Last chance saloon in Castlebar

All-Ireland Qualifier Round One

Mayo v Monaghan

Saturday, Castlebar, 4pm

By Shaun Casey

IT’S all about knockout football from this weekend on and Monaghan must do battle with Mayo to decide who remains in the running for the Sam Maguire trophy.

It’s not unusual territory for James Horan’s men. They’ve reached the biggest day of the year before via the backdoor route, in 2016 and ‘17.

Monaghan are of course well acquainted with the Qualifiers as well and you can be sure neither team wanted to be drawn against the other, given the fact that there were a few perceived easier opponents in round one.

The four Division One teams in the hat were paired off against each other with Tyrone meeting Armagh on Sunday, but Monaghan and Mayo will be the main event this Saturday afternoon.

It’s a long old trek for the Farney Army but a journey that will prove worthwhile if they can return home with their championship hopes still intact.

Monaghan head West with little fear of the opposition, buoyed by their recent performances against Mayo in the league. In the last five outings the pair have shared, Mayo have shaded three of them with a combined winning tally of six points.

The last meeting in Castlebar, the venue for this weekend’s encounter, was just shaded by the hosts in a high scoring affair, 3-15 to 1-18.

MacHale Park could hardly be described as a happy hunting ground for last year’s All-Ireland finalists. Home advantage doesn’t seem to apply to Mayo. Galway travelled to Castlebar in the opening round of the Connacht Championship and left with a two-point win and a spot in the semi-final.

They won both of their home games during their Division Two campaign in 2021, but the venue was under reconstruction during this year’s National league, so Mayo were on the road the whole time and enjoyed a hugely successful campaign.

Mayo have only won three of their last six championship outings played on home soil, hardly a fearful fortress for travelling teams.

Although Monaghan must be warned that the last three Ulster opposition that played championship football in Castlebar all headed home empty-handed, Armagh (2019), Donegal (2018) and Derry (2017).

The most recent clash between the two counties came in round two of this year’s league back in early February. Played in Clones. Mayo shaded a closely fought encounter on their way to reaching the Division One National League final.

Goals from Jason Doherty and Ryan O’Donoghue were the main scores in the two-point triumph, but a late block from Paddy Durcan was the key moment as he denied Ryan McAnespie the chance to steal the two points on offer.

Durcan missed out on Mayo’s crushing provincial defeat to rivals Galway through injury and the long layoff since that outing could have worked in his favour and given his time to work his way back to full fitness.

Robbie Hennelly was another on the injury list prior to the clash with the Tribesmen but could be back between the sticks this weekend.

Cillian O’Connor’s return to the starting line-up will bolster their attacking options, especially given the fact that Tommy Conroy is gone for the rest of the year while question marks surround the fitness of O’Donoghue.

Like Mayo, Monaghan were knocked out of the provincial championship by eventual winners, Derry.

Seamus McEnaney’s inside line of Jack McCarron, Gary Mohan and Conor McManus earned a lot of plaudits prior to the Derry game, but Rory Gallagher’s defensive system limited the trio to just 0-3 from play.

There will be more space in front of the Monaghan full-forward line this weekend as Mayo like to play on the front foot and will trust the last line of their defence to get the better of the one-on-one battles.

The full-back line of Lee Keegan, Oisin Mullin and Padraig O’Hara are three of the toughest man-markers in the country, so the match-ups at the back will be something to keep an eye on.

Monaghan will have to get their key match-ups spot on as well. Against Derry, Seamus McEnaney opted from some left field defensive choices that didn’t work out, most notably moving Dessie Ward into the full-back line to pick up Shane McGuigan.

Ryan Wylie or Kieran Duffy are the obvious options to shadow O’Connor while Darren Hughes could perform a similar role out the field on Aidan O’Shea. Niall Kearns was superb against the Oakleaf County and the Monaghan faithful will hope he continues that form.

If Monaghan can get enough quality ball into the forward line, and halt the Mayo counters from the defence, they can hurt the Westerners, but Mayo are the masters of bouncing back.

They can always produce it when the chips are down and while they will certainly not have it all their own way, Mayo should advance.

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