By Peter McNamara
Mayo’s kingship of the western province may be under greater threat this year than it has for many seasons.
In hosing Sligo 6-25 to 2-11 in the Connacht SFC final last summer Mayo had recorded a remarkable five-in-a-row in the provincial series.
Furthermore, Stephen Rochford’s side are merely 4/11 with one bookmaking firm to land a sixth Connacht title on the spin in 2016.
And allowing for the fact Mayo won their last three provincial titles against London (16-point winning margin), Galway (7) and Sligo (26) by an accumulative tally of 49 points the theory they will achieve that objective again this term is understandable.
The likelihood, too, is Mayo will retain the J J Nestor Cup.
Yet, there are reasons to believe Rochford’s men may be more vulnerable this year than Mayo have been for some time.
And those reasons for that are three-fold, primarily.
Pressure on the manager
Firstly, as successful a club manager Rochford has proved himself to be, he will be swimming in waters now accompanied by far bigger sharks.
Yes, having the likes of Tony McEntee around him is an enormous plus but Rochford will have to adapt to senior inter-county level management quickly to guard against a perception of a ‘transition period’ rearing its head.
Plus, at the end of the day, ultimately, the buck stops with Rochford.
And it’s not easy to hit the ground running in any job in any walk of life. Then again, has he any choice but to bolt from the starting stalls like a scolded cat?
Couple that with the increasing expectations of Mayo’s supporters – who else noticed the ‘Mayo 4 Sam 2016’ posters at the PDC World Darts Championship at Ally Pally already this year, for example? – and the circumstances he has to face are not exactly ideal at present.
— Paul Flynn (@PFlynn89) July 24, 2013
Sam is all that matters
Secondly, subconsciously, how motivated will the core group of players within the squad truly be to win another Connacht title this year?
Realistically, the Mayo players’ desires only really lie in lifting Sam Maguire now.
The resurgence of other counties
And thirdly, arguably the main reason too, both Roscommon and Galway should be better-placed to potentially take advantage of any perceived complacency that could seep into the Mayo psyche.
Generally, Connacht football is incredibly strong currently.
Take a look at the All-Ireland Club SFC records, for instance, and you’ll see that a team from the province has contested four of the last five finals.
St Brigid’s twice (2011, 2013), Castlebar Mitchels (2014) and Corofin (2015) have all rocked up at headquarters on St Patrick’s Day in recent years.
St Brigid’s, under the guise of present Rossies’ co-boss Kevin McStay, and Corofin, ironically managed by Rochford, have both landed the Andy Merrigan Cup in that timeframe.
Digging a little deeper it also needs to be remembered that both Galway and Roscommon have prominently featured in All-Ireland U21 FC finals in the last number of campaigns.
The Tribesmen won the competition in 2011 and 2013, while Rossies suffered losses in the deciders of 2012 and 2014 to Dublin.
Kevin Walsh’s outfit may well be competing in the second-tier of the Allianz NFL this season but they are, alongside Derry, joint-second favourites for that title.
Therefore, the possibility of Galway being a top-tier league unit again in 2017 is a live one.
McStay and co, meanwhile, will be testing themselves against the very best the country has to offer in the league.
So as the season begins to get into gear it is obvious both Roscommon and Galway are on sturdier ground in 2016, much sturdier in fact.
The basis from which the respective counties are working off this time round is rock-solid.
Of course, it will be argued McStay is in a similar boat to Rochford in that he is managing at this level without the experiences of the past to guide him.
However, his consistently detailed and insightful analysis of the code on The Sunday Game suggests he has all of the attributes required to genuinely make a mark on this standard of landscape.
Having said all of that, were Mayo to negotiate the Connacht terrain successfully again I would envisage them being joint-favourites with Dublin to win that elusive All-Ireland title from that point onwards.
You would have to expect Mayo to be razor-sharp in the second half of the championship regardless, especially with Rochford having had some time at the helm behind him.
Still, Galway and Roscommon have the potential to cause them problems on the western front before Croker comes into view.