A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Castlebar Mitchels ended the wait for their 28th Mayo SFC title.
That may have been four years ago but the team and panel have experienced a considerable overhaul.
Scan the team that saw off Ballintubber last month and just nine players began the 2013 win against Breaffy.
The same number also featured in the ’15 triumph over Breaffy, which set off this three-in-a-row run.
Losing proven men like Tom Cunniffe, Richie Feeney and Tom King to emigration and retirement had the potential to derail Mitchels but they have carried on regardless, winning while espousing an aesthetically-pleasing brand of football.
“I think from the 2015 All-Ireland final we’re without 14 players of the 29 in the panel,” reckons co-manager Declan O’Reilly. “People wouldn’t understand that. With a lot of rural clubs, people will go different places, migrate and there are family commitments too and we’ve had to endure those situations too.
“A lot of lads put in a lot of hard yards over the years. They’re all top men and we have to replace them. Thankfully, we’ve done well at under-age level and we’ve been able to bring them through.”
Mitchels are a club that have begun to realise their strength even if figures show they’re a medium-sized club. For an entity servicing the county’s principal town with a population of over 12,000, they have 717 members, 393 of them who are adult. The goal over the next five years is to increase the membership to over 1,000.
The gaps left by the likes of Cunniffe, Feeney and King were filled by those who featured on the U21 teams that claimed their own three-in-a-row of county titles between 2010 and 2012. The fruits of the club’s Bord na nÓg’s harvest have well and truly been reaped while Mitchels’ strategic plan for the next four years is an impressive read.
With almost 20% of Castlebar now non-Irish nationals, Bord na nÓg aim to “proactively target ethnic groups living in the town and encourage them to join our club. Broaden our base of players and fulfil our social responsibility and club values as an inclusive club”.
“A huge amount of credit has to go to the people who are involved in our Bord na nÓg,” acknowledges O’Reilly.
“A lot of emphasis was put on skills and playing what we would believe is proper football – kicking the ball, kicking with both feet, being able to move the ball in long and short as well as ensuring all the right strength and conditioning work was being done too. The success in the county and Connacht in 2013 and ’15 also inspired these young men. Success breeds success and they all wanted to be there.
“I’d be confident of saying that responsibility is spread out evenly across the team and everyone takes on the mantle. At the same time, experience is something you have to work up. We still have a good bit of that and then we have the likes of Johnny Maughan, who is 19 and learning all the time. It’s a healthy mix.”
O’Reilly is happy with how Castlebar enter this, the club’s third provincial final in five years. “We’re looking good. We have no big injury worries.”
That Corofin await them in tomorrow’s Connacht final only whets the appetite particularly after their Trojan battles over the last four years and the Galway men having beaten them after losing the two previous exchanges.
There’s familiarity, O’Reilly agrees, but nothing in the way of hatred.
“There’s no contempt. We have the utmost respect for Corofin. They’re a top team. What they have done and achieved has been incredible. Tuam is a place we have had a bit of joy (they beat Corofin there in 2013 and ‘15), it’s a compact stadium and it holds no fear for us.
“We’re expecting a top-class hour of football. They have a really strong 15 and bench and we’ve been keeping an eye on them in the last couple of weeks and they enjoyed a great win over Brigids, who brought them to extra-time. Some of their scoring in that was impressive – 2-15 with 2-13 of it from play. I like their style of football. They know how to kick-pass. Often you see them putting two passes together to get a score. They’re all footballers and they know how to mix it up too.”
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