It’s good to be back.
Back writing for the blog. Back in a Connacht Final. Back against Galway. Back in Croke Park.
The last one might tickle some people up the wrong way and in any other circumstance I’d be up in arms too but, for one year, we’ll take the road trip and loss of home advantage. In truth, if you take the last six years into account, we’ve been more dominant in Croke Park than we have been in MacHale Park anyway.
We shouldn’t treat it as an away game, or a neutral venue, more so a home away from home – like a possible villa out in Spain that sits idly in the sunshine for most of the year while you spend 90% of your time in rain-soaked Ireland.
But who’d want Spain at the moment? I’m sitting in my back garden in Dublin with my sleeves rolled up like a Trevor Giles wannabe typing furiously away while I stream the U20 game on my phone.
Watching one generation while talking about the current one.
The sun is beaming down and the rest of the week is promised the same but I’m wishing those days away. I want to rush through life because all I care about is getting into GAA HQ on Sunday.
There was panic stations Monday morning trying to buy tickets. With myself and my good friend and housemate Matt working side by side and checking queues while dipping in and out of meetings, there was a fear that we’d miss out on the golden ones.
I got into the GAA ticket website and immediately got kicked back out and to the back of the queue but technology was kind to Matt, letting him stock up on ten tickets at once – something which I still don’t know how he managed to do. I text the mate group chats and he text the family chats – call the search off, we’re sorted.
We spent the rest of the morning concocting our Sunday morning plans for the pilgrimage to the old stomping ground. Prior family arrangements mean I’ll be making my way down to Mayo on Friday and all the way back up Sunday morning. A long trek in total but one that is kind of exciting me.
I’ve talked about the buzz of the journey setting off on the bus from Dublin before and rowing in with green and red heads from O’Connell Street onwards as you march en masse towards Croker.
But the trip from Mayo is all the more special, you have all of that and more. Get up early, get in the car and the tunes are on. You know every inch of the road from Partry through to Ballinrobe and Headford with Cross or Shrule in between, whichever is your poison. And why wouldn’t you know it? You spent years marking the path on your way up and down from college, nights out or even trips to your ‘new home’ there.
By the time you get to Galway you’d be bumper to bumper with cars swelled with Mayo colours inside but this time it’ll be different to any other instance when we’ve travelled to Dublin. This time, as you cut corners at Ballindooley and shoot past Ballybrit, you’ll see the sea of maroon and white tailback in your mirror and you’ll end up thinking “I should have left earlier”.
It’s a big loss for MacHale Park, for Connacht football, for locals who aren’t as blessed as you or I, that a game featuring these two giants isn’t played in either Castlebar, Tuam or Salthill.
If Croke Park can allow 18,000 in, surely MacHale Park could let in 7-9k?
But on the flip side of that, isn’t it great to see these two gigantic GAA giants going head to head finally. Exactly two decades since we last met them in the place. Both counties ended up with trophies that year – you don’t need to remind either side who won what.
Willie Joe warned me to refrain from getting too deep into the rivalry side of things but that’s a hard thing to do when you’ve friends, family and a girlfriend who are all topped to the neck with Galway blood.
The last time we met in Croke Park was the same year I backed Galway for the All-Ireland win.
I was six.
I was watching the game in Breslin’s, now known as Herathy’s, in Drummin with my auld lad and I brazenly walked around to a few punters betting them a pound that Galway would win. I didn’t know how good Galway were, I didn’t know how good Meath were. I didn’t know anything about football only that I liked playing it and watching it.
I grew up to find out that both had caused Mayo some heartache but nevertheless, the chosen few I went up to punted their finest punt against me – dad would have gotten some shock at the final whistle if I was waddling up to him with my hands out looking for a couple of pound – no not for coke, or crisps or for the pool table but to pay my pounds of flesh.
That never happened as we know though, and I debt collected my worth and shoved the coins down my pocket and held them there until they were safe in my piggy bank that night (queue joke about me still having that money).
