I’m at a bit of a disadvantage having not seen any of the weekend’s action to say anything vaguely relevant about what transpired over the last two days at Croke Park and what it might mean for us. Here goes.
The headlines in the morning will obviously be dominated by Kerry and Dublin. With the former having shot the proverbial lights out against Kildare (the worst ever team to reach the All-Ireland series?) while the latter cruised to victory over a game (and pushy-over-the-line) Fermanagh, the stage now looks set for a September classic that only the aristocrats of the Kingdom and their Liffeyside rivals are capable of serving up to the masses.
If that’s how it’s to be portrayed, then fine. To be honest, all the Kerry/Dublin orgiastics should be of no concern to us now anyway. The only match from the weekend that should be of interest to us (which, due to my absence from home soil, I didn’t see any of) was Donegal’s ultimately comfortable win over Galway on Saturday evening. That win sets up what will clearly be the most eagerly awaited contest at the quarter-final stage.
There’s much, even for the neutrals, to lick their chomps about in anticipation of this one. We lost the 2012 final to them, carrying home with us a bagful of regrets, and then we proceeded to tear them asunder in the quarter-final the following year, a match where they can – perhaps with some justification – claim that the result that day was freakishly unfair to them.
It’s also a meeting of two teams contesting a match at the business end of the championship under new leadership, with both having lost their talismanic managers last back-end. Up until the Ulster final last month, I felt (somewhat to my surprise, I have to say) that Rory Gallagher had, if anything, taken Donegal to a higher level than Jim McGuinness had left them. Going into the Connacht championship, in contrast, I thought we were a shadow of the team James Horan had sent out to battle in previous years but the no-nonsense way we claimed our fifth Connacht title on the trot has made me think otherwise.
Which of us has progressed since last year, a year when arguably we both should have beaten Kerry but neither of us ultimately could? We still don’t know but Saturday evening is set to reveal the answer for us.
We’ve no idea, of course, how Saturday’s match will go – my tuppence is that we should have enough to take them but it wouldn’t exactly be the shock of the century were the result to go the other way – but I think we can be sure that the coming days will see more spinning from both camps than you’d get in the week running up to a General Election. I understand that Jim McGuinness started it after Saturday evening’s game and that’s surely just the beginning of it.
The weekend’s action saw all three of the teams that stand between ourselves and a handy All-Ireland title demonstrate their capabilities to the nation. If we do manage to get by Donegal then Dublin await us in the semis at the end of the month and, if we’re still in the saddle after that, our great nemesis from the South will surely be there to greet us in the final in September. At least if we get that far it won’t be with those asinine questions still ringing in our ears about whether or not we’ve been tested yet.
Thoughts of matches in late August or mid-September aren’t, though, on the agenda for us now. Our entire season – all of our hopes and dreams about what this remarkable bunch of players can do and how far they can take the county – now rests on what happens when the ball is thrown in at 6pm in Croke Park next Saturday.
This contest could easily mark the end of the road for us for this year. We’ve grown accustomed in recent years, however, to seeing the team gain an extra pep in their step once they reach HQ. Four years in a row we’ve followed up our Connacht championship successes with a significant jump in performance levels at the quarter-final stage. We’ll need to do this and more next Saturday if we’re to get by Donegal and set up a semi-final meeting with the Dubs.
Although Saturday will see me missing an All-Ireland series match involving us for the first time since 2005, I’ll still be roaring the lads on from afar. I hope – and expect – we’ll have more than enough in our locker to get past this trickiest of assignments and keep the dream of ultimate success going for a while longer this year.