On the day Dublin played Waterford in the relegation final in Walsh Park in 2014, we still had four minutes before we had to leave the dressing room when I walked out the door. “I’ve enough said,” I told the players. “I’m going.” I high-tailed, banged the door and was gone.
The players had their say before Michael Carruth, the 1992 Olympic boxing gold medallist, had the final word. A couple of weeks earlier, Jose Mourinho got the Chelsea masseur Billy McCulloch to give the pre-match team-talk before their 1-0 victory against Man City. I didn’t know who the hell Billy McCulloch was but I was sure that Carruth — who was working with Dublin as a masseur — had a lot more to offer than McCulloch.
We clipped Waterford in that game to stay up. We were all wired but that performance was about more than survival. We’d had a good year in 2013, which we wanted to back up. Waterford had beaten us earlier in the league and we wanted payback. And we also wanted to put down a marker to Waterford in case we met them again later in that 2014 season.
We didn’t. We had a poor summer, which was my last with Dublin. When I looked back on it afterwards, maybe we used up too many big performances in that league because we had also beaten Clare and Kilkenny. I had put it up to the boys to stand up on those days but it takes a huge mental fortitude to sustain that approach over a season.
With the new system now, teams are trying to balance that equation even more. It’s difficult to know what approach Cork have taken so far in this campaign. They seem more focussed on unearthing new players than gathering points but no manager wants to get relegated either.
Cork need to win to avoid the relegation final. Tipperary are in the same boat but I think Mick Ryan will be just as concerned with laying down a marker, as much to his own team, as to Cork, before the championship.
Tomorrow’s match probably won’t have any huge relevance to the championship but Mick will know that last year’s league game did. Tipp didn’t have to win in Páirc Uí Rinn but Cork did and the confidence they accrued that day looked to be a factor when they took down Tipp in Thurles eight weeks later. Both teams need to win tomorrow but I think Tipp will, for reasons related to more than just the two points, and avoiding relegation.
The biggest game of the day tomorrow is in Salthill. It was always going to come down to beating the All-Ireland champions at home for Limerick and this is a glorious opportunity, not just to secure promotion, but to see how far they have come, especially without their ten Na Piarsaigh players.
Nobody knows what Galway are thinking. Micheál Donoghue may have decided that the time for cruising is over and they could come out and unleash hell on Limerick tomorrow. But Galway are not Kilkenny yet and it’s not always easy to hit that mental switch and turn into Kilkenny-esque terminators in their prime.
You also feel that Limerick’s need has to be that bit more. It may be in the back of Micheál’s mind too that a defeat could provide him and the players with the rocket fuel required for a championship back-to-back drive.
Hunger and freshness is going to be a massive factor with this new championship but that applies to Galway more than anyone else. There has been a lot of celebrations since last September, which is only natural after such a long hiatus. We saw it ourselves with Clare in 1996. We were very close to beating Limerick in the Munster semi-final but we still couldn’t get it done.
There is always the danger of cramming work, which we did during that 1996 season after the elongated celebration and the team holiday. Who is to say that cramming didn’t come against us with five or six minutes to go against Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds that scorching afternoon in 1996?
The championship is different now. Sports science is at a completely different level but Galway have still surely had to play catch-up on their physical conditioning.
That is a delicate balance and Micheál will probably be more focused on his squad being mentally and physically right for the summer than winning tomorrow.
In that context, and with Limerick’s savage desire to escape this eight-year purgatory in the second tier, I fancy them to get through. It may even be a draw but that will do for Limerick with their superior scoring difference.
A draw may even suit Galway. It would maintain their unbeaten run and also allow Micheál to try out a few more young lads next spring.
In Nowlan Park tomorrow, Brian Cody will want to break Wexford’s run of three successive wins against Kilkenny but I still think Wexford could do them again, though that is hugely dependent on the personnel that lines out). Wexford have already qualified. They have a few injuries but this is Davy Fitz, with Cody in the other corner. Is it in Fitzy’s nature to back off in this scenario?
I also think that Kilkenny may be a little flat because they have been fighting on their backs for results throughout this campaign. The two games Kilkenny lost were still only decided by one score and, while Cody will be even more desperate not to lose a third game, especially against Wexford, and risk a relegation final, this may be more of an ordeal than Kilkenny expect it to be.
Finally, one of the biggest games of tomorrow afternoon takes place in O’Moore Park between Laois and Dublin. It is never easy to win in Portlaoise. Laois never traditionally fear Dublin but a Dublin win is as much about securing that quarter-final as avoiding a relegation final.
Along with the momentum it would generate, a win would also be a huge confidence boost. Mentally, it could turn Dublin into a dangerous animal for the championship. A defeat though, and the doubts could pollute their minds ahead of the summer.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved