So here we are.
It’s a perishingly cold morning here in the capital, where, after a night of hard frost, a thick mist hangs over the December air. We live not far from the sea here and at regular intervals the mournful calling from out on the bay of a ship’s horn breaks the Sunday morning silence.
And we’re in a pre-Christmas All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary today. The match takes place at Croke Park, just a short distance away from here but it may as well be on the moon. It’s a closed door match, live on RTÉ2 and Sky Sports Mix, with a 3.30pm throw-in. Meath’s David Gough is the ref.
When this one-slip-and-you’re-gone Championship began just a few short weeks ago we were no more than one of many hopefuls seeking to progress in it. Now just three counties are left standing – Dublin, Tipperary and ourselves.
There’s been much debate here and elsewhere following Dublin’s latest pythonesque performance last night. But, of course, we’ve no call to be involved in such chatter at all, as we’ve a more immediate worry to focus on today. And if we don’t get over today’s significant hurdle then Dublin will be of no concern to us.
Had this madcap Championship gone to form, it would have been Kerry we’d be playing today. Were this the case, we’d be in a very different mindset about this All-Ireland semi-final. Even if Cork had won Munster we’d be thinking differently about it.
But instead it’s Tipperary and we go into this afternoon’s behind closed doors meeting as very strong favourites to make it through to yet another final. And it’s easy to see why we’re favoured to do this – today is our ninth All-Ireland semi-final in ten years and we’re bidding to reach the decider for the fifth time this decade.
If anyone had told us a few short weeks ago that it would be Tipperary barring our way today we’d have gleefully chewed off their arm at the offer. But this Tipperary side are no walkover and we know full well from their historic win over Cork a fortnight ago that they’re a team we need to prepare for with caution.
The Premier lads have every right to feel as if the stars have aligned for them this year. Kerry unexpectedly eliminated by Cork, who must then have believed the heavy lifting for provincial success was done, Colin O’Riordan back in the fold for the few short weeks required and others available to them too who haven’t been there in recent years.
They’ll come into this afternoon’s semi-final with their confidence sky-high. We know they don’t fear us – they’ve spent most of the week saying this in the media – and we can sense they don’t hold us in the same regard as they might other potential opponents at this stage in the Championship.
But that’s okay. If anything, that kind of attitude from the opposition is of benefit to us.
We need to concentrate on what we’ll bring to this contest. We have to look no further back than our Connacht matches against Roscommon and Galway for hints about what this should be.
In both of those contests, we started strongly and took the game to them. While we sustained this approach well against Roscommon and won that one fairly easily, we failed to do so against Galway and were fortunate enough to fall over the winning line at the finish.
A good start today is vital. Tipperary got off to a flying start against Cork in the Munster final and they never looked back. We can’t afford to give them a similar injection of confidence at HQ today.
But starting well won’t be enough to get a result today. We need to see a sustained performance over the seventy minutes, with the bench being used in the right way to keep a high tempo right throughout. In other words, we need to see a Croke Park performance from this team.
There’s been much talk over the last few weeks how James Horan has shaped his remodelled team with an eye to playing at Croke Park. Today’s the day we’re going to find out the veracity of that claim.
James has certainly built this team with speed in mind. We’ve more pace in our ranks now than at any time inside the last decade. That should stand to us today, as should the huge experience that still resides within our ranks.
We need to be ready for a real battle today, as Tipp know this is a shot to nothing for them, as they aim to claim a first All-Ireland final appearance since the 1920 final was contested in 1922. Such an unburdened attitude makes them a difficult, unpredictable opponent for us.
But, equally, we’re a fairly daunting prospect for them. We’ve played at this level pretty consistently for the last decade – only once failing to reach the final four since 2011 – and the only counties to beat us at the semi-final stage in that period are Dublin and Kerry.
So we know a thing or two about All-Ireland semi-finals. In particular, we know they’re for winning. So let’s get out there and do just that. Here we go again. Up Mayo.