You can't talk about Kerry and Mayo playing in an All-Ireland semi-final without going back to Limerick in 2014. Anyone who was there will take it to their grave. Everything about it was memorable, from it being in Limerick in the first place to the Mayo supporter bulling onto the pitch at the end and needing half the GAA men in Limerick to hold him back.
I was there early to do TV work hours before the stands started to fill up. When you get there that far in advance there’s a lot of standing around, looking like you know you’re supposed to be looking busy. So at one stage, I decided I’d go and measure the field. Not with a tape measure or anything – I wasn’t that bored – just walking the length and width of it to see how it would compare to Croke Park.
I wasn’t the only genius looking for something to be at either. On my travels I met Colm O’Rourke, who was out doing the same thing. So we walked around together, chatting away, hopping ball. We weren’t gone far before a couple of the local stewards started shouting a bit of abuse at me. “Well, Darragh – is it good enough for you? Not a whole pile wrong with it, is there?”
In the week running up to the game I had been critical of the GAA’s call to have it in Limerick at all. All the Mayo people thought it was a big advantage to Kerry, but if you were down in Tralee or Killarney the week of that game, you wouldn’t have found any enthusiasm for going up to Limerick. Not for an All-Ireland semi-final. We were more annoyed than the Mayo people, and I said a few things to that effect in the build-up.
So this was obviously my payback. I decided not to mention the bumps and hollows down at the city end of the field and I took my beating. And in fairness, when it came right down to it, the occasion was far better than anything that could have been served up in Croke Park.
All kinds of drama
We got an epic for our troubles – extra-time, all kinds of drama, all sorts of decisions, players arriving from all angles, injuries, goals, fouls, cards, everything.
It was Kerry's best performance of the last number of years, definitely the best under Eamonn Fitzmaurice.
And it had to be because by that stage Mayo were a different proposition to Kerry than what they had been before.
I played Mayo loads of times, and I have Mayo friends and people I do business with up there. And all the time their attitude to me when I would say something complimentary about them was, “are you taking the piss here or what?”
They always suspected I wasn’t being serious, or that I was trying to be nice.
And’ in all honesty, some of the time that was true. Mayo were just always a team we could get past when it mattered. But what sort of bad-mannered article would I be if I lorded it over them? I was brought up better than that.
Yet by the time that game came around in 2014, something had definitely changed.
When you gave Mayo a compliment, you didn’t have Mayo people telling you to quit the plámás. They had a serious team and they knew it. And Kerry knew it. And Kerry people knew it.
Mayo should have won the first game that day, when they were five points up with four minutes to go. And even though they lost the replay, it was such a wild game that there was no shame in it for them.
Three years later, the one legacy from that game that I think still has some relevance is that it was an epic that Mayo didn’t win. In Kerry we always say an epic is a game that we didn’t win, but this has been the killer for Mayo over the past four seasons. They always seem to be involved in the game of the year, but how many of them have they won? And what good are epics to a team anyway? Very little when it comes right down to it.
The only thing Mayo got out of the Roscommon replay was an easy game. Good for them! I wouldn’t knock it. Sometimes it’s the best thing for you.
People say they learned nothing; my attitude would be “so what?” They gave a team a hammering in Croke Park – isn’t that plenty? Whenever Kerry were lucky enough to do that I never spent much of the journey home worrying about what we had and hadn’t learned.
We overcomplicate these things sometimes. We try to pick apart patterns and form lines, and read way more into things than are actually there.
We like to make out that every team wants to be battle-hardened, that they want to get to the next stage having scrapped for every ball and clawed their way through. As if they’re sadomasochists about the thing.
It’s pure nonsense. Mayo were on the bus home after the Roscommon game delighted that it had been so handy. And delighted that they had made it so handy.
It’s like when you go back to play a club game, and you’re that bit fitter and stronger and better than the rest of them, and you realise why you’re on the county team in the first place. It’s a reminder that you’re a step above the average. It doesn’t mean that you’ll waltz through the next big game for the county but it helps your psyche to click into gear. ‘I’m good at this. Let’s go and do it now.’
Kerry haven't had that game yet. They got past Galway, and a lot of their guys didn't play well. James O'Donoghue and Paul Geaney weren't great up front. Fionn Fitzgerald, Peter Crowley and Mark Griffin all got caught for scores at the back. Galway weren't great opposition, but they still got in for a heap of goal chances.
That can now go one way or the other. Do they all recover to right the ship against Mayo? Or are they all standing there after 20 minutes on Sunday with their first couple of involvements in the game gone astray, wondering how they’re going to get their form back?
My hunch would be that inside Kerry training over the past few weeks there would have been a lot of cranky heads. I say it's a hunch because that's all we have to go on down here these days. I was with a few former Kerry players this week and we were all feeling each other out to see had anyone heard anything from anyone. But it's easier to get gossip out of Jim Gavin above in North Korea than it is out of the Kerry camp.
All the same, my feeling would be that you’re talking about a bunch of lads who are sore about their own form. That can be turned around, but you have to go and do it. You have to reassess what your approach has been. Why were you poor against Galway? What didn’t you do before that game? What are you going to do now?
I always felt you couldn’t ask yourself enough questions before a game in Croke Park. My way of approaching a big game was to put myself in the opposition’s shoes. What does my man think of me? What does he think I’m good at or bad at? What is he expecting me to do? How can I surprise him?
The one thing you don’t want to be in the middle of a big game in Croke Park is surprised. By the time you’re surprised, it’s already too late.
I was watching the hurling on Sunday, and I thought Waterford pulled off a masterstroke sending Brick Walsh over onto young Mark Coleman. Cork didn't expect that, nobody did. On the face of it, it is a big gamble, putting your oldest player up against one of the best young players in the country. But it turned out to be inspired.
Young Coleman was taken totally off-guard. He got dragged out of position for the first goal and he got bullied under high balls all day.
I don’t care how many weights you’ve done as a 19-year-old, if you’re playing against somebody who has done 15 years of it more than you, the physical gap between you and him is going to shock you to your core. Especially if you have no hint that it’s coming.
So that’s what Kerry have to be doing ahead of this game. I don’t just mean in terms of the game plan, I mean individually.
If you’re going to be up against Lee Keegan, how are you going to get him playing in areas of the pitch he doesn’t want to be?
Are you going to let Aidan O’Shea dominate every hop ball as if he’s playing against minors? How are you going to surprise them?
On top of all that, there’s another motivation for Kerry.
You’re talking about a group who don’t want to be the ones who let Mayo in through the door. Kerry, Dublin and Mayo have been more or less equal over the past five years in terms of general play. But in terms of winning, Kerry and Dublin have always come out in the end.
You do not want to be on the Kerry team when that run ends. You just don’t.
Songs for Mayo
Let everybody else write songs for Mayo and wish them all the best. But not at your expense. In that dressing room in Killarney, that would be driven home all week. “Look lads, they’re going to win eventually. Not against us, right? Not against us.”
Whether that’s enough or not, only Sunday will tell. As a Kerryman the hope would be that the likes of Geaney and O’Donoghue will be so annoyed by the last day that they will force themselves into a performance.
On what they’ve done in the past, I have a suspicion that there’s more margin for improvement in Kerry than in Mayo. I can’t see there being a whole pile between them, but I’ll go with Kerry on that basis.