Philips pleased with increased Mayo focus on Aisling McGing All-Ireland U21 championship

IN June of last year, Mayo, Armagh, Meath, Cavan, Dublin, Galway and Cork gathered for the Aisling McGing All-Ireland U21 championship blitz in Portmarnock.

After the day, which saw Dublin crowned as champions for a third successive year, Mayo left for home without winning a game.

There and then, Mayo manager Des Philips vowed that 2017 would be different.

After all, the competition honours the memory of Aisling McGing, one of their own who captured an All-Ireland senior medal in 2002, but who was tragically killed in 2003.

This time, there’s been a much better buy-in.

Philips reckons, too, that the revamped nature of the competition has helped, and pays tribute to the senior county players on his squad who displayed a huge willingness to get involved, even as they dealt with the bitter disappointment of defeat to Dublin last September.

Shauna Howley’s injury has deprived her of the chance to play while Carnacon’s Doireann Hughes won’t be available as her club gears up for the All-Ireland senior club semi-final against Tyrone’s St Macartans.

In the half-back line, however, Mayo do have Rachel Kearns and Rebecca O’Malley from the senior squad to call upon.

Fiona Doherty suffered TG4 All-Ireland senior final heartbreak against Dublin.

Fiona Doherty and Annie Duffy will hold down the midfield positions and in the full-forward line, Natasha Gaughan and Emma Needham will provide senior experience.

Philips says: “There’s good experience and good girls who played minor last year, who have come through as well.

“After the performance last year, a lot of the girls said that when it came around to next year, they wanted to prepare properly.

“It’s in memory of one of our girls, and a good effort has gone into our preparation.

“Personally, I didn’t know Aisling but it was a big shock to everyone at the time, when a young life goes like that.”

Remarkably, Mayo are appearing in just their first Aisling McGing All-Ireland U21 final next Sunday, when they tackle Connacht rivals Galway at St Croan’s GAA club in Roscommon (1.30pm).

Galway have played in two previous finals, last year and in 2013, and a new name will be inscribed on the Memorial Cup.

Between them, Dublin and Cork have ruled the roost at U21 level, carving up ten titles between them since 2007.

2017 senior winner Carla Rowe captained Dublin to Aisling McGing All-Ireland U21 final glory in 2015.

But Mayo’s emphasis on doing well has paid dividends, and Philips believes that the knock-on effect could be seen in future years.

He explained: “It’s much better organised this year, in fairness, and you’d have to give credit to Croke Park for that.

“It’s a competition that can go from strength to strength if we work with it.

“There are a lot of girls who weren’t involved since minor and it’s great to see them back.

“There are girls back in here and I’d be very surprised not to see them get a chance at senior level in the coming year or two.

“The potential is there and to get back playing with the county will give them the confidence to get on a senior panel.”

Players who have already tasted senior experience are leading the way for Philips and Mayo.

And he reveals how keen they were to commit to the U21 grade, even in the aftermath of the senior loss to Dublin.

Philips says: “They wanted to knuckle down and they’ve done that, and worked hard in training.

“Even after the disappointment of losing the (senior) All-Ireland, it was great to see the girls eager to get back into it.

“They took a week off and we had training then on the following Friday night, so they were back in 12 days.

“Possibly they might have come back earlier but I wanted to give them a week off to get over it themselves, before putting any pressure on.

“They were mad to get back in and haven’t missed any training sessions.”

As Mayo look to honour Aisling McGing’s memory in the best possible fashion, the omens are good.