In normal times our first competitive match of the year would be played in deep winter, before January was over. But these aren’t normal times and so instead it’s the middle of May when this year’s National League gets underway.
Regardless of the timing, though, it’s great to have the football – and the hurling and the camogie – back once more. Sport is part of what makes so many of us tick and its return is an important milestone as we seek to rediscover some kind of normality on the road to what will hopefully be a post-Covid world.
The scars from the pandemic are visible in so much of what we do – and cannot do – and the GAA fixtures calendar is no different. This is the League but not as we know it, a truncated warmer-upper campaign that now dovetails into the straight knockout Championship that follows immediately afterwards.
It’s not for nothing, then, that James Horan said some weeks ago that there would be a ‘shotgun start’ to this year’s action. He’s right – every team will seek to come roaring out of the traps today, all with the aim of building precious momentum to carry them through this shortened League and onto the more significant challenges facing them straight away after that.
So it’s a very different kind of NFL Round 1 day today. We’ve another significant layer of difference to cope with too, of course, as we’re operating in Division Two of the competition this year, outside of the top tier for the first time in 24 years.
This will mean less focus on us over the next few weeks and there’ll be less national interest on us too, unless, of course, we find the going hard in Division Two North. But that stuff is only noise in any event so James and his players will want to keep concentrated on the matches that are there to be played and to be won.
Down provide the year’s first challenge for us this afternoon at MacHale Park (throw-in 2pm) and a potentially tricky one it is too. We’ve often found – in particular in more recent times – Ulster counties tough to deal with in the League and those difficulties are compounded when we play Northern teams on home turf, where our recent record is nothing short of abysmal.
So the Mourne County will travel to Castlebar today with plenty of confidence about their ability to make life tough for us. A win for them would represent a major scalp – when a so-called ‘big’ team slips, everyone relishes a cut off them – so if we’re to win today it’s a win we’re going to have to earn.
I think, though, with the team we’ve picked we’re well set to make a positive start to the year. Eleven of today’s starting fifteen were on the field at some point in last year’s All-Ireland final and although the bench details aren’t yet available you’d have to think we’ve a few strong performers in there too to give us the required lift to get us over the line today.
You have to go as far back as Round 7 of the 2019 campaign for the last time we won a League game at MacHale Park. But get this – our opponents that March day were Monaghan and we emerged then from a high-scoring encounter to book our place in a Division One final we so memorably won.
It would mark a perfect start to 2021 for us if we could bookend that win over an Ulster county with another one today. That’s got to be the aim and the best of luck to James and the lads – especially debutants Enda Hession and Rory Brickenden – in their endeavours today.
A quick mention for the two other Mayo teams who are also in action at 2pm this afternoon. Both the hurlers and the camogie team face League encounters against Roscommon, the former at Hyde Park and the latter at Ballyforan, and both matches are being streamed for free. The link for the hurling match is here and the one for the camogie game is here. Happy hunting to both of them in their respective battles against the Rossies.
Back later on with reports on the day’s action, including the first MOTM poll of the year. Yes, it’s good to have all this match-day fun back again. Up Mayo!