10:49am: “We’re sorry, but we couldn’t find any events”
10.51am: “You are now in line……………1,759 people in front of you”
11.07am: “You are now in line……………689 people in front of you”
God, I really hate queuing for Mayo tickets online. Technology and I are not friends at the best of times. Give me a physical ticket put into my hand by an actual person any day of the week instead of this torture. Fortunately, sometime around 12.00pm, I secured two tickets for the Connaught final in Croke Park this Sunday.
In these novel times coming out (hopefully) of a pandemic, I am finding it difficult to gauge the level of interest or desire for Mayo fans to travel to Dublin for this game. I reckon there will be a sizeable contingent in Croker on Sunday to cheer on the Green and Red.
For those who decide not to travel, I can absolutely understand that decision from both a health and financial perspective. Many people are not comfortable travelling to Dublin and congregating with bigger crowds than we have been used to for 18 months. Also with no concessions for kids, tickets for a family of 2 adults and 2 kids will set you back €140 which is a fairly hefty outlay before you even throw in food and travel costs. It may be a day for the ham sandwiches.
From a footballing perspective, I think James Horan and his team will be pleased with the choice of venue. I’m sure Pádraic Joyce and his young guns are licking their lips at the prospect too and could well flourish in the wide expanse of Croke Park. However, I’m just looking with my thick green and red tinted glasses and I think the likes of Mullin, Durcan, McLaughlin, Ruane, Conroy, O’Donoghue will be raring for road on Sunday.
Looking at the bigger picture, Mayo want another crack at an All-Ireland. Be it Galway or Mayo that emerge on Sunday, surely having an additional game in Croke Park is beneficial for any of the chasing contenders before facing into a likely All Ireland semi-final against a Dublin juggernaut with all its pre-existing advantages. The more days our lads have in Croke Park the better would be my view and our record over the last decade has been very good.
Barring defeats to Dublin (of which there have been a few I concede) we have mostly had good days. Indeed the last team to beat Mayo apart from Dublin in Croke Park was Donegal in the All Ireland final of 2012. We have beaten the likes of Kerry, Meath, Tipperary, Tyrone, Cork and Donegal in Croke Park and those experiences should benefit us on Sunday.
To be fair, whilst difficult for many, like Willie Joe of this parish it’s handy enough for me to go to the game as a Mayo man exiled in the capital. I will hop on a train and be in Drumcondra in 15 minutes. I say hop and I mean that literally having fractured my ankle playing football out the back with my young lad last weekend in Swinford and ending up in Castlebar A&E. Unfortunately, I now realise my attempts at Ciarán McDonald style outside of the boot shots came at a heavy cost so if you see an eejit hobbling into the Davin Stand on crutches around 1pm on Sunday, that will be me.
Whilst Sunday won’t see every loyal Mayo fan in attendance, we can all agree it is great to have the option to go to a game again. The 2020 championship just didn’t have the same allure and addiction as all the other wonderful years I have had following my county. As superbly as the team did in reaching the final in December, and don’t get me wrong I’d have bitten your hand off for the win if we got it, there was just something missing.
That something was supporters and getting swept away on the Mayo rollercoaster. It was hard to feel as invested or have that same level of solidarity with your fellow Mayo man and woman when you are watching the game on TV with a can of Guinness and a box of Pringles beside you. We all missed the trips to MacHale Park or The Hyde, less so traffic in Salthill. We longed for the tours of Ireland when we embarked on adventures to exotic locations such as Newry, Limerick, Ennis, less so Newbridge!
So I will gladly welcome being able to bring the young lad to a unique Connaught final against old rivals Galway in Croke Park. As a Mayo fan in Dublin, he needs his fix of Mayo games so we don’t lose him to the other side! The last game we attended was a narrow defeat to Kerry in Castlebar in last year’s League on 1st March 2020. I couldn’t have imagined then that it would be 17 months before we would get to the next one. Here’s hoping there are a couple more trips to Croker for us before the summer is out.
