Danny Hughes: Sense of anticipation building ahead of Super 8 series
SO home advantage really does count. Kildare drew a line in the sand and were not for moving. Roscommon manager Kevin McStay indirectly took the same stance as regards playing the Connacht final in Dr Hyde Park.
Unlike Kildare, though, they failed to follow through with a winning result. The Lilywhites have won the latest battle, however, they are unlikely to win the war.
While the result was brilliant for the GAA, with throngs of supporters invading St Conleth’s Park, I found myself feeling sorrow towards this current Mayo team after the dust had settled – not for the first time.
There is no doubt that Mayo would have been in a much better place to compete with teams such as Dublin and Kerry had they scraped out of Newbridge with something.
They have proved as much in the past, albeit having lost successive All-Ireland finals by the minimum in the last few years.
The loss of Tom Parsons and Seamus O’Shea to long-term injuries hasn’t helped their cause in 2018.
It has been too much to ask of Andy Moran at 34 years of age to start and finish inter-county matches and, while his performances were extraordinary last year, to back that up again a year later is unrealistic.
Moran, like Parsons and O’Shea, will be back again in 2019. Whether they’ll be anything like the players they were, well, let’s put it like this, chances are that they won’t.
Take it from someone who knows.
Every injury sustained over the age of 30 leaves its mark, physically and mentally.
Life’s complications also have a habit of catching up on you.
Foregoing the pleasures of a holiday with the family, stag dos, monetary reward in the daily occupation and the time spent away from your own children will make you question just whether the disappointments are worth it.
There are very few teams like Dublin out there. I have never experienced ‘winning’ consistently at that level so I don’t know. I have lost more than I have ever won.
On the flip side, the average Dublin squad player has never experienced losing in the manner that some of these Mayo players have, so no-one can judge this current Mayo team accurately. Walk a mile in my shoes and all that.
When Mayo were beaten in the Connacht final to Galway last year, the long road of Qualifiers, away fixtures and back-to-back matches always had a chance of catching them out, especially given the historical scares this squad have experienced in past seasons.
Sometimes your luck runs out and, in beautiful moments like Kildare’s win at the weekend, it can provide a whole county with the shot in the arm needed to enable some of their battled-hardened and equally committed players to enjoy their day in the sun.
For the Kildare players, Saturday was their day. However, when the draw for the next round came, there was nothing more sobering than a match-up against a very defensive Fermanagh team to re-focus minds.
Do not be surprised if Fermanagh win this encounter.
The Lilywhites may have been able to go toe-to-toe and blow for blow with a Mayo team who play open football. Fermanagh will certainly not be buying into this approach.
Carlow out-defended Kildare in the Leinster SFC and brought them down to a level. Kildare thought they were above that level and, as a consequence, paid a heavy price.
Cian O’Neill was under pressure to deliver something, the Mayo result being this ‘something’ required.
However, it might not be enough for him in the long-run if they fail to beat Fermanagh.
The one thing I always experienced at inter-county level was the fact that most counties hate playing Ulster teams.
Perhaps it was the negative connotations around how we played football in Ulster that didn’t sit right.
Only in recent years have southern teams had more joy from a results perspective, imitation being the best form of flattery in many of these cases.
What is good news from an Ulster football viewpoint is that we could see up to five Ulster teams in the Super 8s.
However, unlike the early Noughties or even the 1990s, the two strongest teams – Dublin and Kerry – remain outside of Ulster.
With both separated in the two groups, it makes the Super 8s an intriguing and much more exciting competition.
Up until this point, it has been about ‘weeding out’ the weak.
Aside from Mayo, all of the ‘big-hitters’ remain in the competition.
We pay to see the best players, so for this reason I am glad the stronger teams remain.
I do not think that we have seen the last of this current Mayo team.
They will most likely go away and lick their wounds.
The older players will take time to rehabilitate and get ready for next season, should they choose to stay on.
Ultimately, the least taxing road to the Super 8s remains via the provincial route and, in Connacht and Mayo’s case, this means defeating either one of Roscommon or Mayo or both.
They have found themselves not winning provincial crowns, yet competing in All-Ireland semi-finals and finals.
Dublin, meanwhile, still win the League and provincial titles as put in front of them, as do Donegal, as do Kerry (all provincial titles).
I think it is more important than ever for teams to win a provincial title before thinking of Super 8s or All-Ireland titles.
Tyrone are scrapping their way to a place in the Super 8 without really impressing.
Armagh are a mirror image of Tyrone and, eventually, if they continue to leave it until the last five minutes to win a Championship game, they too will exit sooner rather than later.
Monaghan, meanwhile, look to be building nicely again, even if their opposition has been of poor enough standard since that Fermanagh defeat.
For Down, Antrim and Derry, well, the one positive for them is that there should be no envisaged impediments to their club championships to be held in the coming months.
There is no county manager dictating when it starts or finishes. And no pull of the county players away from their clubs.
However, I am not sure that is a good thing. As Kildare supporters and fans will testify, that pull between club and county in
July and August means that something very exciting is happening.
It is home and away matches, neutral venues, pitch invasions and colour. It is town centres transformed by day and by night. It is Championship football.
It is heaven.