It’s here – the day that’s been pencilled in so many diaries for the last number of months, the match everyone said was the real focus when both ourselves and Galway were playing our final few respective League matches, the game that could make or break either of us this year. Yes, it’s here and it’s happening today.
Unlike our last three Championship meetings, this isn’t a knockout tie. Whichever of us comes off second best later on today will get a second chance in this year’s Championship, albeit via what’s set to be a short but extremely unforgiving qualifier campaign.
Despite this safety net, the stakes are high for this meeting at MacHale Park, out on the newly redeveloped pitch, which today will be used in a competitive game for the first time since the works were completed.
Our record at the venue in recent times isn’t hectic, though we did something to rectify that – even if it was against modest enough opposition – last year. But we haven’t beaten Galway at MacHale Park in the Championship since way back in 2014 and they’ve had two Connacht SFC wins over us on our home turf since then. In that sense, we owe them one or two.
But Galway must equally feel they owe us too. Following our dominance over them as we racked up five Nestor Cup wins in a row, they then beat us three years in succession before we turned the tables on them once more. If we win again today, that’ll be four Connacht matches on the spin we’ve come out on top against them.
We’re heading into this one, though, with enormous worries over injuries. The loss of both Robbie Hennelly and Paddy Durcan is huge and, with doubts over the form of both Kevin McLoughlin and Conor Loftus and the fitness of Eoghan McLaughlin and Cillian O’Connor, you’d have to wonder how many changes we’ll make to the named team before David Coldrick throws the ball in at 4pm.
Galway, by comparison, come to Castlebar today in rude enough health on the injury front. Sure, they’ve lost their goalie and the influential full-back Sean Mulkerrins but, aside from that, they have most of their heavy hitters on board and they’ll be aiming to hit us hard this afternoon.
Our display in the League final three weeks ago was alarmingly bad. While Galway didn’t take the kind of tanking we did that day at Croke Park, they did still come undone against Roscommon in the Division Two decider and this means they’re heading into today’s game seeking to avoid a third loss on the trot.
Can we both discount our respective poor form late on in the League? We could have been training heavily towards the end of the campaign, shifting our focus once our top tier status had been secured, while they may have done something similar, though only once promotion was in the bag.
But there can be no discounting done today. This is, after all, the date we’ve all had in our heads as one to remember, as a Championship clash to savour.
I find it hard to predict how this one might go. Our injury list weakens us and this certainly leaves us vulnerable. This is all the more so if, as expected, Galway roll out the shawl on the resplendent new playing surface this afternoon, looking to frustrate us and break up our running game.
At the same time, though, we know they have their own issues, especially in their back line, and so if we show intent and attack at will early on, we could profit from this. It would also have the added benefit of forcing them out from behind their protective blanket and opening up the contest from our point of view.
If I’m forced to choose, I have to plump for us, in a large part with my heart but also with my head. Despite our travails towards the end of the League campaign, our form in the early rounds this spring, playing much harder opposition than they did, was pretty okay. If we perform at that level today – and you’d be expecting, if anything, a much higher level of performance from us in this one – you’d have to think that would be enough to secure the win we need. Here’s hoping we get it.
Safe travelling all who are on the roads today. It still seems way too early in the year for Championship football but that’s what it is. It’ll be great to be back in what could be a packed MacHale Park today. It’ll be even better if we celebrate our Castlebar homecoming with a win over the neighbours.
Okay, then, let’s get to work. Let’s get this high-stakes opener out of the way. Let’s beat Galway. Up Mayo.