Dublin before beating Armagh in Dr Hyde Park.
Compared to their seven points from those four matches, Tyrone have taken just one, from that opener against Monaghan. The loss to Dublin took the Red Hands' home win record in Healy Park since the mid-Eighties to less than 57 per cent; they lose almost a third of their outings in Omagh.
The Red Hands have seemed curiously listless so far this season, lacking fight.
Tyrone rode their luck, and some poor Mayo finishing, to collect the 'Sam Maguire' last September, and they'll probably need goals again to prevail tonight.
Unless they can upset the odds and overturn the form and history books then they seem set for their first ever demotion as reigning All-Ireland Champions.
Relegation won't prevent them from retaining their crown, but unless they buck themselves up soon they'll not even be Ulster Champions for much longer.
Mayo: R Hennelly; L Keegan, D McBrien, D McHugh; O Mullin, A O'Shea, S Coen (capt.); J Flynn, M Ruane; F McDonagh, P Towey, F Boland; A Orme, J Doherty, R O'Donoghue.
Substitutes: R Byrne, B Harrison, P O'Hora, M Plunkett, R Brickenden, E Hession, K McLoughlin, C O'Shea, C Loftus, J Carney, D Coen.
Referee: Maurice Deegan (Laois).