NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE DIVISION TWO NORTH - Round Three PREVIEW
By Daire Walsh
In stark contrast to its southern counterpart, the concluding round of Division Two North in the National Football League has an anti-climactic feel to it.
At 1.45pm on Sunday at Elvery’s MacHale Park in Castlebar, Mayo and Meath clash knowing that both teams are guaranteed a spot in the second-tier semi-finals. Conversely, Westmeath and Down’s game in TEG Cusack Park, Mullingar at the same time is between two teams who are already consigned to a place in the Division Two relegation play-offs.
Westmeath are somewhat unfortunate to find themselves in such a precarious position, having followed up a one-point defeat to rivals Meath on May 16 with a 0-21 to 2-12 reversal at the expense of Mayo on home soil just six days later. Their Mourne County opponents, on the other hand, can have very few complaints as regards their current predicament.
They were all of 13 points in arrears (2-21 to 1-11) at the end of their opening round meeting with Mayo in Castlebar, while last weekend saw them suffering a 2-15 to 0-14 loss to Meath. This game took place at the neutral venue of the Athletic Grounds in Armagh, after Down were stripped of home advantage as a consequence of their training breach at the beginning of the year.
The northerners were promoted from Division Three in 2020, but have a considerable job on their hands if they are to avoid an automatic return to the third-tier of the NFL. A morale-boosting win on Sunday would be welcomed by team manager Paddy Tally and his selectors, particularly with an Ulster SFC preliminary round game against Division One outfit Donegal looming on the horizon.
Down do have some reliable dead-ball strikers in the form of Barry O’Hagan and Paul Devlin - the latter registering five pointed frees in their defeat to Meath. Stephen McConville has been their sole goalscorer to date but while Corey Quinn shone at full-forward the last day out, they will need a stronger contribution from their attacking sextet.
Westmeath had been on the verge of getting one over on their arch nemesis Meath at Pairc Tailteann a fortnight ago as they developed a 0-13 to 0-9 cushion with just 14 minutes remaining. John Heslin and Luke Loughlin led the way for the Lake County on this day, amassing a combined tally of 10 points.
Ger Egan also registered a brace of scores, but Meath simply refused to throw in the towel. Channeling the never-say-die attitude that was a trademark of the county’s very best teams, the Royal fired over seven points in the final-quarter to earn a hard-fought 0-16 to 0-15 victory.
The dynamic duo of Heslin and Loughlin once more stood up to be counted in their subsequent meeting with Mayo. Whereas Heslin came away with 1-6 - including an ice-cool converted penalty - the latter finished with an impressive tally of 1-2 to his name.
The Leinster men were just one point behind at the second half water break and kept the gap at a bare minimum as the final whistle approached. A brace of Cillian O’Connor frees helped to edge Mayo over the line, but Westmeath could take great heart from the manner of their performance.
They will be acutely aware that they will need to back up these encouraging performances over the next few weeks if they have designs on preserving their Division Two status. A first victory for 2021 in Mullingar this weekend would be a good place to start.
There is always great interest in the travails of Mayo - both inside and outside of the county - and this remains the case despite their relegation to Division Two for this year.
A raft of retirements has robbed James Horan of valuable big-time experience, but inside forward Cillian O’Connor continues to lead from the front. The Ballintubber man has contributed eight points apiece in their two games date, with 15 of his 16 scores coming from placed-balls.
There was a good spread across the Mayo team in their first round success over Down, with Tommy Conroy (1-3), Ryan O’Donoghue (1-1) and Matthew Ruane (0-2) amongst those to impress. Ruane also bagged two points in their narrow victory against Westmeath, when roving defender Paddy Durcan (0-3) and Conor Loftus (0-2) chipped in with invaluable efforts.
Aside from O’Connor and Durcan, the green and red are backboned by hardened performers like Rob Hennelly, Lee Keegan and Kevin McLoughlin. Although still only 26 years of age, O’Connor’s younger brother Diarmuid has already featured extensively for his county at the business end of both league and championship.
Mayo boss Horan has been integrating a succession of newcomers into his set-up since returning to the hot seat for the 2019 season and this weekend would be a perfect opportunity to test out a few more hopefuls.
At the same time, he may want to avoid defeat heading into a forthcoming semi-final against one of the top-two in Division Two South and their recent encounters with Meath suggests they won’t have everything their own way on Sunday. In last year’s Division One showdown between the two teams, Mayo squeezed past their eastern opponents on a scoreline of 1-9 to 2-5.
Their Super 8s meeting in the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship of 2019 was in the melting pot for large stretches, before a late surge secured the Connacht side a 2-17 to 0-14 victory.
Meath ended the 2020 league without a win to their name and looked set to extend this run until their final-quarter blitz gave them two points at Westmeath’s expense in the opening round of Division Two North. No fewer than 12 players got their names on the scoresheet for Andy McEntee’s charges in this game, with only Jordan Morris, Cillian O’Sullivan and Bryan McMahon registering multiple scores.
Having claimed 0-5 between them in this tie, Morris and O’Sullivan followed up with an outstanding total of 2-8 in their emphatic triumph over Down. Morris’ seven-point haul included three points from play, while O’Sullivan - a brother of Leinster rugby scrum-half Hugh - bagged both of his side’s goals.
Last year saw Meath competing in Division One for the first time since 2006 and they will want to make sure that this becomes a more regular occurrence over the next few seasons. Regardless of what happens on Sunday, they are just one game away from an automatic return to the top-flight.
Getting the better of a genuine All-Ireland contender like Mayo could send out a statement on paper, but it is entirely possible that they could meet again before the league comes to an end