That’s my first memory of Galway football.
I’ve filled paragraphs before about the rivalry between the two counties.
I’ve Galway friends who would cheer on Mayo in a semi-final if we beat them on Sunday. I’ve friends who would happily pull on a Dublin jersey before they’d dream of supporting their neighbours. I get it, I’m sure it’s the same here.
I’ve huge respect for the people and the place. Connections or no connections, it’s a city where I spent four of the best years of my life and will look to return to again in the near future.
There’s always talk about rivalry with these two but there’s respect there too.
I grew up hating Padraic Joyce once I had an inkling about football but, as the years go on, I don’t know if I hated him because he played for Galway or because he didn’t play for us!
But above any of that hatred is admiration. A Year ’Till Sunday is a bi-annual watch in our house. Fancy Dans, Liquid Football, Fallon, De Paor, Donnellan, Mannion, Meehan, the glory – I always hoped that Mayo had something similar waiting in the wings if we ever did it.
It’s not just on our side either.
I’ve never once met a Galway man who hasn’t wished that Ciaran MacDonald played for them, that Willie Joe Padden wasn’t from Headford – even in recent years some have told me how they’d kill to have a ‘keeper half as reliant as David Clarke and rightly so.
There is huge respect there and none more so than in my whole life.
Last year, I watched the Connacht final in Tuam with my girlfriend, her sister and her boyfriend. Three Galway people against one. Seventy minutes of roaring and shouting at the TV but no slagging, no insults but maybe a few rows over questionable decisions.
And when the full-time whistle went, everyone’s heads were dancing in either temper or delight but nobody said anything only ‘hard luck’ or ‘good game’.
At one stage, herself’s brother-in-law said “lad you may celebrate you know”.
I kept it cool but, in my head, I was thinking about how good it would feel simply walking through the streets of Tuam with the Mayo jersey on me. Strolling. You don’t need to talk to be heard after a victory like that. That picture alone speaks volumes.
The build-up to this game has been the same between myself and herself. Quiet enough.
We bought two gnomes on a recent trip to Limerick – yeah, we’re getting old.
We were walking past this shop when we spotted a Galway hurling gnome and a Mayo footballing gnome in the window. Take our money please, sir.
Damo Gnomer and Pat Gnolmes we’ve decided to call them.
They had been sitting on the pavement for fear of getting smothered in the long grass but yesterday I cut the lawn and in the middle of the patch of grass in my back garden I placed the two gnomes side by side.
Much like myself and herself, they sit close beside each other silent for the moment, talking about anything except the game.
But once the whistle goes on Sunday, like whoever lines up in the middle of the park for both sides, they’ll take to the grass shoulder to shoulder and the war will be on.
In terms of the match, the one big piece of news coming out of the Galway camp is that Shane Walsh is fit. Much like Joyce those many moons ago, this is the type of player I’d love to see in a Mayo jersey.
He’s pacey, he’s smart, left foot, right foot, placed kicks or long-range, he’s got it all in his locker on a fine day.
It’s a risky call but something is in my waters that Paddy Durkan will be deployed to watch him on Sunday, that’s if the likes of Lee Keegan isn’t fit.
I don’t think it would have an effect on Durcan’s game if he was given that task. He has pockets of energy and stamina to do that gig successfully and still march up the field and kick a few himself.
Maybe that’s what’s needed, what better way to counteract their talisman by putting one of the most problematic attacking backs in the country on him. Walsh won’t want someone who he has to mark just as much as they mark him.
The main talking point has to be, what you think will be, the two towering full forwards at either end – Comer and O’Shea.
I rewatched Kieran Donaghy’s Laochra Gael on TG4 when it was rerun after the fill of sport on Sunday.
Fittingly, ahead of this game, he talked about his transition from midfield to full-forward. He said “it wasn’t exactly revolutionary, put the big man up front, but it worked”.
