I’m quite happy about Mayo being in the qualifiers. Our whole county has been fixated for the last few years on this notion of ‘six games’: essentially what it takes to go from Connacht to the Sam Maguire. However, football is about a lot more than just six games.
The qualifiers does not mean all hope is lost. Kerry, despite being kicked out of Munster, managed to build their Kingdom up from scratch and raise Sam aloft in both ’06 and ’09. Tyrone have done it, Cork have done it and even Galway have done it.
It may just be the best thing that ever happened to this group of Mayo players. Normally when defeat in Mayo is experienced, it means that the year is finished but this time a lifeline has been provided and must be used justly. It’s more game time and, maybe with more practice, this could be the year that Mayo might make perfect.
We faced a tough opposition in Fermanagh on Saturday last. It was a sort of battle that we are not normally used of facing this early on in the championship. It was a firm answer to the questions asked by critics of our so-called leaders.
Keegan, McLoughlin and Aidan O’Shea were tremendous throughout, Alan Dillon’s second half addition was the breath of fresh (and experienced) air that was needed when we were under the cosh. The introduction of Barry ‘Big Bird’ Moran solved our kick-out situation as he was first to soar and field every ball in the middle of the park. Edwin McGreal of the Mayo News rightly termed Colm Boyle as ‘consistency personified’ – a man who always has a 7/8 out of 10 performance in him.
As for Diarmuid O’ Connor, his leadership is that strong that I was sure he was going to give Theresa May a run for next Prime Minister across the water. On that young man’s shoulders stands a footballing head with knowledge and experience way beyond its years while, from the head down, is a frame which can out-run, out-tackle and out-battle any man he comes up against.
Getting another chance through the back door came like a sigh of relief following the shock defeat to our neighbours in the Connacht semi-final. Although at half-time the last day against Fermanagh all hope was not lost, to paraphrase a certain George Hamilton, a county held its breath, and had been holding it for a few weeks at that.
As for that penalty decision? Who cares whether or not it was the right call or not, it was awarded and Cillian dispatched it perfectly. If O’Shea felt even the most minimal touch on his back he has every right to go down in order to try and win a free or a penalty for his team. The days of honest football is gone, folks, and it’s been replaced by blanket defences, low scoring matches and hand passes to beat the band.
Call me crazy, but I felt sorry for Aidan O’ Shea after the controversy. This is a man who is pulled, pushed, hit and dragged in an attempt to stop him. Week in, week out whether it is club or county level, he is a target man and is surrounded by a minimum of three players every time he is on the ball.
After that decision on Saturday afternoon, it will mean that players will be given an illegal right to hassle O’Shea even more. Meaning that when he is ‘fouled’ in the square with all fifteen of the opposition pinning him to the floor UFC-style, the referee will remember that one time he dived in MacHale Park and will let the battle commence until the ball is lost.
Speaking of battlefields, our soldiers march on to the next stage of the qualifiers where we meet Kildare this Saturday evening. Home advantage is key, MacHale Park was a fortress again on Saturday last, with the volume back up to its usual level of ten.
In the last two league encounters with the Lilywhites, they have scraped by on a point-winning basis each time and we’d gladly take that margin ourselves at a third time of asking. They were six points up and cruising against Westmeath before being dumped out of the Leinster Championship, the same margin Fermanagh had at the break last week. Therefore, if déjà vu was to occur at half-time this Saturday, they will remember our comeback a week earlier, while also recalling Westmeath’s revival against them. This means that not only have we the locational edge, we also have a psychological edge. No matter how good Kildare’s start is, our finish will be much stronger.
I’m not belittling Kildare, as has been pointed out at length here since the draw was made, they are master navigators through the qualifiers. Every opposition is to be feared, every match from now on is scary, every minute indeed is scary because, like the soldiers on the battlefield, there may only be one shot between life and death.
The County Board have pleaded with supporters to remain off the pitch at full time. If (hopefully to be replaced by the word ‘when’ at full-time) victorious, I may just find myself next door in Páirc Josie Munnelly running off feelings of joy and relief.