I read a marvellous book while on holidays – Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna – a novel which places the fictitious central character in the company of Leon Trotsky, the muralist Diego Rivera and his painter wife Frida Kahlo in Mexico in the period leading up to the former’s assassination there in 1940. Perfect holiday reading it was, just as one of the same author’s previous novels, The Poisonwood Bible, proved to be on another beach many years ago.
The book, obviously, has nothing whatsoever to do with the core remit of this site but it’s the title that’s somewhat relevant. A lacuna is a gap or a missing piece or some sort of thing and, marooned as we are in this period following the conclusion of the provincial championship and still in blissful ignorance of who we might be facing in the All-Ireland quarter-finals the weekend after next, you could say we’re in a bit of a lacuna ourselves right now. Alternatively and, at the risk of straining the metaphor a bit closer to breaking point, my own absence from the wet and windy surroundings of Hyde Park where the Nestor was won last Sunday could also be seen as a kind of gap in proceedings (well, for me at any rate).
Anyway, enough of the metaphors. While the qualifiers play out this coming weekend (though not quite fully, given the Armagh/Tyrone/Roscommon ménage à trois which will take another weekend to resolve) and before the draw for the quarters is made – which is scheduled to take place live on RTÉ on Sunday evening after the Galway v Waterford SHC quarter-final (details here) – there’s a small gap in which to reflect on where we’ve got to and what might happen from here on in.
There’s been a fair bit of talk about the disparaging treatment that we – and, by extension, all other Connacht counties – have received from the pundits, both before and since last Sunday’s provincial final. My view is that such babble is simply noise, annoying and grating noise to many ears, but just noise nonetheless. The pundits are spectacularly wrong in their analysis and predictions most of the time and we should never be worried or put out in any way when they trot out smart-arsed lines they probably took half the week beforehand to think up (Spillane’s pathetic jibe about Connacht’s ‘junk status’ is an obvious example here).
What strikes me most vividly about the football pundits is how their ‘analysis’ differs so greatly from their hurling counterparts. The hurling lads invariably talk enthusiastically about a game they obviously love while, for the football guys, any such feelings appear to be reserved solely for themselves. Personally, I think that all this negative press can only be good for us, as Aidan O’Shea’s wonderful Twitter response to Liam Hayes last Sunday evening showed. I’d be more than happy for us to be written off completely by all and sundry before we get to Croker, enabling us to give our best and most appropriate response where it really matters – out on the turf at HQ.
In terms of the Connacht campaign itself and what it means for where we stand, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve won the provincial title without really knowing all that much ourselves about our true worth as a team. I can’t recall a previous situation where we beat both Galway and Roscommon in winning Connacht and still hadn’t much of an idea about how good we were. The London near-miss could be a factor, Galway’s supine challenge probably is too and while Roscommon are certainly an improving side, I don’t think we can say for certain how good they really were either. Added to this is the weather, with both the Galway and Roscommon games played in conditions you’d expect to have to endure at a league match in early March rather than in high summer. If we’re coming into the quarters under the radar (which we clearly appear to be), then this has to be at least in part due to the fact that we have yet to play a championship match this year in weather you’d expect to see for such games.
Another factor about this year is how the team has evolved in the right way, compared to what went on under the previous regime. Then, we had largely settled teams in the league, giving way to widespread shuffling come championship time, with predictable results. Under James Horan, it’s been very much the other way around, with only a few exceptions (notably Trevor Mortimer, whose recall for the championship has been an undoubted success). We’re now at the stage where we can expect to see only minor tweaking to be made to the quarter-final team compared to the side that started the last day. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised to see us line out with the same starting fifteen in Croke Park.
We’ve also been lucky (so far at least) with injuries. Apart from Trevor Howley (who started against London),we haven’t lost a single player to injury in the championship this year. That’s got to be some kind of record for us. Even if we do take a hit or two on this front in the quarters, our bench is now looking stronger than it has for some time, a point underscored the last day by the successful switches James made in the second half, with all those coming in playing significant parts in securing the win.
Looking to the quarters, with Armtyrommon out of the equation for us it looks like we’ll be facing either Cork, Kildare or Wexford the weekend after next (the bookies fancy all three to make it through and so do I). None of them will be easy (though Wexford would represent a more manageable challenge for us than the other two might) and, in another twist to the insane championship structure we’re saddled with, all of them will have played at least one championship match at HQ this year before we’ll get to do so.
The quarter-final record of all the provincial champions isn’t great and is getting poorer every year (with all four falling at this stage twelve months ago) while the quarter-final record of the Connacht champions is poorer still – our runs to the final in 2004 and 2006 remain the only times that Nestor Cup holders have made it past the quarters since the backdoor was introduced in 2001. So, as we go into the All-Ireland series expectations of us will be very low amongst others and many of our own supporters will, no doubt, be of the same opinion too.
Until the draw is made, it’s fairly pointless speculating about how we might fare out on the Bank Holiday weekend. But at least we’re in the draw and we have a team that doesn’t readily want to accept defeat. Let’s see who we pull and then take it from there. In the meantime, all we can do is kick our heels and wait for the balls to be drawn from the bowls on Sunday evening. As we do so, it’s instructive to think back to the state we were in twelve months ago. Regardless of how we get on in the quarters, it’s obvious that we’re in a far better place now. Defeat with honour would mean that 2011 will go down as a very solid first year in charge for James Horan while victory would of course propel us and all those dreams that bit further down the road.