By the time we take the field at Croke Park this afternoon, just five counties will remain in the hunt for the Sam Maguire this year. Our All-Ireland quarter-final tie against Dublin is the final one of four such fixtures being played this weekend and it throws in at HQ at 4pm, preceded by the Cork/Derry game at 1.45pm. David Gough of Meath is the ref and the match is on RTÉ.
It’s our first appearance at Croke Park this summer – our last as well, if we fail to get over this afternoon’s huge challenge – but we’ve played on the hallowed turf already this year, having beaten Galway there in the National League final exactly three months ago today.
Dublin are a team we’ve seen an awful lot of over the last decade. But it’s been a while since we’ve played them, as there was no League meeting this year and we didn’t stay in the race long enough last summer to get to play them in the Championship then.
This means that our most recent summer rendezvous with them was the evening in 2021 that we finally ended the long unbeaten run of the six-in-a-row champions. That was a real rollercoaster occasion at Croke Park, with the ongoing Covid pandemic meaning the place was less than half-full but where the atmosphere was absolutely electric on a night to remember from our perspective.
It was entirely fitting that we – the only team to go properly toe-to-toe with them when they were truly great – were the ones to bring down the curtain on that record-breaking run of Sam Maguire successes. Enormously satisfying as that win was, however, its significance fell away within weeks, as we meekly succumbed to yet another All-Ireland final defeat, this one to a poor enough Tyrone team. It’s a defeat that scars us all still.
That win over Dublin two years ago also helped to cover over a rather uncomfortable truth from our perspective. We may have been their greatest rivals in their golden era but it was a rivalry in which they always found a way to win.
One of our great warriors of that time, Colm Boyle, admitted in his column for the Irish Mirror yesterday that we had our chances in those big games but we just didn’t take them.
Which leads us to this afternoon’s meeting and the rather pertinent question: can we beat them this time?
Dublin come into this game as deserved favourites. They haven’t really put a foot wrong so far this year – losing only once, to Derry midway through their Division Two League campaign – and they progressed through Leinster and then the All-Ireland group stage with understated efficiency.
They haven’t provided too many hints about what they’re really capable of this year. Kildare in Leinster and, in particular, Roscommon in the group stage made life difficult for them but in neither of these situations were they ever in mortal peril.
Dublin were always going to make it to the last eight, in the same way that Kerry were too. The Kingdom fairly showcased their talents at HQ yesterday and you’d imagine that Dublin will be looking to do likewise today.
They come into this meeting with us, though, with plenty of unanswered questions about them … as, of course, do we. How much have the likes of Fitzsimons and McCarthy left in the tank? To what extent have Cluxton’s mercurial powers waned? Have all those muscle injuries that have plagued them in recent weeks cleared up? Are they coming into this one undercooked?
I think we can dispense with that last one first. In their glory days, Dublin always arrived at this stage of the Championship having barely broken sweat in Leinster and it never bothered them then. It won’t today either. They’ll bring war to this contest, in the way they always do when it comes to knockout Championship football.
As for the rest, we’ll get our answer this afternoon. Dublin know they left another All-Ireland after them last year. Even without the injured Con O’Callaghan they put Kerry to the pin of their collar in the semi-final, a game they lost by the minimum and were unlucky to lose.
All year, the quiet talk has been about Dublin rousing themselves for one almighty push for another title. We’re now the ones standing in the immediate way of that aim and so we can expect to feel the full force of their ambition this afternoon.
Much like the Dubs, it’s hard to know where we are. The form team in the country this spring, since then we’ve yo-yoed between good and bad. The win over Kerry in Killarney was so good it had an unreal air to it, the display against Louth was bafflingly incoherent, while the loss to Cork was awful at so many levels.
But then last Sunday’s win over Galway felt like a statement, albeit one voiced at times in uncertain tones. It was also the win that earned us our ticket to today’s show.
Like last Sunday, this one’s a hard one to call. The bookies favour Dublin and they may well be right, not least given our inconsistencies in recent weeks and the questionable form of some of our key players. But if we hit form – a bit of an ‘if’ admittedly – then this team, one always built with the wide expanses of Croke Park in mind, have the personnel and the skillset to do the business.
I’m not sure it’s worth taking this particular discussion further. Game day is all about action rather than words and today is definitely a day for action.
This is a day we’ve been building for all year, the day we get to showcase our talents on the big stage. There’s no stage bigger for these players than a full house at Croke Park and that’s the stage they’re all getting up to perform on this afternoon.
So here’s to a performance to remember from the lads today. Here’s to another downing of the Dubs. Let’s get this done. Up Mayo.