We’re back at Croke Park this afternoon – for the first time since last June’s All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Kerry – and we’re back competing for a national title. Galway provide the opposition in this afternoon’s National League Division One final and Kildare’s Brendan Cawley is the ref for a game that throws in at HQ at 4pm today and which is being shown live on TG4.
The final of any sporting competition should always be taken on its own merits but that’s never really the case with the League. Aside from the usual ‘It’s only the League’ and ‘All-Irelands aren’t won in April’ stuff is the still barely believable fact that we’re back out again this day week in the first round of the Connacht Championship, where we’ll be up against Roscommon, the team that finished just below ourselves and Galway in the Division One table.
That match next Sunday, not to mention the fact that Galway then play the winners of it a fortnight afterwards, undeniably casts a shadow over today’s match. How could it not?
Central to much of the discussion in the lead-up to today’s final is, from Mayo’s perspective, which match we should give greater priority to. Is a League title more important than another Nestor Cup victory? Would losing to Galway be better than losing to the Rossies? Or worse? How much of a boost would it be for us to beat them both? How badly would it impact us if we lose both matches?
In truth, these are all unknowables and the relative importance that might be ascribed to each of the two challenges we face is largely a subjective one. At the heel of the hunt, these questions are simply ones that pass the time for supporters in the lead-up to 4pm today.
What matters in terms of the contest we’re set to witness is what Kevin McStay and his opposite number, Galway’s Padraic Joyce, think about it. I get the feeling this is a game they each badly want to win, both for what’s at stake – a national title, lest we forget, once we last captured in 2019 while they last won it way back in 1981 – but also because they have no intention of losing to their great rivals in a high-profile match, one that’ll be watched keenly right across the country.
So I think we’re going to see two counties going full-tilt at it. The questions then is which of them is best equipped to do the business. It’s possible to make persuasive cases for both of them.
Galway now have plenty of big match experience and the days when they couldn’t buy a win in Croke Park, in fact struggled even to get to play there, are long gone. They contested an All-Ireland final last July and were in it right to the finish. And, if anything, they’ve improved a bit since then.
After a ropey opening two games, Galway won four out of their remaining five matches in this year’s Division One, ceding top spot in the division to us solely on points difference. They showed plenty of character in winning those games too, demonstrating a hitherto absent ability to come out on top in close-fought encounters. That quality could well stand them well later on today.
So too could their mean defence, the best in Division One this year. True, their points-for tally has been poor but with Shane Walsh and Rob Finnerty back in the starting fifteen and Damien Comer having recovered early from what was feared to be a bad knee injury, with Matthew Tierney, Johnny Heaney and Peter Cooke all adding to their cutting edge in attack, Galway don’t look like they’ll be found wanting going forward.
We’re further along the road than I think we expected to be at this stage. Once we’d eclipsed the Rossies as the campaign’s early frontrunners, our appearance in the Division One final took on an air of inevitability and, to be fair to Kevin McStay and his selectors, this is a development they appear to have viewed as an opportunity rather than an encumbrance.
It’s also a reward for the team’s sparkling form this spring. We’ve played the best football in Division One this year and there’s so much to like about the football the lads have played. A more defined structure at the back has provided greater security – even if our goals-against tally shows there’s more work to be done there – and our strong and extremely mobile middle third offers additional cover at the back as well as providing a platform for attack.
Up front, we’ve more potency than we’ve had for a long time and greater variety in attack too. And, don’t forget, we still have Cillian O’Connor and Tommy Conroy to come back, perhaps not today but, for sure, before too long.
Once the line-up for the Monaghan game was announced, I think we all got our answer about how we view today’s match. We’re going to give it everything we’ve got. For today, at least, thoughts of the Rossies have to be parked, though, once the full-time whistle has blown, the segue from League to Championship will, for us, be an instant one.
Last year, we really didn’t want to be in a League final and, boy, did it show. Already wracked by an injury crisis that then proceeded to get worse, our season was already starting to career out of control. We didn’t do ourselves justice that day. We should do everything in our power to make sure we give a better account of ourselves today.
I think this one’s going to be tight. The teams are well-matched and they’re both going to go at this challenge full-on. Whichever team wins it will view the victory as a sweet one – with no talk of it being only the League – while defeat will sting badly for the losers, even if both of them will immediately pivot their focus to the bigger challenges that lie ahead.
It’s a tough one to call and I genuinely think it could go either way. On the basis that we’ve played the better football consistently this spring and the fact that we’re slightly ahead in our prep, not least in light of what’s facing us in a week’s time, I think we have the means to shade it, which, like all Mayo supporters, I sincerely hope we do.
Here’s to a big Croke Park performance from the lads today, one that, if it goes the way we hope it does, will point us towards the Championship in the right frame of mind. But let’s park the Championship for now: this is a national title we want to win and winning it by beating Galway in today’s final would make it all the sweeter.
Right, let’s go do this, let’s claim the National League for what would be the 13th time for us. It’s well within our powers to win this and here’s hoping that’s what we do. Up Mayo.