Traditionally recognised as Moving Day at the US Masters, Saturday is the day when those in the chasing pack with designs on the big prize move up the ladder and into contention.
Since its inception in 2001, three All-Ireland winners, including the last two, have outlined their credentials in round four of the qualifiers.
While we might not have recognised it at the time, and while we may still have to wait for Dublin to play the role of kingmaker once again in the quarters, it was in round four last year we saw Mike McCarthy turn his and Kerry’s season around in the second half against Antrim in Tullamore. Round Four was also when, a year previously, Tyrone came to play in Croke Park for the first time in the 2008 championship. In a one point win against Mayo, born of effort, luck and sheer hard work, we saw Seán Cavanagh and Enda McGinley show signs of the same form that would ultimately earn them and their team a third title in September.
Today is Moving Day, GAA style – the day that all contenders with serious aspirations get going and the day when the pretenders are exposed.
Of all the teams coming through this year’s qualifiers, only Cork appear well equipped enough to be in contention on September 19th.Today’s game represents a nice graduation for them from the mediocre opposition (Cavan), the moderate (Wexford), to the serious (Limerick).
If Conor Counihan truly is still deciding on his best 15, he should know almost everything he needs to know by 8.30pm on the Ennis Road. What the Gooch or Ciarán Lyng didn’t ask of young Jamie O’Sullivan at corner back mightn’t be worth mentioning but just in case, Ger Collins will throw up a few more questions this evening. On these pages during the week, John Miskella spoke of where he’s at physically after an interrupted season – Seánie Buckley will surely expose any creases that might still need ironing out. At the other end of the field Ciarán Sheehan will further his education on Johnny McCarthy and if he comes out on top there, he will have earned his stripes.
Like Kerry at the start of the month, Cork will realise that this game is fraught with danger and losing the toss of a coin for home advantage ups the ante considerably. The Gaelic Grounds might not be a fortress for Limerick footballers but it is still where they play and train and it is almost certain had Ger Collins and Stephen Lavin been on home turf for the Munster final, they wouldn’t have missed the easy chances that fell their way three weeks ago.
Likewise, it is probable that goalkeeper, Brian Scanlon would have made a better fist of the two chances presented from free kicks when the game was up for grabs in the last 10 minutes had he been Shannonside. The Gaelic Grounds was also the scene of this bunch of footballers’ greatest triumph against Meath two years ago. When the sports psychologists talk of positive memory triggers, this is the sort of stuff they make capital out of.
On so many levels, it is set up for Limerick. The big question is whether or not they are capable of taking the opportunity of a lifetime in the lifetime of the opportunity. For every “oh so nearly” story peppering the recent history of Limerick football, there is another of heroic failure beyond the Munster championship. After losing narrowly to Cork last year, Limerick proceeded to self destruct with a totally inept performance against Meath on Moving Day 2009. Only when they were six points down in the second half did they stop making the mistakes that ultimately scuppered their challenge. A lucky goal from Jim O’Donovan and a big push from the likes of Stephen – Kelly and Lavin and Seánie Buckley brought them back into contention. When eventually losing by a single point, they even had a late Stephen Lucey effort, ruled out for overcarrying, to carry forward as an excuse. Another performance like that and this Limerick team are in serious danger of becoming that sporting cliché- the gallant and quixotic loser.
To avoid the fate of perennially talking of matches they haven’t won, Limerick are going to have to manufacture conditions for a game based on the best we saw of them in the Munster final. That was of course, the period immediately before and for 10 minutes after John Galvin’s goal in the 53rd minute.
Limerick haven’t always been at home with the ball being transferred quickly and with all skills being performed at pace, but in that period playing into a stiff breeze, they showed they had the capacity to perform in any environment. The pity from their viewpoint is that they had conceded 1-7 in a 15 minute slumber period just after half time. Very few teams are capable of posting such huge tallies in such devastating bursts but, unfortunately, Cork are another such team.
For Limerick to survive and thrive they’re going to have to limit the Cork forwards when under the cosh. Containing Daniel Goulding proved beyond them last year so it’s a tall order for Johnny McCarthy and Mark O Riordan to put the shackles on the other two left legged tyros in the full forward line – Ciarán Sheehan and Colm O’Neill. It may help Limerick if they post their own scoring machine, Ian Ryan closer to the goal than he’s been lately so that they have at least two heavyweight scoring punches up front.
Sometimes football is important for reasons that are not immediately connected to the game. After the drama surrounding their hurlers these last few months, very few communities have as great a need for a good luck story as the GAA community on Shannonside. Winning the toss for their first home venue tie in eight championship outings earlier this week, might have convinced them their luck is about to change. Even though they mightn’t have played accordingly at this stage before, the aim for this bunch of Limerick footballers has always been to play championship football in August. They’re good enough to play at quarter-final stage. They might even feel that they deserve it but to earn fortune’s expensive smile they’re going to have to realise, as Little Bill did in that famous scene in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven: “deserve has got nothing to do with it”.
I’m tempted to plump for a Limerick win but can you imagine Limerick in a quarter-final and Cork, mine and many people’s favourite for Sam, not?
Me neither. I expect Dublin, Sligo and Kildare to join the Rebels on Moving Day.