KIERAN SHANNON: Mayo will be determined to keep Galway in their place

‘Throughout the spring, June 13 had hibernated in my head… In the dressing room just before going out I spoke to the players in a group. That was something I never did. This game was different. I spoke from my heart about who we were and what we were about and what we were going to do when we went out the door, what we had to do.’ — Paul Galvin, In My Own Words: The Autobiography

It’s like a throwback, this one.

The stock of the provincial football championships has never seemed lower, with just three of the 25 clashes before the provincial finals being televised live on TV, compared to 11 as recently as last year.

Yet, you’ve to go back a while since a first-round game of football has had so many neutrals salivating, as it has this year, with that burning, if familiar, question: Will Galway ‘bate’ Mayo?

Tyrone and Donegal made more than one winter earlier on in this decade that bit shorter with the promise of the two of them literally colliding into one another in early summer up in Ballybofey. 

2013 would prove to be a huge letdown for Jim McGuinness from the crazy heights of the previous year, but it had the consolation of providing a moment in time that he says he’ll carry with him for as long as he lives.

Stephen O’Neill, who had been Tyrone’s standout player in their progression to that spring’s league final, lined up a hit on Neil McGee, “as if to say”, McGuinness would write in his autobiography: “‘Right, I’m going to have a good go at this boy now.’” 

Jim McGuinness
Jim McGuinness

McGee barely flinched and, instead, O’Neill was the one left buckled. In that moment, in that hit, there was a shift in energy and power. 

To me, all of the history between Donegal and Tyrone could be distilled into that moment and it was where we took control of the dynamic,” McGuinness concluded.

In 2015, it was much the same story. Again, Ballybofey was a sell-out weeks in advance, Donegal were coming off an All-Ireland final appearance and, though they would again end up having their Ulster title wrestled off them by Monaghan, they at least had the consolation of ensuring it wasn’t Tyrone, that they at least still had control of that dynamic.

More than any of those Tyrone-Donegal clashes, though, the fixture that Sunday’s game reminds us of is the 2010 collision of Cork and Kerry, the one referenced by Galvin above.

At the time, Kerry were the reigning All-Ireland champions, but they had been beaten in each of the previous two years in Munster by their nearest and fiercest rivals. Pride was not going to tolerate that happening for a third straight year, regardless of Cork’s own All-Ireland ambitions.

If you’re struggling to parse that game from the litany of Cork-Kerry clashes in those years, let us help you: It was the day Galvin was seen to fish hook Eoin Cadogan and the same day that he gained universal recognition once and for all as one of the finest and smartest players of his generation; after coming off the bench to a pantomime chorus of boos, he put on an exhibition of how to win and distribute the ball to help Kerry to a one-point win after extra-time.

Galvin’s subsequent suspension, combined with the one Tomás Ó Sé incurred in the Munster final, ultimately cost Kerry a shot at that year’s All-Ireland, as their depleted team was ambushed by Down in the quarter-finals, but they didn’t know any of that on that day in Cork, where Galvin and Donaghy celebrated with Jack as if they had won an All-Ireland. 

Tomas O Se
Tomas O Se

All they knew was they had reminded the old enemy — the reigning league and Munster champions — of the true hierarchy of things: Ye’re coming and ye’re good, but we’re better and we’re still here.

Mayo may not be All-Ireland champions and Galway may have fallen one game short of winning this spring’s league, but the dynamic of their relationship is similar to that Cork-Kerry rivalry at the start of the decade. 

Just as June 13 was etched in Galvin’s mind that time, May 13 has been hibernating in Mayo’s heads for a long time, and especially since the remarkably spiky affair between the teams in Salthill in the league. 

The rest of the league seems like a distant memory at this juncture, but some of the incidents that took place on February 11 — such as Barry Cullinane dragging Aidan O’Shea along the ground like a rag doll — do not.

The following day, the former Galway footballer John Divilly claimed in an Irish Examiner podcast that “Mayo don’t like it — and never have – when you stand up to them physically”. 

Inside the Mayo camp, such a remark will have been perceived as both inflammatory and laughable; as Gary Sice both put it and learned it, the core of this Mayo team dominated Galway and Connacht for years and, “through ruthlessness, what I could only describe as bully tactics, they really played senior football”.