Anyway, I have majorly digressed from the main purpose of this piece. In the build-up to the big game on Sunday, I took a step back to try to gauge how we stack up in the list of remaining challengers to dethrone the Dubs. Last weekend’s provincial semi-finals in Ulster and Leinster saw the departures from this year’s championship of Armagh and Donegal, and Westmeath and Meath respectively. That leaves just eight counties remaining in this year’s race for Sam. Annoying rhyming intended, here is how I rate the state of the last eight.
1. Dublin (2021 Record – W5 D1 L0)
Whilst not operating at full tilt by their usual impeccable standards, the Dubs unquestionably remain the team to beat. Dessie Farrell’s side are the reigning Leinster and All-Ireland champions and are seeking their scarcely believable seventh Sam Maguire in a row. Their league campaign was quiet and unremarkable but still resulted in a joint league title (along with Kerry) having secured victories over Roscommon, Galway and Donegal as well as a high scoring draw with Kerry in Thurles.
In the championship to date, Dublin have not looked like the Leinster behemoth they have been for the last decade where they regularly trounce all opponents that come before them. In the Leinster quarter-final, they laboured to a 0-15 to 0-7 victory over a Division 4 team in Wexford and on Sunday, the margin of victory over Meath was just six points.
That said, in the first half there were glimpses of the Dubs we have come to expect as they blew Meath away with two killer goals through Con O’Callaghan and a Cormac Costello penalty. The jig was up for Meath at that stage as Dublin raced into an unassailable lead. However, the way Dublin let Meath come back into the game, and get within three points in the closing stages will be of concern to Farrell but Dublin killed the game at the death to advance safely through to another Leinster final.
There have been a few off the field issues that Dublin have had to deal with too which has led to some unwanted attention. Over the winter, Dublin were caught training collectively in breach of COVID regulations and Farrell was served a three-month ban during the league campaign. There have also been retirements with Paddy Andrews, Cian O’Sullivan and Diarmuid Connolly all stepping away whilst Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion have decided not to link up with the squad this year.
Dublin also have had to contend with injuries in defence with John Small, Eoin Murchan and Robbie McDaid all currently unavailable for selection. Of course, most intriguing of all the off-field issues surrounds Stephen Cluxton. The Dublin captain has been one of the most influential GAA players of all time and the question of whether he will return to action in 2021 is still up in the air. With or without Cluxton, the Dubs are a formidable side but I would prefer to face a Dublin side without him should we meet them in an All-Ireland semi-final.
2. Kerry (2021 Record W5 D1 L0)
The Kingdom are arguably the best placed team to topple Dublin. Kerry’s league campaign was the most impressive of any team, emerging as joint league champions along with Dublin. They annihilated Galway in Tralee first day out with David Clifford looking very much the generational talent that he is as he bagged a glorious hat-trick.
This game was a real sign of their 2021 intent having been left shell-shocked by Mark Keane’s last minute goal for Cork in their Munster championship exit last year. Kerry also drew with Dublin in a game where they fought back to rescue a draw through a David Clifford penalty at the death. However, their concession of four goals in that game will have caused much concern for Peter Keane and he will know that the same sort of generosity in defence will not suffice if they are to wrestle Sam Maguire from Dublin in an All-Ireland final later this summer.
Kerry finished their league campaign with a trouncing of Tyrone in Killarney where they hit the Ulstermen for six goals. Keane seems to be getting a settled team and seems to have decided on Jason Foley and Gavin Crowley as his men at full back and centre back respectively. Tom O’Sullivan and Gavin White also bring great pace to the defence and Paul Murphy has to make do with a place on the bench at the minute.
Up front, the younger Clifford is very much the real deal and the ace in the Kerry pack. He is aided by a supporting cast of brother Paudie, Dara Moynihan and Sean O’Shea who has looked particularly impressive in their Munster championship victories over Clare and Tipperary to date. Throw in Killian Spillane, Paul Geaney and Tommy Walsh to the mix and that Kerry forward line has the potential to wreak havoc on any given day no matter the opposition.
