Kieran Shannon: We’re left with an intoxicating mix of the old and new

Just like Glastonbury, a striking feature of this year’s quarter-final lineup is just how laden it is with so many familiar, big names, even if there’s a sprinkling of young, fresh, novel acts amidst all the legacy acts
Kieran Shannon: We’re left with an intoxicating mix of the old and new

READY FOR BATTLE: Kerry's David Clifford with Padraig O'Hora of Mayo Pic: INPHO/Evan Treacy

Welcome to Gaelic’s own Glastonbury.

As with Micheal Eavis’s Worthy farm, it’s been so – too – long since punters have been able to flock to Croker for a weekend festival we possibly used to take for granted.

And like Glasto 2022, a striking feature of this year’s lineup is just how laden it is with so many familiar, big names, even if there’s a sprinkling of young, fresh, novel acts amidst all the legacy acts.

Rewind 20 years ago to the first feast of football we had like this (the inaugural quarter-final round in 2001 having been predominantly played in provincial grounds). 

The new Croke Park complete with its new Hogan Stand unveiled in all its glory, stretched to its 80,000-plus capacity.

Pádraic Joyce entered that weekend as the reigning footballer of the year. At 25 he had already played in four All Ireland finals. He or anyone else had no idea that he and his county wouldn’t get back to another one.

Kieran McGeeney would succeed him as the football of the year, although had a Dara McGarty not elected to fist over the bar instead of go for goal, Armagh may not even have made it past Sligo that quarter-final weekend.

James Horan was about to play his last game for Mayo, a now largely-forgotten affair against Cork.

Meanwhile Rory Gallagher had just played his last game of the decade for Fermanagh. He’d been at the peak of his playing powers that summer, the 3-9 he racked up against Monaghan in Ulster the most anyone had ever scored in a single game of championship football until in 2020 Cillian O’Connor broke that particular scoring record just as has almost every other. But in Gallagher’s eyes his native county’s ambition and vision did not align with so he opted out. It didn’t look the smartest move, considering Fermanagh would contest the subsequent two quarter-final weekend festivals, but in time Gallagher would get his own chance to be on that stage, just with a different act.

Now all these years later here they all are, still headlining.

Gallagher with his own high flying birds, the fifth time he’ll be on a quarter-final bill as either a selector or manager.

Horan, in his eight seasons wearing a bainisteoir cap, has never not made it onto the bill of this particular weekend festival. Like that game against Cork back in ’02 as a player, though, there’s a prospect this could be his last in this capacity, or at least in this particular coaching stint.

Probably the most anticipated slot of the entire weekend is when Joyce and McGeeney take to the stage from separate wings. All the more so since Joyce realises that this is the best chance his county has of getting back to a final since 2001, and McGeeney and Armagh will be sensing it’s the best chance to win it all outright like they did in 2002.

Almost all the other last-eight acts from 20 years ago are back here in some guise or another. Dublin. Kerry. Even Cork. The only two new groups to elbow their way onto the bill are Gallagher’s Derry and Colm Collins’ Clare, and even the latter have a tinge of 2002 with their coach, Gerry McGowan, having played for Sligo back then.

Add and weigh it all up though and we’re left with an intriguing, even intoxicating mix of the old and new.

So throw those curtains wide. One weekend like this a year again will see us right.

Kerry are now Mayo with better forwards

As much as the more wary of Kerry supporters and the more optimistic of Mayo ones will remember how Mayo also staggered and stuttered on their way through the backdoor and to their last Croke Park showdown against Kerry five years ago, there are several significant differences between then and now.

Back then Mayo still had some players performing exceptionally well. Lee Keegan. Chris Barrett. Aidan O’Shea. Cillian O’Connor. And upon his return to the starting 15, Andy Moran. Everyone else then clicked in the quarter-final replay against Roscommon to leave a litter of primrose-and-blue roadkill in their wake. It all meant that while Kerry as reigning league as well as Munster champions were still the bookies’ favourites entering that 2017 face-off, the Mayo circle privately believed that man-for-man they were simply better than Kerry.

Now they can’t say any of that. None of them can. Barrett is retired; last Wednesday while we were having a bite to eat outside the Yacht bar on the Clontarf Road ahead of catching another Glastonbury act, Primal Scream, play just down the road in Fairview Park, we recognised Barrett passing us on his bike, a reminder that like Jack McCaffrey his only football is with Clontarf now. So is Moran. O’Shea is no longer an automatic starter. O’Connor is still an exceptional threat and finisher but coming off the injury and layoff he’s had, is not (yet) the attacking – or defensive – force he was. Only Keegan is approximating the standards of old, enough to be assigned to David Clifford duty if that task arises, and even then he isn’t quite at his 2013-2017 majesty. Everyone else around him is just not quite at the level of where they were or who they’ve replaced.

Five years ago Mayo also had the athletic edge on Kerry, the superior, or at least higher, collective training age. Not now. In the wake of that 2017 defeat Éamonn Fitzmaurice enlisted the services of Joe O’Connor and 12 months later the county board created a full-time position subsequently and still occupied by Jason McGahan. The fruits of that intervention are now evident. Their six backs are now running machines, and as a consequence, have as a unit become scoring machines, reminiscent of Mayo and Keegan in their pomp. There’s a reason why a Paul Murphy, as intelligent and sublime a footballer as he remains is not an automatic starter. Kerry now feel the need, the need for speed, and Murphy’s doesn’t frighten you the way a Tom O’Sullivan’s and Gavin White’s does.

