Saturday sees us make our sixth successive appearance in the All-Ireland Series, the latest episode in what is an unprecedented period of competitiveness for us in the championship. We’re become used to being still in with a shout for honours come August each year, even if ultimate success remains as elusive as ever for us.
When we take the field against Tyrone on Saturday it’ll also be with the knowledge that every year since 2011 we’ve surmounted the quarter-final hurdle. Cork in 2011, Down 2012, Donegal 2013, Cork again 2014 and Donegal again last year. All taken on, all beaten, as we’ve made it to the All-Ireland semi-final every year for the last five years.
That’s not the only boast we’ve been able to make since our fortunes took a sharp upturn back in 2011. Since then, we have on three consecutive occasions dumped the previous year’s winners of the All-Ireland out of the championship. We did this to Cork in 2011, to Dublin the following year and to Donegal the year after, flailing the latter without mercy in our most devastating Croke Park performance of the modern era.
We can also claim – if we want to, because it’s true – that every year since 2012 the county that eventually lowered our colours in the championship claimed the Sam Maguire that year. We were the beaten finalist in both 2012 and 2013, we fell at the semi-final replay stage in 2014 and again in 2015, with Kerry and Dublin respectively going on to win the All-Ireland. So near and yet so far for us, in each of those four years.
But here’s the thing – while we’ve much to be proud of in terms of how we’ve performed in the championship since 2011, there’s one glaring weakness in relation to how we’ve fared each year when we’ve hit Croke Park. It’s this: only once since 2011 have we beaten a provincial champion in an All-Ireland Series tie.
That win was over reigning All-Ireland champions Dublin in 2012. Some would have called it a typical Mayo performance: a match we looked likely to win by anything up to twenty points at one stage but where we nearly got caught by a full-force Metropolitan comeback before steadying the ship at the finish and winning by three points.
Dublin were the only one of the three defending All-Ireland champions that we beat who’d managed to hold onto their provincial crown the following year. Both Cork in 2011 and Donegal in 2013 were knocked off their respective provincial perches before we met them in the quarters, both of them consequently carrying the air of damaged goods when we came up against them.
In 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015 we were unable to get the better of the first provincial champion we came across. This was Kerry at the semi-final stage in 2011, Dublin in the 2013 final, Kerry again in the 2014 semi-final and Dublin in last year’s penultimate round. And, of course, having got past Leinster champions Dublin in 2012, we subsequently lost out to Ulster top dogs Donegal in that year’s decider.
This coming Saturday, we’re once more up against a provincial champion, this time in the form of newly-crowned Anglo-Celt Cup holders Tyrone. Because we’ve come through the qualifiers, this test has been thrust on us at the quarter-final rather than the semi-final stage, which is where we’ve tended to come up (and come up short) against this calibre of opposition in recent years.
Ironically, if we win on Saturday our opponents at the semi-final stage won’t be a provincial champion but will – like Tyrone were in 2013 – a team that has defeated a provincial winner. But to get a crack at Tipperary later in the month we first need to do something we’ve proven ourselves less than adept at over the last few years.
The blunt truth is that in this consistently competitive era we’ve enjoyed since 2011, we’ve consistently been poor at getting past the reigning top dogs from the other provinces. If we want to keep this year’s championship adventure alive for longer than the coming weekend, that’s a trend we have to buck when we square off against Ulster champions Tyrone on Saturday.