I went along to Croke Park on Saturday evening for the qualifier double-header, partly because I was experiencing withdrawal symptoms having been away for the few weeks but also because I knew there was a good chance that we’d be paired against one of the winners from the two qualifier ties. Having seen both matches, I felt that Kildare – now massively over-hyped, I reckon – would be the ideal draw for us while Cork were obviously the team to avoid. That alone should have told me how the draw was likely to pan out and that’s before you consider that it was a Corkman and a Kerryman who were playing with the balls yesterday evening.
No matter how you cut it, it’s a pig of a draw and the worst of the three we could have got. But, no more than poor old Wexford and that point-that-wasn’t-a-point against Limerick, what’s done is done. Cork it is next weekend and I’m sure James Horan and his team will be well into their plotting at this stage about how best to tackle this particular beast.
The Donkey Ayters were very impressive in beating Down on Saturday evening but the Mournemen made it very easy for them. The two goals they conceded were shocking from a defensive point of view and their backs as a unit were woeful, allowing Cork to run at will through them. After a bright opening, Marty Clarke quickly drifted out of the game and could well have walked far earlier than he did following a clash with Noel O’Leary. Cork’s point-taking in the second half was, to be sure, a sight to behold but Down had largely given up the ghost by then and most of those shots were leisurely, unpressurised ones.
We’re obviously being completely written off in advance for this match. I haven’t seen any odds yet but I’d be surprised if Cork were available at anything less than 1/6 or 1/7 and after the draw was made our odds on landing Sam drifted from 22/1 to 33/1. The lads on The Sunday Game last night repeatedly made reference to the upcoming Cork-Kerry rematch and the sole mention we got was Brolly’s sneering assessment that Cork will “wipe the floor” with us. Thanks Joe, we now know our place in the scheme of things.
In fairness to those who would write us off, our past performances at Croke Park haven’t exactly been hectic and it’s little more than a year ago that Cork did wipe the floor with us at HQ with that crushing defeat in last year’s league final. We also had that mad league match with the Dubs earlier this year but at least we made a game of that one.
Before that, you have to go back to 2009 for our last championship match there and, sure, if you go that far back you may as well keeping going back to 2004 and 2006. Both years saw us getting rightly clocked in the final but not before winning matches – against Tyrone in 2004 and the Dubs in 2006 – that all and sundry said we’d definitely lose.
The past is the past and it cannot be changed but this Mayo team – James Horan’s Mayo team – can’t be saddled with all the failings that have occurred when Mayo teams played in Croke Park in previous years. In this regard, it’s worth noting that only seven of those who started for us in that league final against Cork last year were also in the starting fifteen for the Connacht final, with that latter line-up only including six survivors from the team that started against Meath in 2009.
I think it’s fair to say that we’ve moved on from then but, then again, it’s also true that there’s considerable uncertainty, given the way Connacht played out this year, among our own supporters as to what our true worth as a team is right now. It’s one thing coming under the radar from the opposition’s perspective, quite another that we should head into a match like this not having any great idea ourselves about how good we are.
No matter how you cut it, we’re really going to be up against it the next day. Cork are the reigning All-Ireland champions and have all the confidence that comes from their status as such. They’re big, mobile and have the kind of players who are capable of running up a large tally on the scoreboard. Our ability to shackle the likes of Donncha O’Connor and Paddy Kelly will obviously be crucial but we’ll also have to break up that running game of theirs, which will mean that the workrate required from everyone is going to be far higher than what they’ve had to give to date. On Saturday, John Miskella came from deep repeatedly in the first half and the first time he tries to do this the next day, we need to have him on his hole well before he reaches halfway.
Kerry’s first-half demolition job on them has to be the key to beating them. We’re no Kerry (yerra, in all fairness etc. etc.) but under James Horan we’ve become a team with an enormous appetite for gobbling up loose ball in the middle third. From what I hear, we won an enormous amount of such ball in the second half against Roscommon and if we can get stuck in early, break up their rhythm and get enough ball to feed our inside line, we might just be able to ask questions of them. This places a huge responsibility on our young full-forward line but it’s also a real chance for them to show what they can do on the big stage.
And it obviously goes without saying that being a second half team won’t do next weekend. If we go in at the break four points adrift like we did against Galway and Ros, there’s no way we’ll be able to keep the margin in single figures. We simply have to get in their faces from the off and stay there for the full seventy minutes.
It’s also enormously important that there’s a big Mayo crowd there. Given my absence from the Connacht final, I’m the last one entitled to preach on this point but Cork will have nobody there and we’ll have whatever neutral support there is. A large Mayo following would show that we mean business.
An honourable defeat to the reigning All-Ireland champions would be no disgrace and would mark a successful conclusion to James Horan’s first year in charge. A thrashing would, however, undo much of the year’s good work and so whatever happens the next day, we have to ensure that this isn’t the outcome. As we know from 2004 and 2006, a win when least expected is the sweetest one of all. It’s hard to see us pulling it off but The Sunday Game next weekend would sure make for enjoyable viewing if we do.