Favourites. Odds-on, raging hot, bolted-on fancies to do it. In an All-Ireland semi-final? No matter how you cut it, this is new territory for us.
We haven’t – even in the modern era – come into every semi-final as the underdogs. Back in 2013 we were tipped to beat Tyrone and that’s what we eventually did. Were we slight favourites against Kerry a year later? I think we may have been but, no more than the rest of you, I’d prefer to draw a veil over that ghastly ending to our hopes in 2014.
The two times we downed the Dubs they were expected to make it to the final, in an era when they found it next to impossible to make it that far in the championship. I guess, then, that we need to go back to 2004 and Fermanagh for the last time we were strong favourites to make it through at the semi-final stage.
Anyone who was there twelve years ago will recall clearly how that one went. We were worse than awful in the drawn game and when James Gill was sent off shortly after the break we looked goosed.
We would have been had Tom Brewster brought his shooting boots with him but wide after second half wide from the Ernesiders kept us in the hunt. Eventually we somehow managed to scrape a draw and we improved sufficiently the second day to end their fairytale and send us into our first final appearance in seven years.
Oddly enough, that previous time we got to play for Sam – in 1997 – was also a year in which we were favoured to advance from the semi-final. In that pre-qualifier era, as Connacht champions we were rostered to play the Leinster winners. That year this challenge came in the shape of surprise packet League winners Offaly.
That was also the most recent year in which the Faithful County won Leinster. As someone who grew to love Gaelic football when Offaly were great, a part of me mourns for their absence at this time of year but that’s perhaps a story for another day, one where the sun sets far earlier in the evening.
We were expected to deal with Tommy Lyons’ charges that afternoon, a bizarre day in which the world was in a state of collective stupefaction at the overnight news from Paris of the untimely and sudden death of Princess Diana. Deal with them we did that day, despite shooting a shocking amount of wides, as enough attempts went over the bar for us to make it to September and that fateful meeting with Maurice Fitzgerald.
That’s it, I reckon. The others – Kerry in 1996, Dublin in 2006 and again in 2012 – were wins against the head for us. Tyrone in 1989? I wasn’t at that one, I wasn’t even in the country for it (as will be the case again this year) but I can’t imagine that we – who hadn’t been in a final since 1951 – would have been tipped to get by opponents who had got there, and should have won, just three years previous to then.
So, twice before in recent (and not so recent) years have we come into a semi-final as favourites and twice – that 2004 wobble notwithstanding – we’ve justified that tag and have gone on to contest the final. Losing both times, of course, but let’s not go down that road either.
This year is, though, different in that we’re extremely strong favourites to prevail, based no doubt on our strong track record in the championship since 2011. Everyone – ourselves included – expects us to win this one and, let’s face it, it would rank as the shock of the season, eclipsing Tipperary’s owns wins over Cork and Galway, if the Premier County were to beat us on Sunday week.
Clearly, it’s a match we should win but it’s one we absolutely have to treat with the utmost seriousness. If our very limited history of coping with penultimate round favouritism teaches us anything then surely it’s that going into this challenge assuming it’s won – which we seemed to do in 2004 – has the potential to be fatal.
Our 1997 semi-final win, by contrast, was one I feel we approached with a higher degree of caution. Even though our performance that day was ropey enough, it always looked like a winning one.
That has to be the prerequisite the next day. We don’t need to – and I think we won’t want to – shoot the lights out but we do need to establish fairly rapidly once the ball is thrown in that only one team is going to win this one. That’s what proper favourites do and that’s what we should be aiming for against Tipperary on Sunday week.