Game day – it’s all on the line once again

Because it’s the qualifiers, it’s no surprise that today’s match day has arrived with indecent haste after our last one only seven days ago. And, because of today’s opponents, we need no reminding that each day out in the qualifiers could well be our final Championship outing for the year.

We’re strongly expected to beat Kildare in this evening’s Round 2 qualifier clash, in which a place in the All-Ireland quarter-finals is up for grabs. The match takes place at Croke Park (with a 6pm throw-in) where – finals aside – we tend to perform better than anywhere else. We’re also coming into it with a small bit of momentum following the win over Monaghan whereas their last day out was the Leinster final hammering meted out to them by a rampant Dublin.

We could, then, with some justification, wonder if the Lilywhites are up for this one. But we already know – not least due to how the Newbridge or Nowhere meeting four years ago played out – that they quite obviously will be. The same prize is on offer for them as it is for us and it’s the same season-ending fate that awaits whichever of us that loses. Of course they’ll give it everything against us, a team they know they can beat in Championship football.

In addition, like every team that plays us nowadays, Glenn Ryan and his brains trust don’t need to do any original thinking to come up with a game plan that gives them the best chance of beating us. Like Galway under Joyce, Kildare aren’t a naturally defensive team but if they – as Galway did – hold their noses and drop players back, that will mean, once again, we’re faced with the kind of exam question that simply doesn’t suit us.

The fact that we’re missing Ryan O’Donoghue from our starting fifteen today will also surely embolden them further. Ryan played absolute puck against them in the League match in Carrick and he’s been our best player this year by some distance. While he may, I guess, feature off the bench for us, the reality is that if he was 100% fit he’d be starting for us at Croke Park this evening.

They can, too, channel memories of 2018 to help their cause. The venue is an issue this time as well – only on this occasion for us, with the fact that the match is at HQ likely to result in perhaps the smallest Mayo crowd at a Croke Park Championship match (ignoring Covid) since the All-Ireland quarter-final against Cork in 2011. Absent the usual huge Mayo following, the cavernous venue isn’t likely to feel anything like the usual home from home for us this evening.

Back in 2018, Kildare came into that fateful Round 3 clash against us at St Conleth’s Park off the back of a humiliating seven-point defeat to Carlow in the Leinster quarter-final. We’d both won two qualifier rounds that long, hot summer – us beating Limerick and Tipperary, while they beat Derry and Longford – heading to Newbridge and even though we were hampered badly by the loss through injury of key players, we still appeared to have the greater momentum.

Does this sound at all familiar?

Sticking with that Newbridge match, Kildare got a run on us early on that evening and while we reeled them back in without too much trouble, we’d shown them how we could be got at. This then gave them them the confidence to have a right cut at us and, backed by an increasingly vocal home following, that proved sufficient for them to land a mortal blow on us.

So, how we set out our stall from the start has to be key to our winning this evening’s match. While we did many things badly against Monaghan last weekend, a crucial thing we got right was that we were on the front foot on the scoreboard from early on and we never found ourselves chasing the game.

That meant that even though that 20-odd minute scoreless spell we endured in the second half was hugely frustrating, it wasn’t ultimately at all damaging. All the more so in light of Monaghan’s ludicrous tactic of sitting deep for most of the second period even though they were the ones in arrears.

In our two Championship matches so far, we’ve played our better football in the first half. Against Galway we recovered really well after a very poor opening spell and against Monaghan the last day we established a lead we never subsequently lost.

A positive opening spell – hopefully one where we can manage to locate the net in situations where clear-cut goal chances are on – will go a long way towards securing the win for us this evening. If we can do this and get our strike runners purring on the pristine Croke Park surface it could be a profitable evening for us, notwithstanding all of the dangers this all-or-nothing tie poses.

The best of luck to the lads later on and good luck too to Mayo’s women footballers who play their first round-robin match in this year’s LGFA All-Ireland Championship at 2pm this afternoon, as they face Tipperary at MacHale Park.

Here’s to two wins from two today. Onwards and upwards for both of them. Up Mayo.

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Game day – it’s all on the line once again