It’s not the move of a tactical genius for sure but it’s one that’s paid dividends for both counties.
Comer is scary in that area. He’s dangerous, Dublin didn’t know how to handle him when he played there in the semi-final in 2018.
His continuing misfortune with injuries aside, any time he’s been on the pitch in that pocket, he’s been tricky. But what’s striking about him, and what happened that day against Dublin, is he doesn’t stay put.
He’s floating about in the half line or in midfield always wanting to get involved but there’s a part of you thinking “wouldn’t you be better inside, causing a bit of ruckus”.
The opposite is said of AOS. His position over the last decade has been versatile to say the least. This year he seems glued once again to that 14 shirt which often leaves some wondering “are we getting the best out of him in there?” Or is he wasted?
For this game I think, yes. Absolutely leave him put. If I was AOS I would be parked on top of the keeper’s gloves with instruction from Horan to pump some early balls in nice and high.
Galway’s ‘keeper troubles have been painfully obvious – between Lavelle, Gleeson and Power not one has been solid between the sticks and Joyce’s inability to pick one and stick with one shows his indecisiveness with them too.
And the last man any of those three ‘keepers want to see standing on their toes is big Aido.
The buzzcut of Comer has made him look (who thought it was possible) even more intimidating but there’s only two luscious locks who can keep tabs on the skinhead – surely a job for either O’Hora or Mullin.
The midfield battle is tough to call – Tierney and Ruane – two youngsters both named Matthew have excelled as their respective side’s best prospects for the many days to come.
Asking me who’d field the first ball between them two is like quizzing me on what way the coin will land on the field.
I feel the man with the Mayo blood could slice defensive arteries open too. Robert Finnerty much like his iconic Mayo dad is lethal in front of goal.
In a recent interview with the sports publication The 42, he said that dad Anthony supports Galway now, even when they’re playing Mayo. You can be sure he’d love nothing more than to break his poor father’s ancestral heart – another one Keegan or Durcan could be tasked with or even possibly Eoghan McLaughlin.
It goes without saying that Cillian is a big miss – Like going into battle and leaving your weapon on the kitchen table. But I believe our attack is the strongest its looked in a while.
With youth and pace on the side of Conroy and O’Donoghue who are goal hungry; added in with the winning mentality and scoring prowess of Darren McHale; topped off with the ability to deactivate any blanket defence – if Galway wish to revert back to old ways – by using the long-range kicking of Darren Coen.
Did we mention the possibility of Diarmuid O’Connor being fit?
That’s a pack of forwards that is enough to make any Mayo man salivate but they’ll have their work cut out for them too. No more than our backs, Galway’s men in the shed love going on an adventure too.
I was lucky to witness Sean Kelly and Kieran Molloy come up through the ranks while I was PRO of NUIG GAA. You just knew there was something special about them.
Kelly is like a Nissan Micra with a Ferrari engine while Molloy’s tales of playing competitive matches for Corofin and NUIG on the same day are perfect to warrant the words – enough said.
They don’t know when to stop, they don’t know when they’re beaten.
I’m confident. The head says Mayo but then the uncertainties creep in. What did we learn from Division Two? Not a whole pile. Did Galway benefit more, albeit being beaten twice, in Division One?
One thing is for sure, there’ll be no hammerings. It’ll be a 1-3 point margin. And I just feel Mayo would have enough from experience to get the job done.
Horan doesn’t lose Connacht Finals, Mayo don’t lose when they know it’s all or nothing, and most of all, we don’t want to lose especially when it’s Galway.
On Sunday evening, nothing will be said to the winner or the loser in our house, only ‘hard luck’ or ‘best of luck in the semi’.
But, in the garden, one of the two gnomes will be knocked over, lying flat on the green while the other gnome stands over it victorious – because you don’t need to talk to be heard after beating your neighbours. An image, a scene, a picture like that one speaks volumes for itself.