Kerry will be gunning for revenge over Cork this weekend in Killarney and I expect them to avenge last year’s defeat to set up an All-Ireland semi-final date against the Ulster champions. Be it Tyrone or Monaghan they face, Kerry will be favourites to emerge to an All-Ireland final date where they have the firepower to become All-Ireland champions for the first time since 2014.
3. Mayo (2021 Record – W6 D0 L0)
Mayo are third in my pecking order despite the loss of marque forward Cillian O’Connor for the season. Cillian’s loss to an Achilles injury sustained during the league victory over Clare is a mammoth blow to our All-Ireland prospects and indeed his loss could be keenly felt when we go toe to toe with Galway this weekend.
In his absence, Ryan O’Donoghue has admirably stepped up to the plate in terms of work-rate up front as well as free-taking duties. As well as the loss of Cillian, the winter also brought about a spate of retirements with warriors such as David Clarke, Keith Higgins, Chris Barrett, Donal Vaughan, Tom Parsons and Seamus O’Shea all stepping away from the fold. Such characters and experience are simply irreplaceable but, as ever with Mayo, the show must go on.
On a more positive note, Mayo’s form this year has been excellent having won all four league games in Division 2 with victories over Down, Westmeath, Meath and Clare, thus securing an immediate return to Division 1. Mayo fans may have feared the worst when relegated last year but we have bounced back immediately with a young and vibrant outfit and I actually think Division 2 football may have helped James Horan in blooding so many youngsters. All the media attention during the league surrounds Division 1 which is fair enough and this has allowed Mayo to go out about their business quietly without too much fuss and give valuable game time to younger players.
I imagine confidence in the camp was high after the league campaign and this was evident in our two Connaught championship games to date where Sligo and Leitrim were dispatched of with ease. In truth, these games were mismatches. We learned very little and whether there is any merit in such games is a debate for another day.
These were two sides operating in Division 4 and therefore the step up in class when we face Galway will be huge. My fear would be that we have only faced Division 2 and Division 4 opposition this year and Galway will be the first team from the top tier that we have faced this season.
However, Mayo under Horan are an experienced outfit and whilst there are some new players brought in, most players were involved in last year’s run to the final and will know the enormity of challenge Galway will pose on Sunday. Last year’s Connaught final was a tight and cagey affair with Mayo emerging victorious by a solitary point in Salthill.
Something similar could be in store at the weekend and Mayo will be relying on the likes of Oisin Mullin, Paddy Durcan, Matthew Ruane, Tommy Conroy and Ryan O’Donoghue to continue their early season form. The prize on offer for the victors is a date against the Leinster champions in the middle of August in an All-Ireland semi-final and I expect Mayo to be there as Connaught champions.
4. Tyrone (2021 Record – W3 D1 L2)
Tyrone are well primed to be the kingpins of Ulster for the first time since 2017 having emerged victorious over a strong Donegal side in Brewster Park last weekend. In truth, the loss of Michael Murphy to a first half red card soon after his missed penalty was a massive turning point in the tie.
A strength of this Tyrone side in 2021 is the depth of their squad. They were able to introduce players such as Conor McKenna, Cathal McShane and Tiernan McCann from the bench against Donegal whilst they also have players like Paul Donaghy, Richie Donnelly, Mark Bradley and Darragh Canavan who didn’t even feature on Sunday.
Darren McCurry is in the form of his life and is a focal point up front and has been prolific in his scoring exploits. Kieran McGeary, Mattie Donnelly and Peter Harte are all playing well too and with McShane getting back to match fitness, you have to envy the array of talent available to Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan.
Tyrone had a mixed league campaign in Division One North in what was almost a mini rehearsal for the Ulster championship. They lost to Donegal, beat Armagh and drew to Monaghan before taking an unmerciful semi-final beating at the hands of Kerry in Killarney, losing by sixteen points and shipping six goals in the process.
How much was that game merely a blip or a sign that all is not right defensively is hard to gauge but since that defeat Tyrone seem to have reverted a little bit more to their old running game and offering their defence a bit more security with Frank Burns sweeping back against Donegal on Sunday. All in all this Tyrone side are building nicely and the Ulster final against Monaghan will be a tough one to call.
