The start of a new week and once more we’re in build-up mode. The journey on this long and winding road – one that’s taken the team from Ruislip, back to MacHale Park and onwards to Croke Park, for what on Saturday will be our fifth championship match there this year – is nearly done. Nearly but not quite.
It should be a memorable spectacle at Croke Park on Saturday evening, with dusk falling soon after throw-in and the match played out under the lights, just like the hurling final replays in recent years were. Although it’ll take place at HQ, the look and feel of the replay will, in many respects, be a world away from what an All-Ireland final normally resembles.
From our perspective, that’s no bad thing. The more we focus on Saturday as just a game, the better. Sure, we all want Sam but the best way to get possession of it surely is to focus on the means rather than the end. Win the game and everything else looks after itself.
The narrative since the drawn match has remained pretty constant all week and that’s unlikely to change ahead of Saturday’s replay. The risible Dublin spin – started by Jim Gavin in the game’s immediate aftermath last Sunday and then amplified by his mouthpiece Ciaran Whelan that night on The Sunday Game, about the Dubs being lucky to be still in it and our having thrown it away – has dutifully been swallowed and regurgitated since by the national media.
This worldview has, from what I can see, become the pretty much the settled consensus of how things stand heading into the replay. That and the fact that we should be praying for rain. Or miracles. Or both.
That’s all fine and we should be happy to let that particular balloon inflate to the full ahead of Saturday. Lookit, there’s even a grain of truth interred somewhere in there.
While the charge that we left the game behind us is patent nonsense, what seems clear from my re-watching of the drawn encounter was that Dublin, despite being reined in so sharply on so many fronts, still had the winning of it. They dominated possession 55:45 and kicked a dozen wides, at least half of which should have resulted in scores.
In that regard, I think it’s beyond doubt that they really were the ones who left the win behind them (sure, didn’t they give us the ball back on 76 minutes when they were still a point up?). They could and should have beaten us at the first time of asking and so it’s reasonable for them to assume (though we wouldn’t necessarily concur) that an improved showing on their part will yield the desired result. The 8/15 odds on them to win on Saturday bear out this line of thinking.
The one bit of the narrative that should bug us – and the one that’s crying out to be redressed – is the one that has seen the team’s reputation in general and Lee Keegan’s in particular being so badly blackened. The softening up on Lee actually began some weeks back but Whelan gave it considerable legs on The Sunday Game the night of the drawn match.
It’s been repeated several times since then and I’d be worried at this stage about the drip effect. Not least given how much Maurice Deegan was so clearly influenced by a similar smear campaign waged against us ahead of the 2012 final.
Some balance over the next few days wouldn’t, then, go amiss. A bit of focus would be good, for example, on how Connolly repeatedly struck out at Lee during that second half schemozzle. Or what about the way McManamon charged into Diarmuid O’Connor after five minutes in a transparent effort to cause as much physical damage to him as possible? And what of MacAuley’s crude attempt at decapitating Cillian in the second half?
With all the finger-pointing at Lee, where Alan Brogan’s contribution has been particularly disgraceful and one-eyed (first para here and here), these incidents have largely been airbrushed out of the story of the drawn game. They shouldn’t be.
The crude vilification campaign being waged by the blue corner could well, however, redound on them. Maybe Deegan has grown a pair since 2012 and so the not-so-subtle messaging at him will fall on deaf ears. And maybe, just maybe, there’s a hint of desperation in this dirty tricks campaign.
We’re the only team left standing that’s capable of putting it up to Dublin and they know it. Hell, even Kerry were getting their excuses in about being beaten before taking the field in the semi-final. Dublin know full well that we’re up for another full-throated battle against them and they know too that we’ll be aiming to double the dose the next day.
But as we plan to do this, we’ll surely be honest enough to acknowledge that our performance the last day, while heroic, was a long, long way short of perfect. Our recognition of this fact certainly appeared evident in what Stephen Rochford and Keith Higgins had to say at the press event last week (piece from Dermot Crowe in the Sunday Independent here).
So as this longest ever championship season for us inches its way towards what we all hope will be a thrilling and victorious denouement, it’s in the knowledge that while we’re in a far better place than most would give us credit for, one further almighty push is needed on Saturday evening to get us over the line. Up in the stands and out on the field, this is a collective effort we all need to be involved in. We can do this, we will do this.
There are ten tickets for the replay (and a €10,500 jackpot prize) up for grabs in tonight’s draw for the Mayo GAA Players Welfare Lotto. Play the Lotto here.