It’s been a National League campaign that has gone far better for us than many – myself included – would have predicted in advance. So much so that this afternoon we find ourselves in this afternoon’s Division One title decider against Kerry, a contest that throws in at Croke Park at 4pm. Cavan’s Noel Mooney is ref and the final is live on TG4.
The fact that the game is on TV is of more than academic interest to me, I’m afraid, as medical reasons mean that, despite the fact that Croker’s just a short stroll down the road from me from where I live here in the capital, I have to stay housebound for a few days and so I can’t be there at HQ this afternoon to see the action myself. Never mind, many are being called to carry far worse crosses in this world than my slight inconvenience today.
The League is an odd bloody competition. Different teams going at it hammer and tongs at different stages – but never everyone at the same pitch on the same day – with every county doing their utmost to avoid the drop while, at the same time, feigning an air of insouciance at the thought of aiming seriously to win the thing.
Kerry, to be fair, not for the first time under Jack O’Connor’s leadership, have eyed League progression as a springboard for an all-out assault on Sam this summer. It’s no real surprise that they booked their place in the final with a game to spare.
Once our unbeaten run this spring had ended – against Kerry, as it happens – it looked as if we’d suddenly lost all interest in making the decider, a feeling that, for many supporters (again, myself included) hardened to near certainty after that galling two-point loss to Tyrone. As it turned out, though, we’d nearly done enough by then to make the final and last Sunday’s handsome win in the sun over Kildare made sure of this.
So, here we are in it. Can we win it?
Surveying the two teams – Kerry, bar Seán O’Shea (who’s named in the match day panel so might yet start), fielding with a full metal jacket Championship 26, while we’re missing a number of key performers, notably Rob Hennelly, Paddy Durcan and Diarmuid O’Connor – you’d have to say that this one is Kerry’s to lose.
We know from Tralee that there isn’t a whole load between the two sides but losing that trio – who all started and performed strongly for us in Austin Stack Park – definitely weakens us. Seán O’Shea didn’t feature for them in Tralee and, if he does start this afternoon, that’s another huge plus for them.
Added to that is the more settled nature of their team so far this year. For us, by contrast, it’s been – partly by design but also, in light of a chronic, unrelenting run of bad luck on the injury front, out of necessity – a case of constant experimentation.
All this mixing and matching will, of course, stand us in good stead over the coming months. We now have unparalleled squad depth and real choice in several areas, with options increasing as players such as Eoghan McLaughlin, Darren McHale and, yes, Cillian O’Connor (all of whom are in the match day panel today) come back into the reckoning.
We can’t, of course, forget either about the Galway match three weeks from now. Kerry meet Cork in the Munster semi-final two weeks after that but, realistically, the first Championship match Kerry will need to be in any way well prepped for this summer is the All-Ireland quarter-final so that means they can give it everything in today’s National League decider in a way that we so obviously cannot.
All of which points towards the likelihood of a Kerry win at HQ today which, on balance, is what you’d expect to see happen.
They’re wary of us and with good reason. We’ve enjoyed a few happy days out at Croke Park over the last decade and among the happiest of these have been the ones against Kerry, in particular the League semi-final in 2012, the All-Ireland semi-final replay in 2017 and, of course, the League final in 2019.
Their recent record in Croke Park is, strangely, rather poor. Indeed, they haven’t played there a whole pile in recent years, which, even accounting for Covid, tells its own tale. You have to go back to 2018 for their most recent Championship victory at HQ, a three-point win over Tyrone in that year’s All-Ireland semi-final, and a year further back for their most recent League win there, which was, to be fair, in the Division One decider over what was then still very much the all-conquering Dubs. They won that one by a point.
That recent Croke Park record, which includes League and Championship draws with Dublin (the latter in the 2019 final) and a Super 8s game against Donegal from 2019, shows that this is a team that can get extremely jittery when a contest at HQ gets tight.
So the last thing we should be doing today is letting them ease into the game and allowing that forward line to purr in the way we know they can. That road will only lead in one direction for us. If we’re in their faces from the off and stick with them until the closing stages, turning the screw on them then, as we did so deliciously in 2019, that might well do it.
Then again it might not, but that, I guess, is the beauty of sport.
From our perspective, I hope we perform well today and that, above all else, we suffer no fresh injuries in this afternoon’s final. I hope too that Cillian gets a solid 15/20 minutes of action to ease him back into the fray and I hope he and Ryan cause a bit of damage together. I hope we win, of course I do, and, from my solitary perch within earshot up the road I’ll be willing us to do so.
Safe travelling to all who must be on the road now. With three Connacht counties and one from the far south-west there’s certainly plenty of mileage to be clocked up. As Friday’s crushingly sad news about the untimely passing of Red Óg Murphy proved so clearly, however, this one life we all have is precious so take it handy today and remember that, whatever happens for any of the four teams this afternoon, it is, at the end of the day, just a game.
Best of luck to our bucks, though – no matter how badly we’re hit or how much it hurts, we always, always, get back on our feet and go again. I truly thought that last September could well have killed the fire within us but not a bit of it. We’re back as mad and as keen as ever.
It’s that fire that sees us back, less than seven months on from the All-Ireland final, battling it out for national silverware once more. We might lose, again, but we know the lads will do what they can to win it and that’s not all they’re aiming to win this year either.
Lookit, we’re in it so let’s go out there and win it. I loves me county. Up Mayo.