Ten years ago when Mayo entered the All-Ireland quarter-final weekend, the Mayo circle were able to say that this was the weekend that Keegan would announce himself as the natural successor to Tomás Ó Sé as the most dynamic and outstanding half-back in the game. Keegan fulfilled that promise, becoming possibly the best the sport has known, even if there’s a case James McCarthy and Jack McCaffrey edge him for even the best half-back of the past decade.

Now a White looks set to assume, take, grab that torch. He has the speed of a McCaffrey, the sustained running and scoring power of a Keegan. And he’s part of a unit that under Paddy Tally’s tutelage have learned to defend better individually and collectively. Again, they resemble the old Mayo and trump the current Mayo on that count. 

The first team Horan built had an array of exceptional man-markers. His latest back-six are all essentially half-backs; Enda Hession played centre forward for the county as a minor.

And most worrying for Mayo is that it’s not just their backs who can’t tackle or defend like the Horan teams of old. Those older teams could pride themselves on having the most athletic and hardest-working, hardest-tackling forward line and midfield units in the country, a claim only Dublin could dispute. But now the likes of O’Shea and O’Connor can’t run around as they once could; likewise the ever-gallant but injury-plagued Doherty. There’s just not enough gas in the tank.

Kerry people have reason to be nervous about this game. They’re coming up against a group of men and a manager who have an astonishing capacity and record to summon hugely defiant performances at this juncture of the season. Cork in 2011. Tyrone in 2016. Donegal in 2019. Dublin in 2021. There’s also the scar of last year when the Kingdom similarly had a layoff of a month or more after blitzing Munster. But last year Tyrone had shown a vein of form in the championship, such as in their win over Donegal in Enniskillen, that Mayo haven’t even remotely approached.

An exercise in damage limitation?

At the outset of last year’s championship when there was no backdoor for teams to redeem or suitably gauge themselves, it triggered us to resurrect that line from the 1968 film, The Lion in Winter. When two conspirators are about to be executed, one scolds the other, “Why, you chivalric fool – as if the way one fell down mattered!” To which the other, Richard, replies, “When the fall is all there is, it matters!” 

Last year some teams exited the championship nobly, such as Monaghan, by a point, to Tyrone in an Ulster final; Derry to a Paddy McBrearty point in Ballybofey. Others left it cruelly; Clare were swept aside in the first round by Kerry by 18 points. And others departed it shamefully, like Cork in Killarney when the difference in the end was 22.

This year while they never would have admitted it, possibly even to their own players, the Cork management seemed to adjudge that the fall mattered. This time they didn’t go out to jump on Kerry or out-shoot or outscore them as they similarly tried against Dublin in the Super 8s two years earlier; instead they tried to stay in the game for as long as they could. They tried to limit the damage, leave with some respectability.

That they did, leaving Páirc Uí Rinn with a 12-point loss and their dignity and confidence intact. With the luxury of a backdoor that wasn’t there the previous two seasons, there was both something to build on and build towards.

It’s a notable feature of this year’s championship that counties that were badly deprived of a backdoor the past couple of seasons have thrived this year with having a bigger programme of games: provincial champions like Galway and Derry, and teams coming charge through the backdoor like the aforementioned Clare, Cork and Armagh.

In truth, it’s hard to know if Cork are even better than their teams of 2020 and 2021; even this year with the availability of a backdoor they haven’t met the kind of teams – the Meaths, Roscommons, Kildares – that would give us a better gauge of their worth and progress. In a way though that doesn’t matter. They’re into a new cycle with a new team now: the Super 8s team that rattled Dublin three years ago in Croker and once seemed the future is now history.

With the likes of Brian Hurley having waited three years to get back to this stage, Cork will want to rattle, and rattle into, the Dubs again. But they can’t be reckless a la Killarney. For Cork to continue to rise, the fall will matter.

Clare won’t be even thinking that way. They’re the team that have more experience of playing at this stage; the core of their team were here six years ago, Derry haven’t been here in 15 years. Over the last six years they’ve garnered 34 points in Division Two; Derry have only accumulated 16.

The only thing is, Derry seem better equipped to get 16 points up on the scoreboard first. And the way both teams are geared, that should be enough. This one has 1-13 to 0-11 written all over it.

Mayo didn’t require a backdoor the previous two years. Now that they have one, we’ll have a good idea on Sunday night whether it was a blessing or a curse. If their season had ended with a one-point defeat to Galway, there’d be little opposition to James Horan continuing as county manager into 2023, or certainly little appetite to oppose him; his team had just ran out of time, been unlucky with injury, reached a league final. But were Mayo to lose to Kerry again something like how they lost to them 12 weeks ago in Croker, now that’d be a different case.

Mayo are not in the business of damage limitation. They are not geared or built that way under Horan; for him and his team it is all death or glory. But there’d be a segment of his and his team’s support that would settle for the kind of loss to Kerry like the one back to them in 2005 at the same juncture when Austin O’Malley was finally unleashed to kick a rake of points as did Ciarán McDonald beside him when moved to full forward. There’d still be something to build from, rather than being razed to the ground. If they fall, the fall will matter.

Then again, it would just be like Mayo and Horan to be the ones to do the felling.

That’s why they’re still the main act on Sunday. And like Macca at Glasto, will have the place packed.

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