IT’S LIKELY AT least one of Galway or Mayo will head into tonight’s do-or-die round 4 qualifier clash without their best forward in the starting line-up.

The injury-enforced absences of Damien Comer and Cillian O’Connor have hung over their respective teams like a shadow this season.

Cillian O’Connor and Damien Comer have missed a large chunk of the season.

Neither player was expected to be out this long. In fact, both men were due to return at some point during the league. Comer and O’Connor suffered numerous setbacks that can often occur when dealing with long-term injuries. 

Comer’s struggles started with an “innocuous” foot injury he sustained during a charity soccer game on St Stephen’s Day. He suffered a fractured bone around the ankle area, but it wasn’t picked up when he went for an initial scan. He took some time out to rest but was still experiencing pain during his attempts to run on it.

With recovery proving slow, he went back for a second MRI and the fracture showed up this time around. His foot was initially put in a protective boot. He was sent to a consultant, who recommended surgery. It involved placing a screw into the ankle to repair it.

The 25-year-old explained in May: “I went into the surgeon and said, ‘Look it, I’m ready to go, if you give me a date tomorrow I’ll work with that.’”

Frustratingly, Comer was forced to wait three weeks before he went under the knife. “All you’re thinking is that this is three weeks is eating into when I’ll be back,” he said. 

Damien Comer made his comeback for his club last month.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

His post-surgery rehabilitation was supposed to involve six weeks in a boot and another six weeks of light work on the field before he’d be cleared to play. He was ruled out for their championship wins over London and Sligo.

His initial comeback target was the Connacht final on 16 June but Comer was still experiencing pain in his foot during straight-line running at the beginning of the month. 

He eventually made his competitive return to the field as a substitute with his club Annaghdown in the Galway SFC against Tuam Stars on 21 June. It sparked hopes that Comer would be fit to play some part in the round 4 qualifier, even if he has a lot of ground to make up. 

A welcome boost for Galway and Annaghdown as Damien Comer is togged ahead of the club’s clash with Tuam Stars at 8 #galwayfootball #GAA

— David Connors (@peterswellman) June 21, 2019

The majority of his team-mates have been in inter-county training since last November. He focused on cardio work during his lay-off and steered clear of pumping iron, which saw him shed a couple of kilos in weight.

Even if he makes the matchday 26, Kevin Walsh may be reluctant to throw the 2018 All-Star nominee into the fray with so little training under his belt. He may have no option, however.

Like Comer, O’Connor suffered his fair share of hiccups along the recovery trail. He reported feeling pain in his knee for about 18 months before he underwent keyhole surgery in December following Ballintubber’s defeat in the Connacht club final.

The issue wasn’t with his ligaments but rather a “small bit of wear and tear” just below the kneecap, according to O’Connor.

A Mayo statement on 13 December read: “Cillian O’Connor (knee) recently underwent surgery, we look forward to having him back on the pitch in the coming weeks.”

The weeks quickly turned into months. 

During a media appearance on 15 January, O’Connor said he was aiming to return to full training by early February with the intention of making his playing comeback by “mid to late March.”

O’Connor made his last start for Mayo in their ‘Newbridge or Nowhere’ loss to Kildare last summer.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

March came and went without any sign of O’Connor reappearing on the Mayo panel. He travelled with the squad for their league final win over Kerry but didn’t even tog out in Croke Park that afternoon.

O’Connor played his first competitive game for almost five months when came on as a second-half sub in Ballintubber Mayo’s SFC opening round win over neighbours Hollymount/Carramore on 14 April.

He didn’t make the 26 for Mayo’s Connacht semi-final defeat to Roscommon on 19 May. The 27-year-old got a 20-minute run-out in a challenge game against Clare on the weekend of 8/9 June – his first appearance for the county of 2019.

O’Connor was then surprisingly left out of the panel for their for the round 3 trip to Newry to face Down on 22 June – over two months after his appearance for Ballintubber. It suggested the star forward suffered another setback at some point along the way.

Horan said after the Down game that O’Connor was “very close” and would be “pushing for inclusion” for their round 4 clash the following weekend. 

That didn’t prevent the rumour mill going into overdrive, with reports of discipline issues and a fall-out between O’Connor and his manager. 

Horan was asked by reporters if there were any problems in the camp. 

“Absolutely nothing, not a thing,” he said, before adding that O’Connor “needs to get his fitness up.”

He continued: “It’s great that he’s back. He had a bad injury, he’s working with a great medical crew so he’s just trying to get him back. He was out for a number of months.”

