For the second time in three weeks, the lads are back in action in Croke Park today. Unlike the Kildare game, however, HQ is set to be rocking later this afternoon as ourselves and Kerry head the bill on an attractive All-Ireland quarter-final double-header, which also features the fascinating meeting of Armagh and Galway.
Our match gets underway at 4pm with Meath’s David Gough in charge. The winners will meet Dublin in the semi-final, following their facile victory over Cork yesterday evening.
Big Croke Park days when we pair off against the best with everything on the line are occasions we’ve all become so used to over the past decade. While we never claimed the big prize we were always an essential part – often the essential part – of the Championship story when it really mattered.
Those were days we came to relish. We had a team we believed in and which we knew would give everything in pursuit of glory. We also knew that most of our main men would be fit and ready for the fray.
Today feels so different in so many ways. The lads’ appetite for the fight is still as keen as ever and there’s still so much to like about the way we continue to challenge year after year. This time, however, we simply cannot avoid the issue that has crippled us every year since 2018 and which cripples us so badly heading into today’s clash with Kerry.
That, of course, is our outsized injury list, a problem that has bedevilled us all year and has continued to do so, even in the final few days leading up to this game.
Ryan O’Donoghue – our outstanding performer throughout the League – was probably the player we could least afford to lose this summer. He’s out today, as he was for the two qualifier games. Ryan heads a list of absentees that currently includes Brendan Harrison, David McBrien, Michael Plunkett, Bryan Walsh, Fionn McDonagh, Darren McHale and Tommy Conroy, with serious doubts about the fitness of at least two others who are nonetheless listed in today’s match day 26.
No team could be expected to cope with the kind of injuries we’ve had to cope with this year. While it’s undoubtedly true that the return of proven performers such as Robbie Hennelly, Oisín Mullin (if he’s okay to play and there are doubts about that), Paddy Durcan, Eoghan McLaughlin, Diarmuid and Cillian O’Connor since the League final strengthens us, as does Jordan Flynn’s recovery from the broken bone in his foot he suffered in that game, the hits have kept coming, in an unrelenting manner.
To that extent, today feels a lot like 2019. We suffered several injuries that summer too and pitched up in August to play Dublin in an All-Ireland semi-final with a patched together team, fielding at least three players who patently weren’t anything close to full fitness. The lads managed to put in a powerful opening half against Dublin that day before getting washed away soon after the break.
In seeking counter-arguments to that proposition, Kerry are nothing like Dublin were back then and, for all their glittering talents, they still have a fair bit to prove when it really counts. We went toe-to-toe with what was largely the same Kerry team on that night of wind and rain in Tralee back in March and while they hosed us at Croke Park in the Division One final a few weeks later we were missing all those heavy hitters listed above that day.
We can, too, point to our greater experience at this level. The bulk of our lads have played in the last two All-Ireland deciders and some, including that warrior of warriors, Lee Keegan, have played in several more. If we’re still in it at the fifty-minute mark and doubts start to creep into their minds, we could have a chance then.
That said, we’ll still need an awful lot to go right for us – and wrong for them – if we’re to have a chance of getting a result today. The conditions may help us, though it’s looking a lot less windy up here this morning than it did at the same time yesterday, but I’m not sure weather will be a deciding factor in any case.
No matter how you frame it, it keeps coming back to how this unrelenting injury crisis has hobbled us so badly. If we were pulling from a full deck for today’s game – with a fully fit Tommy Conroy, Ryan O’Donoghue and Cillian O’Connor up top – then I’d be as confident taking Kerry on today as we were in 2014 and 2017. That, however, is not a luxury we have on this occasion.
I’ve no doubt the lads who are on the field for us today will give it everything and, who knows, it could prove to be enough. After all, it’s always best to expect the unexpected from us but I think we all know it will take something special for us to seal the deal today. Here’s hoping we find that X-factor this afternoon. Up Mayo.