As was the case this time last year, it falls to the minors (and, of course, the ladies) to keep the flag flying for the county following the seniors’ departure from the arena. Twelve months ago, the exploits of Ray Dempsey’s charges kept us going up to (and then beyond) All-Ireland final day itself and next Sunday this year’s U18s have the same opportunity to claim a place for themselves on Gaelic football’s biggest day when they face off against Down for the right to meet Armagh in the All-Ireland minor final.
The minors head into Sunday’s semi-final with the Mourne lads in much the same way that the seniors went into that fateful quarter-final clash with Meath a few weeks back and so they face the same kind of perils as they weigh up the challenge facing them. Our lads are warm favourites to beat Down on Sunday and so there’s every temptation to start thinking about a possible final against Armagh but our recent poor record against the Northerners should mean that the only match we’re thinking about is the one that will get underway in HQ at 1.30 pm this Sunday. That record shows that Down’s minors beat us in the 1999 and 2005 All-Ireland finals and, of course, their U21s also saw off our lads in the All-Ireland semi-final back in April. While none of these defeats can be laid at the door of the team that Ray Dempsey sends out to battle on Sunday, they should still act as a timely reminder that we rarely have it easy when we come mano a mano with Down in matches such as this one.
This is not to say, of course, that Ray’s lads won’t have know this already: the minor boss is sure to have his team well tuned about the challenge that lies ahead for them at Croke Park. Speaking to Mike Finnerty in the Mayo News, Ray says that:
Our record against Down hasn’t been great in recent years but this is an opportunity for this group to be the first Mayo team to put that to rest. If we want to get to the final we have to beat them, it’s as simple as that.
On the issue of being favourites the next day, Ray’s take is a suitably down-to-earth and practical one:
There’s a certain pressure on when you’re favourites and that can be dangerous when a game starts. You have to built on a lead, or come from behind, or else you get beaten. It’s about being able to cope with situations. You have to look inside yourself when the pressure comes on and look for leadership.
You can see, in what Ray says above, that those final, frantic moments in the drawn final last year – where a cooler approach on the ball would surely have got us over the line – are still weighing on his mind and this is also evident when he says that:
… when we have the ball next Sunday, we have to make the right decisions and eliminate mistakes. We have to carry what we’ve done on the training field into the game. Players can only control their own performance and that’s all they’re responsible for.
I think we can be reasonably sure that any team Ray Dempsey sends out will be one that puts in a fully committed performance for the duration of the game. Whether or not this will be enough to carry the day remains to be seen but, if this bunch of lads show the same commitment to the cause as last year’s team did, then those of us in the terraces will surely have no cause for complaint.