It’s Connacht final day but not as we know it.
While there’s nothing novel about Mayo squaring up to Galway in a Nestor Cup decider, doing so at Croke Park is certainly a new development. But Covid has wrought change in so many areas that this one doesn’t even count as remarkable.
So Croke Park it is. The match throws in at HQ at the early time of 1.30pm this afternoon and, if you’re not planning on being there, it’s being broadcast live on RTÉ, with radio match commentary on RTÉ and Midwest. Cork’s Conor Lane is the ref.
It’s possible to put forward a plausible case for each team to prevail today. It’s as easy to deconstruct in short order the argument just advanced for victory by either side.
Our pitch starts with the pitch – Croke Park where, over the past decade, we’ve played our best football. We’ve beaten everyone worth beating on this hallowed turf since 2011 (though never all of them in a sequence that would have landed us the big one) and switching the game to HQ favours us greatly. We’ve got the speedsters to run them into the ground and that’s what we plan to do.
But, of course, all that football we’ve played at HQ was played, for the most part, by warriors who have now left the stage. Our current team – now with youth in abundance – doesn’t have as much in the way of Croke Park experience and it’s not a given that we’ll perform today like we’ve done consistently over the past decade. Plus, for the first time since 2009, we’re starting a Championship match at Croke Park without Cillian O’Connor in our ranks and we come into the game on the back of a Covid outbreak in the panel in recent weeks.
Galway’s case is based on their harder run of matches this year, the cleaner bill of health they enjoy and the greater potency they claim to have in their attack. They’ve been playing Division One football, while we’ve been swinging the lead in the tier below but, unlike us, they’ve managed to avoid accumulating a large injury list. Even Damien Comer is fit and ready for action, as is Shane Walsh, with both forming part of a forward line that’s ready to cut loose in the wide open spaces at HQ.
But while Galway have played in Division One, they don’t have a whole load to show for it. Walloped by Kerry, beaten by Dublin and, almost comically, throwing away a winning position in the relegation play-off against Monaghan, all Galway have done this year is getting relegated and beating Roscommon twice. While they don’t have players injured, they have a few who have walked off the panel. And where exactly is this evidence that Galway are capable of putting on a show at Croke Park, a venue where they’ve won just one Championship match since 2001?
Those are the two narratives – or at least caricatures of them – so I guess, depending on your standpoint, you can choose whichever one that fits your world view best.
Personally, I’m a bit torn about what to think about this one. We’ve had a productive year to date – with six wins from six starts – and so we’ve built up a nice bit of momentum as we head to Croker. But we know we’ve only beaten modest opposition so far this year.
Last November, we only scraped by Galway in the corresponding fixture. Since then we’ve lost Cillian, suffering too the raft of retirements back in January while they have the excellent Peter Cooke back in their ranks, as well as serious young emerging talent like the Kellys and Matthew Tierney, alongside their more established operators.
In short, I haven’t a clue how today will go. I am, though, expecting the lads to perform the way teams that James Horan sends out to battle at HQ have performed so often since 2011. If we do that we’ll be competitive and if we play as well as we’re capable then I don’t see why we can’t do the job.
For those of us who are at Croke Park today, it’ll be the first chance to see the team in Connacht final action since 2015. After completing a five-in-a-row of Nestor Cup successes we then went four solid years without even making it to a provincial decider and, of course, when we finally managed to do this once again, last November’s final at Pearse Stadium was played behind closed doors so none of us could be there to witness it.
So it’ll be good to be back today, even if – or maybe even because – this Connacht final today takes place in a very different environment and a changed venue to where the destination of the Nestor Cup is usually decided. It’ll be even better if the lads do the business today.
Let’s get to Croker, let’s get this cup. Up Mayo.