How on earth, in a Championship season where to date the absence of jeopardy has been the overriding factor, have ourselves and Galway ended up in the do-or-die fix that faces us tomorrow in Salthill?
Last Sunday we both had fairly similar objectives in our respective Round 3 matches, which was to avoid defeat and thus each top our group and qualify directly for the All-Ireland quarter-finals. Both matches were slightly tricky – Galway’s more so, given the quality of opposition they faced, albeit with Armagh shorn of the services of the suspended Rian O’Neill – but both were eminently winnable.
Even at the death, minute swings either in Carrick or Limerick could have kept ourselves and Galway apart tomorrow, even if in our case we’d by then blown the opportunity of direct passage to the final eight.
From our point of view, there was that late free, which, if converted, would have reduced the margin of defeat to two, leaving us second in the group. Did the sideline know the importance of getting a point from that free? Did Aidan? If not, why not? The Cork management, gesticulating wildly to the players once they went two up that they only needed one more score, certainly knew what was what in relation to points difference.
If we had converted that free and lost by two and if Monday’s draw had worked out the same in that alternative universe, we’d now be gearing up for a rematch with the Rossies at Hastings Insurance MacHale Park. That task wouldn’t have been a gimme by any stretch but it would definitely have been preferable to where we’re headed instead tomorrow.
From Galway’s perspective, the nudge they needed to avert a head-on collision with us was an even lighter one. In their case, the late free that Shane Walsh, like Aidan O’Shea down in Limerick, failed to convert might have been irrelevant had events elsewhere have gone in their favour. Had he nailed it, of course, Galway would have topped the group.
What ultimately did for them, though, was Ray Connellan’s late, late levelling free for Westmeath against Tyrone up in Cusack Park. Had Tyrone held on to win there, then they’d have ended up on four points with Armagh and Galway. In that scenario, the Tribesmen, despite their loss to Armagh, would have taken top spot thanks to superior points difference among the three teams. Instead they finished on four points with Armagh alone and so lost out to the Orchard County on the head-to-head.
Neither of us should, of course, have found ourselves in this predicament. We both made personnel blunders last Sunday and it’s hard to argue, on a day of extremely tight margins, that these didn’t have a bearing on where both of us ended up when the music stopped.
From our point of view, the errors made stand out in rather stark relief.
The decision to let Cillian O’Connor play club football on Saturday evening and so not involve him in the match-day 26 looks in hindsight to have been a major misjudgment. The Ballintubber player’s cool head, game awareness and ability to nick a vital score, not to mention his on-field organisational talents, would have been vital to us coming down the closing stretch. No way would that game have gone south on us the way it did if Cillian was on the field.
To my mind, the decision not play Sam Callinan from the start and then leave him on the bench was also mystifying. Sam has been a huge success for us this year and, despite his tender years, his performance in Killarney marked him out as a key presence in our backline. The Ballina youngster wasn’t injured last weekend so his omission was a real head-scratcher.
Here’s one for you: Sam didn’t play any part in either of the two Championship games we’ve lost this summer. I know, I know – correlation, causation and all that but, such is his influence at the back for us this year, I wouldn’t rule out his absence as a contributing factor to why we came unstuck in both games.
Galway’s screw-up with the medical paperwork, meanwhile, was comedy central stuff. Neither Damien Comer nor Dylan McHugh were fit to play, so including them at all in the match-day panel was a bit daft, but then to end up with a 24-player panel on the day just because they couldn’t do the admin efficiently was an embarrassment.
I doubt they’ll end up in the same quandary tomorrow. Even though there are doubts over Comer’s availability (McHugh seems to be okay) and Seán Kelly, there must be a strong chance that both will feature at some point in Salthill.
So, due to a mixture of bad luck and bad planning, both of us are where we are tomorrow. Neither of us wanted to be here and the last thing either of us need is a battle to the death against the other just to make the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
As Darragh Ó Sé so rightly observed in the Irish Times this week, the only winners from the two of us being paired together tomorrow are Kerry and Dublin. Whatever happens in tomorrow’s winner-takes-all showdown at Salthill, only one of us will be in the draw for the final eight, thus making the task facing all the others that bit easier.