So, the long wait is over. Today’s the day when our Championship campaign starts all over again. It’s Monaghan we’re up against in this afternoon’s Round 1 qualifier tie at MacHale Park where the ball is set to be thrown in at 4p. Derry’s Barry Cassidy is the ref and the match will be shown live on Sky Sports, with live radio commentary on Midwest too.
I know I’ve said that today is when we start over in this summer campaign but this Championship is now at the knockout stage and so every day, starting with today, could be our final one for the year. We’re back up on the high wire, where we’ve been so often before and where, more often than not, we’ve tended to thrive.
The first round of the qualifiers is always a bit of an unknown. Two teams coming into a do-or-die tie off the back of a dispiriting provincial defeat. Are they up for it? Are we up for it? This is the essential question facing every team facing into their first qualifier test.
As ever, we won’t know the answer until the contest gets underway. But this year, with a shorter and far sharper two-round qualifier schedule, this isn’t a question that can be answered in stages. If we’re not fully up for this one right from the outset, then it’s next stop FBD 2023.
I think it’s fair to say that supporters are heading into this game in the most downbeat mood they’ve been in for years. Anne-Marie Flynn nailed it in her Mayo News piece this week, when she observed that, much as we might want to deny it, “the aftershocks of last September still ripple.” It was a factor against Galway and it’s sure to provide some of the background colour to today’s game too.
While last September remains on everyone’s minds, the injury crisis that has blighted our year right from the off is surely a greater cause for concern. As the old saying goes, if we hadn’t bad luck we’d have no luck at all and, with Ryan O’Donoghue, our standout player so far this year, not set to feature today, the bad luck we’re suffering on that front shows precious little sign of abating.
That said, the return of a few key players for this one could prove crucial. Rory has performed excellently for us between the sticks of late but having Robbie back, with his more varied restarts and his ability to land long-range frees, is a big plus. Having Paddy back is an enormous boost. And having a fully fit Oisín in the team greatly helps too.
As well as that, Diarmuid has had six weeks more to get tuned up properly and Cillian should have plenty more in the tank too. Bryan Walsh returns, too, after a long lay-off and Jordan Flynn is reportedly on the bench so maybe this injury crisis is finally beginning to ease.
Even with all our problems on the injury front, we’re still deserved favourites to win today. While Castlebar is anything but a fortress for us, we’ve never lost a qualifier game there and these are the kind of games in which we give it all in pursuit of victory.
It would need a good team to beat us today. Monaghan are no slouches and they’ll know how to hurt us. Galway gave them the template and it’s not one that’s difficult to implement, though our often low energy approach when faced by the shawl the last day certainly didn’t help our cause.
Because of this, a good start is important, both to put them on the back foot but also to get less experienced players like Aiden Orme and Jack Carney into the game. Punish them early, get them ask them some hard questions and then – as Kevin McStay noted on the podcast about how qualifier matches can play out – a cagey contest could quickly open up.
And if it does then the supporters have to play their part. There has been an understandable disjoint at times this year between the team and management (especially the latter) on one side and the supporters on the other. But, you know, a house divided cannot stand – this is Championship, we’re all on the same side and if we all act in that fashion today then getting the required result, on home turf, becomes a less challenging proposition.
So, are you all ready for the high wire later on? You can be sure that James and his team are and what’s sure to be a big Mayo crowd need to demonstrate that they are too.
This is, after all, Championship football. This is kill or be killed. This is win today and live another day. As ever it’s great to be alive, great to still have a dog in the fight.
And this dog’s not done yet either. Here’s hoping we see plenty of proof of that today. Let’s get this one done and get back into the bowl on Monday morning. The talking’s over, now it’s time for action. Up Mayo.