On Sunday they will head across the country on the M6 and the M4, meeting up outside Kinnegad and venturing into Dublin together – the Western hordes. Last one left west of Athlone turn out the lights.
Never mind Kerry, next Sunday will be about Galway, Mayo and Roscommon sharing a billing for the first time in their history. Mayo and Roscommon up against each other, with Kevin McStay and Liam McHale on the line for the Rossies. Galway back in the big house, high on life after last weekend’s dismantling of Donegal.
There will be some who’ll say this particular double-header should never have been taken out of Bekan, just before Ballyhaunis, location of the Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence and soon no doubt to be renamed Prentyville, after the long-serving Connacht Council man John Prenty whose benign brand of leadership brought that particular amenity to life.
The centre is situated roughly equidistant from Castlebar, Tuam and Roscommon town, and if you threw a blanket over that stretch of land, you’d catch your fair share of inter-county footballers, and quite a few no-nonsense football men and women. There is a breed of football fan down that way that would see the game as played by Noel Tierney, Séamus Hayden and TJ Kilgallon as the only type of ball there is.
The flinty-eyed Ulster GAA persona has a solid place in the minds of the nation. The Connacht football man or woman is a little harder to pin down. But whatever about how the wider world views it, the fact is that there’s not a whole lot of difference between the football folk of Roscommon, East Mayo, and north Galway.
Certainly they’d all have more in common with each other than they’d have with the denizens of Ballyconneely or Belmullet, not that they’d admit as much of course. Because the received wisdom is that the Rossies are tough out. The Mayos are the best in the world but they’re pure daft when it comes to football. And if Galway have their house together at all, they’d nearly winkle an All-Ireland out of it.
The truth of course is rather more complex. If there’s a team desperately trying to locate some consistency and mental fortitude in the big games right now, it’s Galway. If you want to mix it physically at this level, then Mayo are best equipped. And for all the on-pitch chiropractors to have won the primrose and blue over the years, this Roscommon team is all skill and very little sulphur.
There was a time, as referenced in this column a few weeks ago, when the battles between these counties had about as much relevance on the destination of the All-Ireland championship as the winners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Between 1966 and 1998, no Connacht team won the All-Ireland title.
But within that, there was a spell from 1974 to 1996 when a Connacht team didn’t beat anyone other than a similarly woe-begone Ulster team in an All-Ireland semi-final or final.
There were great footballers playing in Connacht at that time, men like Dermot Earley who managed to pierce through the gloom and have a national profile. But that generation was a forgotten one in many ways. For the honest servant of Connacht football, men who might have given six or eight years to inter-county football, it might have seemed like the spotlight would never fall on them. Whole careers went by unheralded.
Mayo went through the entire 1970s without a Connacht title. Roscommon won four Connacht titles in a row with a brilliant team, but are remembered chiefly for the robust nature of their performance against Kerry in the 1980 All-Ireland final, which ruffled a few (possibly over-precious) green and gold feathers at the time. It took Galway a decade or more to get over the 1983 final loss to 12-man Dublin.
In 1993 the Mayo seniors lost by 5-15 to 0-10 to Cork, a game preceded by the minor semi-final, when Cork handed out a similar beating to Galway. That might have been the worst time of all. Misery loves company, but when Ulster teams started winning All-Irelands at the start of the 90s, it left Connacht alone as the poor relation.
Since then, Galway have won two and lost one All-Ireland final, and Mayo have beaten everyone, just not all in the same year . . . not yet, anyway. And Roscommon have already won the Connacht championship this year, which means that unless Galway and Mayo go all the way, they’ll still have the bragging rights.
They’ve shared all but five of the Connacht championships since 1887, and it might do them good to have a look around and enjoy themselves on Sunday. Days like this don’t have a habit of coming around too often.