Mayo maintained their winning start to the season and placed almost both feet into the FBD final on Sunday when they overcame the students of IT Sligo in a cold and windy James Stephens Park in Ballina.
Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes made a number of changes from the side which lined out against NUIG last week and the standout name among the starting fifteen was that of former Ireland and Connacht rugby player Gavin Duffy.
Unfortunately for the large crowd in attendance Duffy was replaced by hometown midfielder Alex Corduff before the throw-in but the management assured the local press afterwards that the former professional athlete should be available for selection against Roscommon next weekend.
Of those who did line up from the throw-in against the students Steven Duffy (Crossmolina), Michael Hall (Breaffy), Patrick Durcan (Castlebar Mitchels), Morgan Lyons (Ballyhaunis) and Peter Dravins (Breaffy) were all wearing the green and red jersey in a senior competitive game for the first time, proof that Connelly and Holmes are more than willing to use the early part of the season to look at up and coming players in the county.
The game started pretty slowly with the students gaining the wind advantage in the first half but being unable to take advantage of it as the hosts ran into a three-point lead inside the first ten minutes. Alan Freeman, who had a great day on the edge of the square, Lyons and Evan Regan raising the white flags.
Cian Clinton replied with a free for the students before Lyons almost scored his first major as a Mayo player when he received the ball on the edge of the box but his shot fizzed just past the upright.
Freeman added another point a minute later when Mikey Sweeney’s shot dropped short and was only half cleared to the Aghamore man.
Claremorris native Brian Gallagher, whom we all remember from last year’s FBD and league campaigns, replied for IT Sligo before Regan and a Kevin McLoughlin free pushed Mayo further ahead coming towards half-time.
Two more Clinton frees sandwiched a good point from Freeman to end the half with Mayo leading by three points on a score of 0-7 to 0-4.
The second half started even slower than the first but Mayo almost had the ball in the net in the 33rd minute when a great run by Regan set up Sweeney on the edge of the small square but the Kiltane man’s snap shot was matched by Alvin McCallig in the goal and the keeper deflected the ball over the bar.
A minute later IT Sligo had their best chance of a goal when Ryan McHugh was taken down inside the box by Duffy and the referee awarded a penalty kick.
The reigning Young Player of the Year stood over the spot kick himself and faced down the massive frame of David Clarke in the Mayo goal, a prospect not too many forwards would enjoy. Despite sending the Ballina man the wrong way, though, McHugh sent the ball outside the right-hand post and wide.
The Donegal man did add a point just a minute later to cancel out one from McLoughlin but with the penalty miss went any chance the students had of getting something out of this game.
Points from Corduff, a beauty from near the sideline, and Freeman extended Mayo’s lead before Durcan and Sweeney almost had the ball in the net. An attempted one-two in front of the goal was almost successful but McCallig managed to just get a touch on the ball before Durcan could flick it to the net and the defence cleared.
It looked for all the world like Mayo were bound to get a goal and that it was going to arrive in the very near future. On the 46th minute it came even closer to reality when Lyons gathered the ball 70 yards from goal and took off on a sprint, leaving defenders trailing in his wake.
The centre-forward let fly from about 20 yards and had McCallig beaten until the ball smacked off the bottom of the post and rebounded clear, much to the relief of the visiting side.
The students almost had the ball in the Mayo net shortly after but substitute Darren McHugh managed to clear the ball off the line before Mayo finished the game strongly in the last ten minutes.
Points from Sweeney, Regan, another McLoughlin beauty and Mark Ronaldson against a free from Clinton saw Mayo finish the game pulling up before the referee blew the full time whistle one minute into injury time to hand Mayo a nine-point win.
If the point of the FBD League is to blood new players and ease back the usual suspects then so far the 2015 version is working wonders for Mayo.
Morgan Lyons, Michael Hall, Patrick Durcan and Alex Corduff all gave the new management something to think about today while the returning David Clarke was immense in goals, Donal Vaughan looked strong in the unfamiliar full-back position while Evan Regan, Alan Freeman and Mikey Sweeney were all fantastic in the full-forward positions.
Next weekend Mayo take on Roscommon in Castlebar in the final group game and after the Rossies lost to NUIG all the green and red need from the game is a point and they set up a final meeting with Galway.
It may only be January, but right now the future looks bright for Mayo football, especially if some of the players performing well this month can continue to do so as the weather improves.
Mayo: David Clarke (Ballina); Kevin Keane (Westport), Donal Vaughan (Ballinrobe), Steven Duffy (Crossmolina); Michael Hall (Breaffy), Keith Rogers (Ballaghaderreen), Patrick Durcan (Castlebar); Alex Corduff (Ballina, 0-1), Barry Moran (Castlebar); Kevin McLoughlin (Knockmore, 0-3, 1f), Morgan Lyons (Ballyhaunis, 0-1), Peter Dravins (Breaffy, 0-1); Evan Regan (Ballina, 0-3), Alan Freeman (Aghamore 0-4, 1f), Mikey Sweeney (Kiltane 0-1).
Subs: Darren McHugh (Hollymount/Carramore) for Keane HT), Chris Barrett (Belmullet) for Durcan 44’, Jason Gibbons (Ballintubber) for Corduff 51’, Jason Doherty (Burrishoole) for Hall 51’, Mark Ronaldson (Shrule/Glencorrib 0-1) for Sweeney 53’.
IT Sligo: Alvin McCallig (Mayo/Claremorris); Stephen Doak (Donegal), Michael McWeeney (Leitrim), Darragh McConnon (Sligo); Noel Crowe (Cavan), Shane McManus (Sligo), Paul Varley(Galway); Stephen Henry (Mayo/Swinford), Brian Gallagher (Mayo/Claremorris, 0-1); Ryan McHugh (Donegal 0-1), Eoin Jordan (Mayo), Cathal Mulryan (Galway, capt); David Quinn (Sligo), Ciaran Thomson (Donegal), Cian Clinton (Leitrim 0-4, 4f).
Subs: Tony Taylor (Sligo) for Quinn 15’, Ross Gallagher (Donegal) for McConnon (Black Card) 39’, Jack Mannion (Galway) for McCallig 55’.
Referee: Michael Duffy
Leitrim 1-9 Galway 0-13
Sligo 1-13 GMIT 0-8
Roscommon 0-9 NUIG 0-10.