So, a bit over twelve hours since the Round 1 qualifier draw was made, I suppose it’s time for a few idle thoughts on our getting paired with Monaghan on Saturday week.
The first thing, as I said on the pod with Mike and Billy Joe this morning, was that while we could have got a better draw, we could equally have ended worse off. Getting one of the three Ulster teams was what we wanted to avoid and, in that regard, the draw didn’t give us what we were looking for. Had we been paired away with Tyrone, though, that would without question have been worse.
There’s no getting away from the fact that, as first matches in the qualifiers go, this test is a far tougher one than any of the ones we’ve faced since 2016. Monaghan are a battle-hardened Division One outfit who know us well and they won’t be at all fazed at facing us.
That said, playing us away has to be one of the worst picks they could have got. Like us, they’d have much preferred one of the softer options but neither of us were fated to get what we wanted in the draw.
So, for us, Monaghan it is. Beating them and being in the hat for the Round 2 draw is our sole focus for now.
In that sense, today’s draw marks a welcome shift in focus away from looking back at the Galway game, with our gaze instead becoming fixed on the challenge that lies in store for us on Saturday week. That’s only right – our part in this Championship is still there to be fought for and there’s nothing like an upcoming do-or-die fixture to concentrate minds.
That said, we can’t ignore either what has gone before, in particular the four defeats we’ve suffered in the last five matches we’ve played. Our form has been poor since March and, if we’re to make any kind of decent fist of this summer campaign, we need to find a richer vein of form. Otherwise there’ll be many long months of introspection up ahead for us before we kick a ball in anger again.
The injury situation certainly isn’t going to help us in that respect. With Ryan O’Donoghue almost certainly missing for Round 1 and others, including Jordan Flynn and Bryan Walsh, still unavailable while Tommy Conroy, Brendan Harrison and now Michael Plunkett are all gone for the entire campaign, with ongoing uncertainty over Robbie Hennelly and Oisín Mullin, it’s fairly clear that we’ve more than our fill of injury worries right now.
How far we can be expected to progress hampered to the degree that we are is an open question. But it’s not one that needs to be – nor, in truth, can be – answered right now. All we have to think about at the minute is putting out the strongest selection we have to take on Monaghan the next day.
Those looking for a silver lining to the dark clouds hanging over us ahead of the Monaghan game can, with validity, point to our strong qualifier record at MacHale Park since 2016. We’re unbeaten in qualifier matches at the venue and in the last six years we’ve beaten three Ulster teams – Fermanagh, Derry (after extra-time) and Armagh – in the qualifiers on our home patch. We also saw off highly-fancied Donegal in the so-called Super 8s at MacHale Park three years ago.
Monaghan’s qualifier record over the same time period, by contrast, compares badly. While they’ve managed back door victories on the road since 2016, these have come in exotic places like Carlow and Carrick-on-Shannon. The Farney lads have never faced a qualifier test away from home remotely as tough as the one they’re heading into on Saturday week and so they’re likely to approach this one with some trepidation.
And that’s where the Mayo supporters come in. At their worst, our home matches can be stifling, oppressive affairs, with the players seemingly afflicted by the negative vibes being projected down from the stand. Although this frequently happens in the League and too often in the Connacht Championship as well, the fans have always dug in and got behind the team to the full for those all-or-nothing qualifier games.
A big Championship crowd, the vast bulk our lot, would certainly help our cause on Saturday week. The team could do with plenty of loud, raucous backing that afternoon and supporters too could do worse than letting off steam with plenty of May-Oh! chanting. While it might be a stretch to evoke 2017 and all being in it together once again, the team and its large, loyal fanbase could certainly do with reconnecting with each other.
So, the countdown is on to our next Championship outing. We now know who we’re up against, we’re well aware how tough the challenge is likely to be but we can also see that, from their standpoint, this is not a test Monaghan will be relishing.
Our track record since 2016 shows that, for the most part, we operate best when everything is on the line. It certainly will be on Saturday week and that’s as far ahead as we are entitled to look right now. It’s far enough and the challenge is significant enough to concentrate minds fully on what’s facing us then.