Tomorrow could be one of the bigger days for the county in recent years, offering as it does the opportunity for us to return to the All-Ireland semi-finals for the first time in three years and for only the third time this decade. It’s an opportunity we can – and should – grasp with both hands and, while I’m confident we’ll do so, that final semi-final berth will only become ours if we play in the way that the Roscommon game suggested we’re capable of while avoiding the kind of mistakes that were prevalent in our Connacht final performance against Galway.
Despite repeated references to 1996 and all that in the week since it was confirmed that it’d be Meath we’d be facing in the quarters, the low-key nature of the build-up to this clash shows clearly that the 2009 addition to this particular canon isn’t one that carries the same kind of incendiary properties as that infamous meeting did. Sure, there’s a big prize on offer for the winners and there’s months of idleness ahead for the losers but this isn’t the meeting of the two best teams in the country in a face-off for the game’s biggest prize and I don’t expect tomorrow’s contest to feel anything like this either.
And in spite of 1996, I don’t think there’s any particular needle between the teams, for the simple reason that, aside from a few challenge encounters, the counties haven’t kicked a ball in anger at each other for a number of years. That 1996 final was our most recent championship clash and we last played each other in the league back in 2003 (they won that one). Intense rivalries only exist between teams that play each other on a regular basis and where both teams have enjoyed good days at the expense of each other. In this respect, Mayo v Meath doesn’t tick too many boxes.
It’s also the case that, despite last winning the All-Ireland in 1999 (which, by the way, is another reason for Meath to be less bothered about 1996) and contesting the final in 2001 (having given Kerry one of their worst-ever championship beatings en route – I’ll always have a soft spot for the Royals for that one), Meath’s footballing stock has fallen sharply in recent years. 2001 wasn’t just the last year they got to an All-Ireland as it was also the last time they won Leinster and, apart from 2007 when they took Dublin to a replay in Leinster and then launched a backdoor run to the All-Ireland semi-finals, they’ve been absent from the business end of the championship every year since then. Even that 2007 campaign finished on a negative note for the Royals, with Cork overpowering them at the penultimate stage.
While we’re not exactly ever-presents within the All-Ireland series, history does suggest that in the years we’re good enough to win Connacht, we’re more than good enough to account for the kind of opposition that one can expect to meet in the quarters. In 2004, that happened to be the reigning All-Ireland champions who had somewhat carelessly lost their Ulster title; in 2006, it was that year’s beaten Leinster finalists. In neither year, truth be told, were we all that hot ourselves but we were good enough to make it over this particular hurdle (as well as the one after it).
While it’s difficult to point to any hard evidence as yet, I get the feeling that we’re a better side this year than we were in either 2004 or 2006 and that’s the first reason that I think we’ll win tomorrow. Unlike the last two summers, this team is settled, is nicely balanced and is augmented by a very strong bench. The resources that we have this year were good enough to blow Roscommon out of the water in June and to claim, despite that late wobble, an historic first-ever Connacht title in Salthill and our first victory at that venue in 42 years. If we’re good enough to do this, then you’d think we’d have enough firepower to deal with a Meath side that failed to do the business once again in Leinster this year.
Much has been made of how important momentum is when you hit the quarter-finals and, with Meath coming into tomorrow’s game on the back of an unbeaten four-match run (with qualifier wins over Waterford, Westmeath, Roscommon and Limerick), the argument goes that they’ll have got nicely back into the habit of winning and so represent a major threat to us. That could well be true (though Donegal’s abject performance against Cork, despite having beaten Derry and Galway in the lead-in to their quarter-final, would suggest that the importance of this factor might be a bit overcooked) but it needs to be noted that we’ve got a bit of momentum going too as a result of our successful Connacht campaign.
Arising from this, I’d expect us to hit the ground running tomorrow afternoon and, if we do, this is the second reason we’ll win tomorrow. Last weekend showed, if anyone needed showing, the importance of setting out your stall early. A strong opening allowed both Cork and Kerry to complete their day’s work well before half-time while Kildare’s bright opening meant that Tyrone were given plenty to think about before they were finally able to plot a way past Kieran McGeeney’s men in the second half. If we start well, we could see that rarest of birds – a comfortable Mayo win at Croke Park – tomorrow afternoon but if we lapse back into the ways that were still common for us as recently as our opening Connacht match over in Gaelic Park, then we could find ourselves in all kinds of bother.
I don’t expect us to overwhelm Meath in the middle third the way that we did early on to Roscommon – Crawford and Meade are a strong enough pairing in the middle for them – and this means that we’ll need to improve our performance in this area in terms of winning the breaking ball in this sector. We showed plenty of effort in this area in Salthill but Galway were repeatedly first to those breaks and it was their failure to make more productive use of this ball, allied to some very solid defending on our part and a reasonable ability on our part to win primary possession around the middle, that enabled us to keep on top in that game.
Kerry showed to devastating effect last Sunday – as we’d done against Roscommon in June – just how unbalanced a game can quickly become when one side wins all the ball that’s there to be won over the course of the opening ten minutes. It’ll quickly become apparent to us tomorrow if our lads have been working hard to improve this aspect of our game and, if they have, it could be a productive day at HQ for us. In truth, if we don’t show significant improvement in this area then we’ve no business trying to gain passage to a semi-final meeting with the Kerrymen but that’s another day’s work altogether.
Last weekend produced three of the worthiest semi-finalists you’re likely to see. This trio were also there twelve months ago (and two of the four were there the year before as well) and they’re all regular party-goers in this exclusive social circle. Other unlikely socialites can, as Wexford showed last year, stumble into this scene but it’s only by beating one of them that a wannabee county can have any hopes of breaking properly into this circle. The prize on offer tomorrow is the chance to take on the most glamorous ticket in town and, when it’s all in the melting pot tomorrow, the team that’ll win that prize is the one that’ll have the greater desire to tango with the Kerrymen three weeks hence.
While I’m sure their preference would be Meath (memories of 2001 will still be vivid enough down south), this isn’t a dance where they get to pick their partner and, despite those scarring defeats we’ve suffered at their hands in recent years, we’re surely going to have the greater desire to claim the prize of another joust with the Kerrymen. It’s that factor, allied to our greater all-round ability and workrate, that will, I believe, see our lads record the county’s first championship win over Meath since 1951 tomorrow afternoon and, in doing so, secure our position in the All-Ireland semi-finals for the first time since 2006.