Monday morning’s All-Ireland quarter-final draw saw us paired with Kerry on what is undoubtedly the tougher side of the Championship’s last eight. The winners will almost certainly be facing Dublin in the semi-final for the right to meet one of Armagh, Clare, Derry or Galway in the Sam Maguire decider next month.
For us, this is the toughest of roads, one on which we’re expected to suffer a fatal blow on Sunday week. But we know we’ve only ourselves to blame for this predicament, because, had we won Connacht, we’d have been on the other side of the draw.
Mind you, Galway won’t be regarding Armagh as a soft touch in the quarters. The hill they have to climb to reach the decider does, though, still pale significantly compared to the assignment now facing us.
Front and centre for us – indeed, the only issue of concern for us now – is our meeting with Kerry at 4pm on Sunday week at what’s heading for a first Croke Park sell-out attendance since before Covid struck. This is a huge test in every sense, for us but also for them.
Towards the end of the last decade we really got the whip-hand on the Kingdom, beating them at the second attempt in the All-Ireland semi-final in 2017 and then beating them again in the League final of 2019.
We haven’t, however, got the better of them since then. They had plenty to spare over us when we met in Killarney in the Super-8s in high summer in 2019 and they also beat us at MacHale Park the following spring in the League just before the first Covid lockdown.
Our relegation from Division One that autumn meant there was no League meeting with them last year, nor did our paths cross in the Championship either that year or last year. Now, however, we’re contemplating a third meeting with them this year, having played them twice in this year’s League.
We definitely let a positive result slip through our fingers on that wet and windy night down in Tralee in the middle of March. They won it with a free deep in injury time but we’d had chances in the final quarter, when we had all the momentum in the game, that we failed to convert. I don’t think it’s stretching things too much to argue that we left that one behind us.
We can, of course, have no such claims about the Division One decider. That was a paddling, plain and simple. We were never at the races in that game, we were missing several key players and, for much of the game, we gave the impression we’d rather not have been there at all.
Personally, I was thankful I wasn’t among the attendance at Croke Park that day. I finally got felled by Covid a few days prior to the game so I watched on in self-isolation at home. I was fine with that, though less so by the six weeks of unrelenting exhaustion I suffered in the wake of contracting the virus.
Looking back at that game, the incident which ended Jordan Flynn’s participation was a major turning point. I’m not saying we’d have won it if the Crossmolina man stayed on the pitch but his departure – due to a crude frontal charge by Jack Barry, which resulted in Jordan breaking a bone in his foot – saw our middle third got to pot, ensuring that the beating we would get was going to be a bad one.
In retrospect, that incident also had an enormous bearing on what’s followed for us since. Would we have beaten Galway had Jordan been on the field in Castlebar that day? He was one of our standout players in the League and, as others have noted here already, Mattie’s form hasn’t been the same in his absence. It’s hard to avoid pondering what might have been had the Deel Rovers man been okay to play against Galway but, I know, that’s all water under the bridge at this stage.
We all know what we’ve been up to since playing Kerry last. They, meanwhile, have been strolling through a Munster Championship that – despite contributing three of the final eight this year – is now as dead in the water as its Leinster equivalent.
Kerry have played just two games to reach the final eight in this year’s Championship, neither of which were against top tier opposition and neither of which proved in any way taxing.
The main battle in relation to the Cork game was the venue (don’t mention the war!), with Cork insisting on it being played at Páirc Uí Rinn, having clearly messed up things on the diary front by letting an Ed Sheeran concert be fixed for Páirc Uí Chaoimh for that weekend.
The Rebels won the battle about where the match was to be played. To be fair to them, they also managed to keep with Kerry until around the 50th minute mark but Jack O’Connor’s charges then eased away effortlessly enough to win by 0-23 to 0-11.
The Munster final was an utterly bloodless affair. Limerick were simply no match for the Kingdom at all and that one finished 1-28 to 0-8 in Kerry’s favour.
By the time they trot out at HQ the next day, Kerry will have had four weeks kicking their heels since the Munster final. In the meantime, we’ve got two searching ties against Division One opposition under our belts and, of course, we lost in Connacht to a team that will play top tier League football that year. We’ve definitely played more ball of late than they have.
You could also argue that this stage of the Championship is where we start to feel more at home. It’s certainly a place where – despite all the new blood we’ve introduced over the last few years – we’ve greater experience right now than they have.
Indeed, aside from the 2019 final – in which Kerry blew a huge opportunity to take Dublin out, enjoying numerical advantage over them for a full half of the drawn game – and that madcap semi-final loss to Tyrone last year, Kerry haven’t much in the way of real experience in the white heat of battle.
What they do have, of course, is the most potent attack in the country. They also have a far better defensive structure than last year. Jack O’Connor has undoubtedly whipped them into the kind of shape that has made them deserved favourites to end an eight-year wait for Sam this summer.
They’re huge favourites to beat us the next day and it would be a result of equally seismic proportions to our ending the Dubs’ long, long unbeaten Championship run last summer – in actual fact, it would most likely rank as an even bigger shock – if we take them down on Sunday week. We’re not expected to do this but, as we all know, if you don’t expect the unexpected with Mayo, then you’re not keeping up with the story.
So, how are we all feeling about this one? Let’s end with a poll to see what the mood is like ten days out from what’s sure to be a mouth-watering all-or-nothing Championship clash.
Will we beat Kerry?
- No (54%, 1,133 Votes)
- Yes (46%, 984 Votes)
Total Voters: 2,117