I would expect the Red Hand county to win that game as the strength in depth they have to call on is something Monaghan simply don’t have. A rematch with Kerry in Croke Park is on the cards but I don’t think this Tyrone side are primed for All-Ireland success just yet albeit they are heading in the right direction.
5. Monaghan (2021 Record – W3 D2 L1)
Football was truly put in perspective last weekend when we learned of the tragic death of Monaghan U-20 captain Brendán Óg Ó Dufaigh in a car accident just hours after he led his side to victory over Donegal. Many fine tributes have poured in since Brendan’s passing and by all accounts he was an excellent footballer, an inspiration leader and more importantly, a fine young man. His loss will be sorely felt by his family, friends and teammates.
Whilst football is not everything, it can often give a community a sense of hope and pride and it is to Monaghan’s credit that they went out on Saturday and delivered a phenomenal performance in their defeat of Armagh in the Ulster semi-final. This game was a cracker, played out in the scorching heat of Newry with Monaghan scoring four first half goals, with the impressive Jack McCarron scoring one and assisting two more.
Remarkably, Monaghan saw their seemingly unassailable first half lead clawed back by Armagh only for the Farneymen to respond again in the closing minutes to eke out a deserved victory. When Monaghan needed a player to step up, it was Conor McManus who once again did the business and his guile and class was enough to get Monaghan through to an Ulster final.
Having been dumped out of the championship by Cavan last year, Monaghan have taken nothing for granted this year and are blending some youngsters into an experienced side that still has stalwarts like Rory Beggan, Ryan Wylie, Conor McManus and the Hughes brothers.
Consistently punching above their weight, Monaghan retained their Division One status once again with a dramatic relegation play-off victory over Galway. Trailing by five points near the end of the game, they forced extra-time and won by a point courtesy of a last minute Jack McCarron point. So all in all, 2021 has been a good year to date and a victory over Tyrone would be the icing on the cake.
In recent years, Tyrone seem to have Monaghan’s measure and have had the better of the championship encounters between the sides, most memorably in the 2018 All-Ireland semi-final. As outlined above, I fancy Tyrone to nick a tight game but Monaghan certainly are well placed to cause a slight upset.
6. Galway (2021 Record – W2 D0 L3)
Pádraic Joyce’s tenure as Galway manager started impressively and the spring of 2020 brought hope of a league winning campaign. As we know, the pandemic brought a halt to action and on resumption in October, Galway’s league prospects came to an abrupt halt with a heavy defeat to Mayo in Tuam followed by defeat to Dublin in their final game.
Galway’s exit from the Connaught championship came at our hands too in a game that could have gone either way. Joyce will know his team were there or thereabouts last year and this year would have hoped to build on last year’s campaign.
However 2021 got off to a shocker for Galway as they suffered a twenty-two point defeat to a rampant Kerry side on day one of the league. After receiving their schooling in Tralee, the Tribesmen improved as the league progressed. To their credit, and having shipped a lot of criticism, they bounced back immediately in Round Two with a six point victory over Roscommon and finished their campaign with a narrow and unlucky defeat away to Monaghan. Ultimately this resulted in relegation to Division Two and anything short of a Connaught title for Joyce now would see 2021 go down as another disappointing year.
The Galway squad has seen some experienced stalwarts depart with Ian Burke, Gareth Bradshaw, Michael Daly, Gary Sice, Adrian Varley and the injured Cillian McDaid being some of the high profile absentees in 2021. Where there are absences, there are opportunities. Young players such as Matthew Tierney, Rob Finnerty and the Kelly brothers, Seán and Paul, all stepped up to the plate in their Connaught semi-final victory over Roscommon in horrendous conditions in Dr. Hyde Park.
If Galway can blend the young talent with the skill and power of Shane Walsh and Damien Comer respectively, then the capacity for Galway to cause Mayo problems is certainly there. Paul Conroy is also still a massive influence on this Galway team and his experience and leadership qualities will be important on Sunday.
