All roads lead to the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick for us this afternoon. This is the venue for today’s Round 3 meeting with Cork in the All-Ireland SFC group stage, a game that throws in at 2pm. Paul Faloon of Down is the ref and the match is being streamed live on GAAGO.
Has there ever been a more low-key lead-in to a Championship match involving Mayo? I don’t ever recall such a quiet countdown to a summer fixture as we’ve had for this one, certainly not in the last decade or so.
There’s a good chance this apparent indifference to today’s game will be given confirmation when the attendance at the Gaelic Grounds is confirmed. Close to 45,000 were rammed into the venue for the hurling last Sunday but I’d say it’s doubtful we’ll see much more than a quarter of that number there today.
There are a whole host of reasons why the crowds are, in large part, giving the football a miss so far this summer. The new structure hasn’t been a hit with supporters and the quality of the matches has been poor as well. Little wonder, then, that football fans appear to be holding fire until the knockout action gets underway, which is set to happen with the preliminary quarter-finals next weekend.
We don’t plan to be part of the action then. Today’s game will, though, dictate whether we are or not: if we win or draw today then we top Group 1 and proceed directly to the All-Ireland quarter-finals. If we lose, points difference is likely to dictate the top three positions in the group.
There’s been a fair bit of hand-wringing over the nature of our win over Louth in the previous round. Seen in some quarters as yet more evidence of the struggle we always seem to face when trying to break down a blanket defence, in reality Louth’s too-late riposte put a bit of a charitable sheen from their perspective on a game we never looked like losing.
Two wins from two games puts us in the driving seat in the group heading to Limerick today. With Kerry the top seed in our group, this isn’t a position we’d have expected to be in at this juncture but our unexpected win over Kerry in Killarney a month ago opened the door to us to win the group and claim a spot in the last eight of the Championship.
That’s the prize on offer for us today and it’s one we should be aiming to do everything in our power to grasp. As well as swerving a potentially hazardous preliminary quarter-final next weekend, it would give us another weekend off, with the potential, should we go on and win in the quarters, of a further fortnight’s break ahead of the semi-final.
For opponents Cork, today is as close to a free shot as they’ll get this summer. They’re already guaranteed to advance and while this is likely to mean another outing for them next weekend, they know that a win over us could, depending on what happens between Kerry and Louth, see them top the group.
Their performance against Jack O’Connor’s team last time out will surely embolden them. They had the All-Ireland champions in all manner of bother early in the second half and, despite the controversial penalty and the loss of Seán Powter for the bulk of the second period, they still only went down by two points that day.
Although we haven’t met them for some time – our 2017 Championship meeting, also played in the Gaelic Grounds, was the most recent time we did – we still know that Cork are the type of team to be wary of, a side stocked with skilful footballers who, if we let them play, have the ability to punish us.
Allied to this, the presence of former Galway manager Kevin Walsh in their backroom team will also provide us with some pause for thought. He’s a man who knows how to deploy a blanket to telling effect against us and we can expect that this will, at least in part, be the approach we’ll face from the Rebels today.
If it is, then our experience the last day against Louth should stand to us. Although we didn’t execute our blanket-busting approach well enough then, we did get out in front early on, forcing Louth to emerge now and again from their defensive shell, and we also created two gilt-edged goal chances.
A similar approach, only this time involving taking our chances when they arise, will go a long way to seeing us get the result we need today.
So too, surely, will the return of Diarmuid O’Connor. We really missed his play-everywhere presence the last day and it remains a matter of conjecture as regards how close the final result then would have been had he been on the pitch. If he starts – and he could well do so – this would be a major boost for us.
While there’s still no prospect of Cillian featuring today – his appearance for Ballintubber yesterday evening ruled that out – we should still have enough firepower up front to do the business this afternoon. That depends, though, on James Carr rediscovering his shooting boots after an off-day against Louth and also a greater scoring return from the likes of Ryan O’Donoghue, Jordan Flynn and Jack Carney. This quartet were on song in Killarney and if they’re humming again today, we’ll be well on our way.
If we can ally to this a tighter performance at the back then it’s hard to see us losing. That late goal by Louth will have stung and so a clean sheet has to be a major objective this afternoon.
We’ve rejigged the backline a bit for this one, with Padraig O’Hora – who was excellent against Louth and very effective against Kerry too – slotting into the full-back line. This switch releases exciting young prospect Sam Callinan to take up station at wing-back for the first time, with captain Paddy Durcan also named to start in the same sector.
Although Cillian isn’t on the bench, we’ve still plenty of talent there too, with two speedsters in the form of Enda Hession and Tommy Conroy. Both are likely to see action early in the second half and, with Cork’s replacement list looking a bit thin by comparison, who we bring in and when we do this could be a key differentiator today.
Ultimately, if we play at the level we’re capable of, putting in the kind of performance that Kerry couldn’t live with last month, it’s difficult to see Cork staying with us today. Our greater experience playing top-level teams all this year should come to the fore, all the more so as we’re now, finally, approaching the knockout stage of the Championship.
A win today will propel us forward to the All-Ireland quarter-final stage in the right frame of mind. Our fate rests squarely in our own hands and, while we’re favourites to win, this is a mantle with which we should be comfortable.
We have the capability to win today and a win is what we’re heading to Limerick for. I expect us to get it too.
Right, that’s enough blather, it’s time for me to hit the road. Here’s to a profitable day out for us in the Mid-West, here’s to another win for us in the Gaelic Grounds. Here’s to us sealing our place in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
Let’s get this done. Up Mayo.