After a four-week break, we’re back in Championship once action again tonight. Down provide the opposition in this Round 2 qualifier tie at Páirc Esler in Newry, where throw-in is 7pm. Longford’s Fergal Kelly is the ref.
Our Connacht semi-final defeat to Roscommon was costly for us in many respects. It’s given us a hard path to negotiate to reach the All-Ireland Series and, if we manage to get there, it’ll mean a far tougher run of games in the Super Eights than we’d have had if we’d gone the direct route.
But the most significant cost it has imposed on us is the threat of early elimination from the Championship. And that will be our lot tonight if things go awry for us up in Newry.
While we’re strong favourites to progress, I must admit I’m extremely worried about this evening’s assignment. Round 2 of the qualifiers is always tricky – Fermanagh in 2016 and Derry in 2017 both came close to toppling us at this stage – and an away tie to an Ulster county, one that has five All-Ireland titles to it credit, all won since we last had possession of Sam, is freighted with even more uncertainty.
I’m sure there’s been plenty of introspection since the Roscommon defeat. Hopefully not of the mournful kind either, because, maddening and all as this most recent failure to launch within Connacht has been, it’s not where the team’s focus should be now. We need to assess our shortcomings against Roscommon, for sure, but only in the context of what we need to do to get past Down this evening.
I’ve seen Down play already this summer, having travelled up to Newry to catch their extra-time thriller against Armagh, a match the Mourne County lost by the narrowest of margins. While they have their limitations, Down are a team who play with a solidly defined structure and with no shortage of heart. If we give them a sniff that this is a winnable game from their point of view, we could be in for a very tough time of it this evening.
We know we can do better than how we performed against Roscommon. But simply knowing isn’t enough. It’s knockout Championship football tonight, it’s kill or be killed, so we either get in the groove sharpish or our football summer is over for another year.
It’s a fairly stark choice and it’s also one that, should we prevail this evening, will face us again the week after. And the week after that too.
For now, though, it’s all about this match. Two teams will enter Páirc Esler this evening with hopes of going on a qualifier run that’ll take them into the glamorous surroundings of the Super Eights. Only one team will emerge from the venue, however, with those dreams still intact.
We need to ensure that the team who’ll do this is our one. We’ll only prevail in this one with a controlled, efficient display, one that has stripped from it the wild theatrics we’ve displayed all too often in the qualifiers.
Favourites we may be tonight but, make no mistake, this is a tough assignment for us. It’s one I’d expect us to be up for but I’d be surprised if Down weren’t tuned in for it as well.
Ultimately, though, it could well come down to who wants it more. Does that fire still burn fiercely within us? Does this team still consider itself as an outfit that can mix it with the very best when it really counts?
A solid, no-nonsense performance tonight, one that gets the win and earns us the right to be in the Round 3 draw on Monday morning, is what we need to see tonight. As ever, we’ll need a strong display out on the field combined with no-holds-barred support from the travelling fanbase to secure this. I think we we’ll get this but I also think it’ll only be after a tough battle.
Safe travelling to all those heading to Newry. Arrive early if you can and get into the ground early too, as there’s likely to be a bit of a scrum at the entrance closer to throw-in time.
Okay, let’s do this. Let’s get down on it and get the job done this evening. Up Mayo.