Just two days to go now until our Round 2A qualifier clash with Derry and although it’s eerily quiet at the minute it’ll be anything but at MacHale Park at 5pm on Saturday. We’ve lost our safety net – with the same amount of carelessness that we did twelve months ago, even if the circumstances of this latest loss to Galway were different from last year’s one – and so every time from here on that we take the field in this year’s championship it’s with the recognition that it could well be for the final time this summer.
Last year, mired in a similar predicament, we plotted a path all the way to the All-Ireland final, all the way to within a fingertip of ultimate glory. We don’t need telling – I had to laugh at Martin Breheny’s stat (he loves dredging up obscure facts, does Martin) in today’s Indo that no county has ever made it from Round 2 of the qualifiers to the final in successive years – that trudging that same road this summer is likely to prove even harder for us.
You largely make your own luck in life but we certainly got a few slices along the way last year to ease our path through the back door. Two home ties to start off with, then Westmeath in Round 4 (this year, if we get that far, it’ll almost certainly be either Cork or Kerry) and, thanks to Galway’s implosion, the gift that was Tipperary in the semi-final. If we do reach September this year, the road we’ll look back on will, for sure, be one littered with more significant hurdles than last year.
How well prepared are we to take that road once more? Writing in his tactics column in the Mayo News this week, Billy Joe Padden argues that Stephen Rochford’s team “have gone back considerably” since last year’s All-Ireland final replay. It’s difficult to argue against that.
The last time we had a player sent off in a high-profile match prior to Keith’s red card in Salthill was Lee Keegan in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry. Despite this, in the white heat of an All-Ireland semi-final tie, that day we produced one of the best halves of football we’ve ever conjured up against the team that ultimately went all the way that year. In Pearse Stadium earlier this month we had a moderate Galway team – let’s be honest here and acknowledge that they were nothing other than this – under the hammer and we failed to beat them, showing an alarming lack of composure in the closing stages.
Let’s not forget either that this year is the first time since 1978 that the county has failed for the second year in a row to reach the Connacht final. Sure, our run all the way to the All-Ireland final last year helps to mask that failure – and maybe a successful back door journey to the All-Ireland Series will do so again this year – but anyone who thinks this kind of provincial under-achievement doesn’t matter is kidding themselves.
I’ve always believed that for us to be in a position to punch our weight nationally we have to be masters of Connacht. If we’re not – and this has been the one constant of the Stephen Rochford era – then it’s difficult to see us continuing to compete at the business end of the championship.
But, of course, we’ve no right at this stage to be thinking about possible days out in Croke Park later in the summer. Because we’re in do-or-die land our only concern is how to get past Derry on Saturday. So we need to forget about everything and anything that might lie ahead further down the road. We don’t even need to be thinking about who we might pull in Round 3A on Monday morning. If we’re not capable of getting by Derry, then all that goes out the window, leaving next January’s FBD as the principal point of focus for us.
I have to admit that, despite our 1/6 odds and the 84% support for us in the poll here on the site, I’m seriously worried about Saturday’s match. Fermanagh gave us bucketloads last year and Derry are a better side than they are. Despite their current League status they’re well used to playing us and they have plenty of relatively recent experience of beating us too. They won’t fear playing us one little bit.
We’ve already shown this year – against Monaghan and Cavan – that we struggle to beat teams who set up defensively against us. Our build-up play is too slow and our tactic of kicking the ball into the inside forward line – usually into Andy who tends to get shepherded out to the wings leading to too frequent recycling, all too often done too slowly – isn’t paying sufficient dividends. If we approach Saturday’s game like we did those two League matches, it’s easy to see us getting into serious bother, not least given Derry’s ability to erect a solid defensive shield combined with the attacking qualities of players like James Kielt, Enda Lynn and Benny Heron.
Set against this, our League matches against Tyrone and Donegal showed that when our backs are to the wall we’re often at our best. To be fair to the team, that fighting spirit was well in evidence in parts in the Galway game too, in particular the period between Keith’s dismissal and half-time. If we’re to be in the hat for the Round 3A draw on Monday morning, however, we’ll need to see that kind of attitude being displayed for the whole seventy minutes.
So, the bottom line is that Saturday’s game is an absolutely huge one for us. A win won’t banish all the doubts but it would mark the first step on a possible road to redemption for us in this year’s championship. It’s a step we’re strongly fancied to take but only a significant improvement – both on the field and on the sideline – will ensure that this happens.