As a Mayo man I am slightly concerned that Galway are coming in to this Connaught final very much under the radar. The Tribesmen had the benefit of playing a higher standard of football in the league and this may stand to them.
However, ultimately I think Mayo are a better side. Cillian O’Connor is a loss and how we could do with him on Sunday but Mayo should have the pace, power and experience to overcome Galway and retain the Nestor Cup.
7. Kildare (2021 Record – W5 D0 L1)
There is not a great deal to choose between numbers seven and eight in this rankings and I don’t hold much hope of either Kildare or Cork getting close to Dublin or Kerry. However, the beauty of sport is that it can throw up some great surprises but, more often than not, Goliath beats David.
Kildare’s league campaign saw them beat Cork and Laois and suffer a loss to Clare. With Clare, Cork and Kildare all finishing level on four points, it was Cork who missed out on a shot at promotion on account of their inferior scoring difference and the Lilywhites progressed to a promotion play-off against Leinster rivals Meath. Meath were hotly fancied to win this game but it was Kildare who emerged in a fractious encounter and playing Division One football next year should bring this Kildare side on further.
In the championship to date, Kildare defeated an improving Offaly side in the quarter-final and overcame Westmeath last Sunday, whilst struggling for long parts of this game. Ultimately, Kildare’s two goals were pivotal. Daniel Flynn provided two moments of class in the second half, sublimely seeking out Jimmy Hyland for the first goal before turning from orchestrator to finisher for the second goal as he slalomed through the maroon defence before coolly tucking the ball home.
Flynn’s return from injury is a huge fillip for Kildare and combined with Neil Flynn, Ben McCormack and Jimmy Hyland, they have a potent attack. However, Kevin Feely suffered an ankle injury against Westmeath and will likely miss the Leinster final which will be a huge loss to Jack O’Connor’s charges.
Hopefully for the spectacle of a competitive final, Kildare can stick with Dublin in the first half at least and not fall behind chasing a big deficit. Dublin have shipped some criticism after lacklustre displays against Wexford and Meath and I fear a wounded animal may emerge next day out.
Dublin usually have at least one feeding frenzy in Leinster each year which we have not yet seen in 2021. Kildare could well be the unfortunate prey in the wrong place at the wrong time.
8. Cork (2021 Record – W4 D0 L1)
“Connolly kicking up into the air. It’s drifting. It’s moving. It’s still in play…………It’s a goal. It’s a goal for Cork”.
Was this the shock sporting moment of 2020? For shock factor, it would be hard to top that finale in the November rain in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Sport’s ability to surprise is arguably its most compelling quality – the reality is such surprises are all too rare. However, Mark Keane’s last minute smash and grab victory for Cork in the Munster semi-final was truly one of those remarkable moments – rousing for the Rebels, catastrophe for the Kingdom.
And then Cork go and spoil it all by not finishing the job, meekly losing the Munster final to Tipperary instead of facing into an All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo. In truth, it summed up Cork for much of the last decade; less Rebel County and more Rebels without a cause.
Cork’s first aim for this year was to get back to Division One where they regularly won league titles in the not too distant past. They ultimately fell short of this aim as their campaign saw them beat Laois and Clare but lose to Kildare, missing out on a shot at promotion on account of their inferior scoring difference.
Their only championship game to date was a comfortable eight-point victory over Limerick to set up a clash with Kerry in Killarney this Sunday afternoon. I would fear for Cork on Sunday as they may well have poked the bear with their victory last year and the Kingdom, who have a phenomenal record at home in Killarney, will be gunning for revenge.
Cork will rely on the likes of Sean Powter, Ian Maguire and Ruairí Deane to bring their running game as Kerry often struggle, like most teams, when ran at. Up front, the onus will be on Luke Connolly and Brian Hurley to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
The future is bright for Cork as they have produced some fine underage teams in recent years and indeed their U20 side, under the tutelage of the impressive Keith Ricken, defeated Kerry last week. However, that won’t help them on Sunday and I expect Kerry to win easily to book their regular place in the All-Ireland semi-final.