They’re also the only team in the country that have been physically able to match Dublin. For all the strides Galway have made in that department themselves in the last 18 months, Mayo will be out to painfully remind them and Divilly that there is a marked contrast between league football and senior championship football.

Galway have been making strides of other sorts for longer than that under Kevin Walsh.

Kevin Walsh
Kevin Walsh

Every season has represented incremental progress, even his first season in 2015, when they failed to reach the All-Ireland quarter-final, as they had the previous season under Alan Mulholland. 

That 2015 season in the qualifiers, they beat Armagh in Armagh, as well as Derry in Salthill, the kind of gritty wins they may not have eked out the previous year, before Donegal pulled away from them in the last 10 minutes. The following year, they nearly won promotion and won Connacht. 

Last year, they won promotion and reversed 2015 by beating Donegal in the last 12. This year, they reached the league final. In that same time, they’ve also had setbacks, with tame defeats to Tipp, Roscommon, and Kerry, but for every setback or step back, every year under Walsh, there’s been two steps forward.

It’s obvious now what their next step will be. After last year’s win over Mayo, Walsh said that beating Mayo again was a bonus, whereas in 2016 it was a necessity, but through the backdoor or frontdoor, there was a stage they wanted to make. 

Walsh wasn’t ready to volunteer what it was, but you could tell: Reach the last four of the All-Ireland, something that has eluded every Galway team since 2001. That has to remain the goal, regardless of how Sunday goes. It’s not about just making the Super 8 – it’s about making it out of the Super 8. 

Galway are surely too big and Walsh surely too good for them to not at least reach that mark at the fourth time of trying.

Much has been made of Damien Comer’s recent comments and, though there is a chance it will have ended up on the bulletin board alongside Divilly’s ‘don’t like it up ’em’ remark, it was hardly the most contentious line. 

Damien Comer
Damien Comer

A more nuanced reading of his comments would have picked up that he said that Galway could win “an” All-Ireland, not “the” All-Ireland. 

He clearly said it might not happen in 2018, but after that, why not? He’s right. Galway are going about trying to win an All-Ireland. It might not be this year, but they have to make a move this year, a bit like 2011 was Donegal’s moving year before the coronation that was 2012.

Do Mayo have to win it all this year? Probably. Do they have to win on Sunday? Definitely. Again, it is not about making the Super 8s, it is about getting out of the Super 8s and then winning an All-Ireland semi-final. 

Lose on Sunday and they could well make the Super 8s, especially if they avoid the loser of Monaghan-Tyrone, but it would mean playing four games in five weeks just to make it, and seven games in nine weeks, days ahead of a potential All-Ireland semi-final. 

At this stage in their life cycle, they don’t need a relentless schedule like that.

However, something much more primal and parochial is at stake on Sunday. Whatever about winning the All-Ireland, this group of Mayo players just want to win Connacht again, to beat Galway again, to remind them again of the true order, the true hierarchy. Ye’re good and ye’re coming, but we’re better and we’re still here.

Ahead of the 2016 All-Ireland quarter-final against Tyrone, they were being written off in much the same terms as Cavanagh was writing them off again last Sunday night on RTÉ. 

They were too long on the road, up against a fresh, confident, emerging young team, but Mayo summoned all the strength and pride they had and defied the script. It’s a strange thing to say about a team that has played in five All-Ireland finals, but it was probably the biggest game of their careers — because a loss would have signalled the end of many of their careers.

This Sunday has the same vibe. Expect O’Neill-McGee seismic-like hits, just as Comer has received and dished out in recent Galway-Mayo games. 

Expect some Mayo veterans to do what they did ahead of that Tyrone clash and Galvin did that day down in Cork and remind teammates who they are and what they are about. 

Maybe Galway’s summer will be longer than their old rivals, just as Cork stayed the course longer than Kerry in 2010 and Tyrone outlasted Donegal in 2013 and 2015, but a defiant champion team will be out to win this as if it’s the last thing they do.

Will Galway ‘bate’ Mayo? In these eyes, not as long as they still have Andy and Aido.

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