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Dublin: 21°C Sunday 13 June 2021

Barrett: 'It’s the most competitive Mayo squad that I’ve ever been involved in'

Mayo are in their first league decider since 2012.

Chris Barrett pictured at the Allianz Football League finals launch.
Chris Barrett pictured at the Allianz Football League finals launch.
Image: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

MAYO HAVE MADE it back to their first Division 1 final since 2012 and they’ve achieved the feat by blooding a number of youngsters for the first time at senior level.

James Horan’s second coming as Mayo boss has seen him regularly rotate his squad throughout the league campaign, giving vital minutes to fresh talent he hopes can have an impact in the championship.

Last weekend their initial matchday 26 didn’t feature veterans Andy Moran, Lee Keegan, Keith Higgins and Colm Boyle. Although Boyle was added to the bench as a late replacement for the injured Michael Plunkett, he wasn’t required on the field.

Much of Mayo’s older guard have been on the road since Horan’s first stint in charge, but the squad now has a replenished look to it.

“There are five or six guys that have really put their hands up,” says defender Chris Barrett.

“It shows in training and trying to get into 26. Getting into a squad now is nearly as big as getting into a team. Back in the day maybe you were looking for the first 15 whereas now I think it’s the most competitive squad that I’ve ever been involved in.

“There’s a real ‘am I in the 26 or not?’ now rather than in the first 15. That’s probably down a load of the younger lads putting their hands up this springtime.

“Cillian (O’Connor) has been out, Seamie (O’Shea) has been out, there’s chances there for everyone to get involved and they’ve really been pushing us a couple of months into 2019.”

There’s plenty of young talent in the county, considering they won the All-Ireland U21 crown in 2015 and made it to the U20 decider last year.

Fionn McDonagh Fionn McDonagh runs at the Dublin defence. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Of the newcomers, Fionn McDonagh and Matthew Ruane are likely to nail down starting places for the summer.

Cian Hanley and Ryan O’Donoghue are still working their way back to full fitness after undergoing knee and ankle operations respectively in the off-season, but both have the talent to have an impact in the championship.

A host of other players will be battling it out for a place on the matchday squad as Mayo look to regain the Connacht title they last lifted in 2015.

“You always need a bit of pressure on your back,” continues Barrett.

“I think sometimes, there’s a perception out there that we’re an older team but when you look at the likes of Diarmuid (O’Connor), Paddy (Durcan) and Stephen Coen, people might think they’ve been around for years but those guys are only 22, 23.

“They’ve been coming the last few years so it’s the newer batch this year. Michael Plunkett, Fionn McDonagh, Fergal Boland has been doing really well. Conor Diskin, Conor Loftus, my own clubmate Eoin O’Donoghue.

“There is really a good crop of young fellas coming up. It’s great to see and they really are pushing us.”

Barrett believes it’s the strongest panel he’s been involved in during his senior career. 

“I definitely do think in terms of the quantity of quality. I think we’ve always had extremely talented players in the squad.

“Getting that extra, even if it’s one or two guys that you know might not start but will come on and impact a game, that’s really what we’re trying to develop. I think it was 34 players we used during the league.

“It’s great to see and it’s about building the squad. It might not necessarily someone who’s in the starting 15 and kicking the lights out but it could be the guy who comes on with ten minutes to go who has a bit of experience under his belt and a bit of confidence under his belt.

“He can come on and deliver the messages, what the coaches expect from him when he comes in. 

“It’s probably where Dublin have been so successful in the last few years. They do have that ability to finish a game stronger than they started it.”

James Horan Mayo boss James Horan. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Mayo lost three All-Ireland finals to Dublin since 2013 by a single point. The strength of Dublin’s bench was viewed as a major reason for their ability to pull out the victories in the closing stages.

Eoghan O’Gara, Cormac Costello, Bernard Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly and Kevin McManamon are some of the star forwards Jim Gavin was able to call upon when the finals were in the melting pot over the years to help Dublin over the line.

“The more depth the better. Hopefully the young fellas keep shooting the lights out and we’ll see a few of them here at the weekend as well.”

Mayo take on Kerry on Sunday with the chance to deliver a first national title since 2001 and David Clarke is the only active player in the squad with a league medal.  

“I think getting to a league final, it is what it is,” says Barrett.

“The main thing for us is it gives us an extra game to continue to work on what we’ve been really concentrating on over the league campaign in terms of our own game. Working on being progressive and the things James and the backroom team have identified we need to really zone in on come summer time. 

“It gives us an extra game against a top quality opponent to show our stuff and it gives another chance for guys to put their hands up – be it the older guys or younger guys. So that’s what we’re focusing on.”

Allianz Football League Division 1 & 2 Finals preview event Paul Murphy and Chris Barrett at Croke Park for the Allianz Football League Division 1 and 2 finals preview event. Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

At 31, Barrett has a few years left in him yet and while winning a Celtic Cross remains the ultimate goal, he’s grateful for the experiences he’s had with Mayo.

“I suppose once you can see the end of your career coming it’s always a focus in the back of your mind that you would like to win one before you finish. But I think as you get older as well you actually start to appreciate the actual experiences.

“Maybe when I was 25 and 26 and someone asked you what the be all and end all of it was you’d say it would be winning an All-Ireland and retiring without doing that would be a disaster. 

“But, looking back on it now as you grow a bit older and wiser, the experiences we’ve had as a team are phenomenal. Just to have the ability to run out here (in Croke Park) on Sunday in front of however many thousand people. 

“We’ve been lucky as a Mayo team to get to finals and play on the huge days in Croke Park. When I do hang up my boots, whether there’s an All-Ireland or not, obviously I’d prefer if we did, but I wouldn’t be looking back with a huge sense of regret. I’d be remembering all the experiences I’ve had with my team-mates.”

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