With his brother Diarmuid ruled out for the season due to a broken wrist, Cillian finally appeared last weekend against Armagh. He arrived off the bench 48 minutes into a pulsating win over the Orchard in Castlebar.

Mayo supporters questioned afterwards how O’Connor could be fit to play 25 minutes against Armagh and failed to even make the bench a week earlier.

During his first appearance for the county since last year’s qualifier exit to Kildare, O’Connor curled over two frees to help steer Mayo to victory. He’s now in contention for a starting place this weekend.

The one positive of O’Connor’s absence was it paved the way for Darren Coen’s breakthrough into the starting XV. 

Darren Coen has scored 0-9 during the championship so far.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

A first cousin of midfielder Stephen, Coen was handed his debut against the Tribesmen during Horan’s previous stint as manager way back in 2013. He started that year’s Connacht final defeat of London, scoring a goal in their 5-11 to 0-10 defeat of the Exiles.

His last appearance of the 2013 championship was as a 53rd minute substitute in the All-Ireland quarter-final hammering of reigning champions Donegal. 

Coen made a few league appearances during Horan’s final season in charge in 2014 and was dropped from the panel the following year under Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly.

He failed to get much of a look-in under Stephen Rochford, although that was partly down to Hollymount/Carramore’s run to the All-Ireland intermediate final in 2016.

At 27-years-old, Coen is a decade removed from the starring role he played for the Mayo minors during their run to the All-Ireland final in 2009. His rise to prominence this summer has been even more unexpected considering the lack of game-time he enjoyed during the league.

He appeared in just three games, starting against Galway, Monaghan and the final versus Kerry. Coen scored 0-1 in all three games, but his scoring rates have soared in the summer. 

He was Mayo’s best player in their provincial exit against the Rossies, kicking five points from play on a night when his side shot 15 wides. A black card after 14 minutes cut his game against Down short, the only time in 2019 Coen finished a competitive inter-county match scoreless.

He returned to form in the narrow defeat of Armagh, shooting four points from play to finish as Mayo’s top point-scorer. 

Mayo’s running game suits Coen, who likes to come around on the loop and send over scores from distance. What he lacks in pace he more than makes up for with a booming kick. His height makes him an effective target man, which Mayo used to good effect against Armagh.

James Horan called Andy Moran ashore after 31 minutes against Armagh.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

If O’Connor does start, a potential inside forward line containing himself and Coen with Kevin McLoughlin as a runner in front of them would give Mayo a nice blend up front. 

Will Horan persist with Conor Loftus  and Andy Moran – who were held scoreless from play by Armagh – on his furthest line of attack? Loftus may be a better fit at centre-forward, where he hit 1-1 from play against Down, while Moran is a good option as an impact substitute when clear heads are required.

With Fionn McDonagh assured of a half-forward spot and Jason Doherty a guaranteed starter as long as he shook off an ankle injury, the final place may come down to a battle between Loftus and Ciaran Treacy. 

Galway, meanwhile, probably won’t throw Comer in from the off but Tribe supporters will be hoping to see their talisman at some point. His recent appearance for Annaghdown sparked hopes that he is finally clear of the troublesome foot injury that has ruined his season to date.

Galway struggled against Roscommon’s defensive web in the Connacht final. It took them 21 minutes to score in a second-half where they managed just a single point from play. Ian Burke and Antaine Ó Laoi are talented forwards but both are lightweight and play better with a target man to feed off.

It’s unlikely All-Star corner-forward Burke will be as quiet as he was against Roscommon and half-forward pair Shane Walsh and Michael Daly will get a good deal more space this time around.

Martin Farragher, who wasn’t introduced until the 69th minute against the Rossies, scored a hat-trick of goals for back-to-back All-Ireland club champions Corofin in the Galway SFC recently.

His addition from the outset would give extra impetus to Walsh’s full-forward line. If Galway could get 10 or 15 minutes out of Comer against a Mayo full-back line that is often left exposed by marauding half-backs, it’s a dangerous prospect.

Galway failed to defeat Mayo in Connacht from 2009 to 2015, suffering an embarrassing 4-16 to 0-11 hammering in Salthill six years ago. But Walsh’s side have turned a corner in recent seasons and are now seeking their fourth successive championship victory against Mayo. 

All in all it’s been a typical summer for Horan’s men, one packed with drama and excitement. A victory tonight, which would be their first over the Tribesmen in over four years, will secure their passage into the Super 8s.

It’s the sort of night where a piece of magic from O’Connor or Comer could prove the difference.

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