After five years of breezing through the Connacht Championship, the men from the west, now have to navigate the back door for the second season in a row.
The qualifier route gave fresh impetus to Mayo last season as they ran Dublin to the pin of their collar in an All-Ireland final that they should have won. However, it was the Dubs who went the steps of the Hogan Stand and secured the Sam McGuire Cup. It added to Mayo’s barren run, the curse living on.
The aftermath of that final saw a barrage of social media posts as Mayo’s key players told the nation that they would be back. Few doubted this, of course, they were the second best team in Ireland in 2016.
However, defeat to Galway in this year’s Connacht Championship has opened up the doubters again. Sure another qualifier run is a distinct possibility, however, it is not guaranteed.
This Saturday, Clare provide a stiff test for Stephen Rochford’s side. Having to go down to Ennis, and play a confident, capable Banner side will be tough for the 46-time Connacht champions.
Clare, under the guidance of Colm Collins, defeated Laois with relative ease in Portlaoise last weekend as they bid to prove that their run to last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final was no fluke.
Wins over Laois, Sligo and Roscommon turned a lot of heads in 2016 and the fact that they finished in a respectable fifth place in Division 2, proves that this Clare football team is a talented one.
With the likes of Eoin Cleary, who scored 0-09 last weekend in attack, with goal-scorers in O’Moore Park, Keelan Sexton and Jamie Malone also top players, this side have a deadly attack. They are capable of putting up a big score and causing a lot of headaches for Mayo.
Add to that, the veteran midfielder Gary Brennan and it will take a good effort to get past the Munster side.
Despite needing extra time to get past Derry, Rochford and his management team will be delighted with how they performed in the extra 20 minutes. With the fast-paced nature of the qualifiers where the games come thick and fast, there are both positives and negatives to the extra time.
Fitness should not be a problem at this time of year and it can be said that Mayo got an extra chance to play themselves into form – something that wouldn’t have happened had they sneaked a one-point win after 70 minutes.
But travelling to Ennis, Mayo won’t have it easy. In the league, Clare beat Down and Cork in Cusack Park, although were well beaten by a promotion-chasing Meath in their final home game. They did score five goals in their three home games, proving their attacking potential.
However, Mayo have a decent record on the road. Admittedly, they were hammered by Dublin in the NFL, but this came either side of wins in Tralee and Omagh.
Mayo will need to bring that form to Ennis in they are to win. To call this a banana skin tie, is unfair to Clare, but to say anything other than Mayo are favourites would not be accurate either.
Mayo will have to be at their best, or at least pretty close to get the win a progress to the last 12.
While the result will most likely be in doubt until the very end of proceedings, one thing is for sure, we have the potential for a fantastic knockout game on Saturday.
Joel Slattery, Pundit Arena
Check out this week’s episode of The 16th Man, where we look ahead to this weekend’s action.