So, less than a fortnight after taking part in this year’s All-Ireland final, last night’s draw for the 2013 championship already has us focusing on next year’s action. Maybe it’s just as well – no amount of ruminating will change the scoreline of the final that was played on 23rd September this year but next year’s prizes are there to be grasped if we’re up for it. As ever when it comes to sport, it’s better to be thinking ahead rather than reflecting back on what might have been.
Galway in Salthill in a preliminary round in late May was obviously the draw we didn’t want. The chances of ending up in this predicament was, though, clearly very high – it was one out of only three possible permutations, to be exact – and I’m not surprised I ended up winning that tenner I wagered in a private bet yesterday afternoon on who we’d get pulled out of the hat with.
We’ve been here before, of course. Eight months after our last All-Ireland appearance in 2006, our first championship outing of John O’Mahony’s Second Coming was a May 2007 trip to the seaside to face Peter Forde’s Tribesmen. Both of us had had good league runs – we beat them in the semi-final on the way to defeat in the NFL decider to Donegal (my, how things change) – but although we entered that Pearse Stadium contest as strong favourites, we left it roundly beaten and in a shambolic state, with our championship ending in early July that year in a crushing defeat to Derry in Round 2 of the qualifiers.
But that was then and it’s important not to get too hung up on the similarities between the draw we got in 2007 compared to the one we’ve now been handed for 2013 because there are also plenty of differences between the eras. The 2006 final loss was a truly humbling one whereas the one less than two weeks ago was far from that. After the Kerry thumping we had a change of management and the start of the mantra – that would still be continuing as an irritating whine four years later – that we were a team in transition, whereas now James Horan will be aiming to undertake no more than minor adjustments to his preferred fifteen for next year. And, most importantly of all, the current manager won’t be out electioneering next May and will, we can be sure, have his mind firmly focused instead on the challenge that Galway will present.
He’ll need to as well because I doubt that the second year of Alan Mulholland’s Five-Year Plan for World Domination includes getting his butt kicked by Mayo in the first round of the championship. I still can’t understand how Galway’s 2012 championship challenge collapsed in the spectacular way that it did but the working assumption we have to make is that, regardless of this year’s summer implosion, Mulholland will come to the table next year with a significantly improved outfit. It’s impossible to imagine that Galway will be anything like as poor as they were this year and, given all those minor and U21 All-Ireland medalists in their ranks whom Mulholland knows so well, you’d have to think that they’ll be far, far better in 2013.
In fairness to Johnno, one of only positives aspects of his disastrous second stint with us was his team’s ending of the Salthill hoodoo in 2009 and so we shouldn’t have the same trepidation in pitching up at that horrible dump that we would still have had back in 2007. But, as Mulholland will well know, contests between Mayo and Galway take place in a unique kind of atmosphere, one that doesn’t give a tinker’s curse for the form or exalted position that either side might happen to take into the contest. We’ll no doubt travel to Salthill next May as warm favourites but it won’t be a shock of earth-shattering proportions if we’re left taking the road home via the qualifiers.
Galway in Salthill in the first round of the championship always has been and – one hopes – always will be a significant test of Mayo’s mettle but it’s a test we should embrace with gusto. If the team that James Horan has created has genuine ambitions to become the best in the country in 2013 – and, as someone said so presciently here on the site after this year’s final, if we want to win Sam then that’s what we must first become – then we have to be prepared to take on and take down not just Galway but Cork or Kerry or Dublin or Donegal too. As the saying goes, to be the best we have to beat the best that’s put in front of us.
Mark McHugh said after the final that it was the win over Kerry in the quarters that gave Donegal the belief they could go on and win the championship this year. Before they got to tangle with the game’s aristocrats, however, the new champions first had to wade through the swamps of Ulster and it was the confident manner in which they did this that sent them into the Kerry match on such a high, with each successive win being laid as the foundation for the next challenge.
At the risk of using another cliché, what won’t kill us in 2013 will make us stronger. A win over Galway in the opening round would set us up nicely for a home semi-final against Roscommon, which in turn would be good preparation for a repeat showdown with Sligo in the provincial decider. If all that goes to plan (and if my holiday plans also come to fruition, by the way, that’s another Connacht final I’ll be tuning into from afar but that’s another day’s work) then we’ll be well ready for whatever challenge might await us at Croke Park on the August Bank Holiday weekend.
But first and foremost we need to think about Galway in Salthill next May. It’s going to be a long eight months.