This morning’s draw for next weekend’s All-Ireland SFC preliminary quarter-finals pits us, once again, against Galway.
Sunday’s match at Pearse Stadium (throw-in 3pm) will be our fourth meeting with the neighbours this year, having played them twice in this year’s National League and before that in the Dome in the pre-season FBD League. Seán Hurson of Tyrone is the ref for Sunday and the match will be shown live on RTÉ.
Although a national title was up for grabs the last time we played them – at a bright and sunny Croke Park at the start of April – Sunday’s clash carries much more importance in the scheme of things than that NFL Division One decider. Of course it does: this is, after all, a knockout Championship match, a fixture that has to be decided on the day, even if that means extra-time and a penalty shootout.
For what it’s worth, we’ve already beaten them twice this year and drew with them the other time. One of those wins can be easily dismissed as that was just the pre-season joust in Bekan but the League final victory was of greater significance. The draw came in the opening round of the League in late January, when a late, late Ryan O’Donoghue strike rescued a point for us.
We were always to the fore in the Division One decider in early April and our three-point win that day was fully merited. Mind you, we had ‘keeper Colm Reape to thank, as the Knockmore netminder pulled off a succession of saves to keep them at bay, not to mention the self-indulgence of Shane Walsh and his wayward left-footed ’45 attempts.
We both played that day with a high degree of caution, doubtless because both of us had the reasonable expectation that we’d be meeting again, this time in the Connacht SFC semi-final at Salthill, three weeks later. Our defeat to Roscommon, a week after the League final, scuppered that anticipated reunion date.
Galway – despite having to take on Roscommon in front of an outsized home crowd at Hyde Park – handled them far better than we’d done. They came through that provincial semi-final with four points to spare and they then leathered Sligo in the Connacht final. This brought their total number of Connacht titles to 48, once more drawing level with us on the provincial roll of honour.
The Nestor Cup win earned Galway top seeding in the draw for the All-Ireland group stage. The draw wasn’t a kind one for them, though, as they ended up in a group with both Tyrone and Armagh, with last year’s Tailteann Cup winners, Westmeath, in there as well.
The Tribesmen started off their group stage campaign with a solid three-point win over Tyrone at Salthill. There was nothing showy about this victory but there didn’t need to be and it put them in the ascendency in the group from the off, with Armagh stuttering to a draw against Westmeath in the group’s other opening round game.
Galway had their own wobble when they faced Westmeath in the second round. They righted themselves in the second half, however, and they won that one by a decisive eight points.
This meant that – just like ourselves – they went into yesterday’s Round 3 match, in their case against Armagh, knowing that a win or draw would see them top the group and advance directly to the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
Like us – though not in the same way and not as gallingly – they fluffed their lines. Armagh beat them by a point to avenge last year’s quarter-final shootout loss and send Padraic Joyce’s charges skittering into this morning’s draw where – let’s face it – it was pretty much written in the stars that we’d end up facing each other.
Sunday’s meeting between us is a real high-stakes one, between two teams who might have imagined such a clash occurring deeper into the Championship, perhaps in the final itself. Instead, it’s a battle to the death to claim a place in the quarter-final, with another tough assignment a week later for the winners, with many long, depressing months of introspection for the losers.
Thanks to the qualifiers and then Covid we’ve had three knockout Championship meetings with them in recent years. Prior to our 2019 qualifier clash in Limerick, we hadn’t played each other in a knockout tie for twenty years. We’d won that memorable 1999 Connacht final, while their most recent knockout win over us was – and still is – the storied Year Till Sunday one, which launched their charge all the way to Sam Maguire success in 1998.
Our victory for us over them that evening in Limerick four years ago had a real touch of redemption about it. At last, we’d got the better of Kevin Walsh and his bloody shawl and, even better, we’d sent them packing from the Championship to boot.
We doubled the dose over them behind closed doors in the old-fashioned 2020 Covid Championship when we had just a point to spare over them at Pearse Stadium in a Connacht final played in mid-November that year. That was also the most recent time we tasted success over them at Salthill.
The following year – this time in high summer, with over 20,000 supporters allowed to attend that Croke Park Nestor Cup decider at a time when the pandemic’s grip had still to wane – we beat them again, once more ending their interest in the Championship. That was an easier victory for us, as we overwhelmed them in a storming second half to win by six.
They got the better of us in last year’s Connacht Championship, this time in Castlebar, with the crowds back with a vengeance, but this win didn’t carry the same significance as we had the safety net of the qualifiers to fall back on. It was still a damaging defeat, though, and it was a major factor in Galway going further than us in the Championship last summer, for only the second time in over a decade.
Whichever of us prevails on Sunday will, obviously, go further than their vanquished opponents in this year’s Championship. Because it’s Mayo v Galway, popular opinion, as well as the bookies, are calling it as a 50:50 clash.
The Tribesmen might, with some justification, view Pearse Stadium as an advantage from their point of view. We’re surely relieved, however, not to have to play again this year in our unhappiest of homes in Castlebar. In truth, the outcome of Sunday’s game is unlikely to turn on the venue and it’s a tie that’s genuinely very difficult to call, not least given the cloud under which both teams will approach it due to their respective defeats last time out.
Our loss to Cork was an enormously damaging reversal, all the more so in light of the great win we’d recorded over Kerry in Killarney in the group stage’s opening round. While Galway lost to higher quality opposition yesterday their form is, like us, deserting them at just the time of year when they should be approaching their peak.
Neither of us are likely to be able to flick a switch and rediscover the kind of form that we both enjoyed for much of the spring. This could make Sunday’s clash a dour and perhaps desperate battle for survival, from which only one of us will emerge still in the race for Sam this year.
Which of us is best equipped for such an elemental tussle? Let’s end with a vote on that.
Will we beat Galway?
- Yes (55%, 641 Votes)
- No (45%, 516 Votes)
Total Voters: 1,157