I had plenty of sympathy for the Kildare and Westmeath players on Sunday having to play their game in Croke Park after the Ireland-France match in the Euros. I wasn't surprised the first half the game was terrible – the players were warming up on the pitch while the last five minutes of the game was playing on the big screen with George Hamilton's commentary booming out. You'd want to be made of some stuff to keep your mind on the job, wouldn't you?
We had a similar situation when Ireland played Spain in 2002. We were playing Cork in Killarney on a miserable day and we were below at the Crokes pitch across from Fitzgerald Stadium doing a bit of a warm-up as it was on. Every once in a while, some fella would shout that there was a penalty or a goal or that it was gone to extra-time.
And we were all studiously pretending not to be interested but sure it was a huge distraction. Páidí Ó Sé was in charge at the time and he was going mad. He was telling us to ignore it all but sure how could you? And it going to penalties and everything? You’d want to be made of stone.
Funny enough, the one fella who had no interest in it and didn't look sideways at it was Mike Frank Russell. He could not have cared less. As it went to penalties, more and more of us drifted over to the TV to watch it but he sat away in the corner of the dressing room not giving it a second thought.
Then he went out and scored six of our eight points, three of them from play. In bad conditions, every one of them was a screamer from a bad angle. Páidí made a big show of pointing out to us afterwards that Mike Frank was the only one who was focused on what he should have been focused on. Our one saving grace was the Cork could only manage eight points as well – I presume their preparation was similar to ours. They beat us well in the replay anyway.
That was our first time in the qualifiers. I always think there are three types of teams in the qualifiers. Half of them are just killing time until it’s all over so they can get on with the summer and forget about the whole thing. Most of the rest are hoping to go on a run, get a bit of momentum and maybe make a quarter-final or even a semi-final if it all goes well. And each year there is usually one team in there who still have the All-Ireland in mind.
That's the spot Mayo are sitting in today. The year isn't a disaster – yet. They aren't out of the running for Sam Maguire – yet. But if they're going to salvage anything, then the next couple of weeks are the most important all year.
This is a total step into the unknown for a lot of them. They've won five Connacht titles in a row so there's a fair chance that maybe half the team that takes on Fermanagh the weekend after next have never played in a qualifier. Not just the younger lads either. Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, Cillian O'Connor – the only thing these guys have ever known at this point in the summer is success. We don't know how they're going to react.
More to the point, they don’t know how they’re going to react either. Those guys are leaders so you’d expect good things from them but there are no guarantees. The qualifiers mean coming up against teams you’re not used to, often in venues you’re not used to. Instead of having three weeks to focus in on your next opposition, you’re going from week to week. Time gets squeezed and you end up having to come up with gameplans off the cuff. There is no comfort zone.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. The first year we were in the qualifiers, we played Wicklow, followed by Fermanagh, followed by Kildare. We knew some of the Kildare guys alright but we played Wicklow and Fermanagh seven days apart and they were a mystery to us. We didn't know what we were walking ourselves into.
Even just turning up to O’Moore Park for the game against Wicklow was a strange feeling. I might have been there for a league game or maybe an under-21 game before but that was about it. Going there for a championship game was a big departure.
We’d have been used to Killarney or Páirc Uí Chaoimh or the Gaelic Grounds or Croke Park. All of a sudden you’re in Portlaoise and you don’t know what way the wind usually blows or how wide the pitch is or any of the small things you take for granted.
But obviously, none of that matters as much as the fact that you’ve lost a game and you have to go about bouncing back. Mayo are in a bad spot, any way you look at it. It’s not as though they lost an epic battle against Galway – they were terrible, plain and simple. Worse, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason for it. That’s a worrying place to be starting from.
If you’re an older player in that situation, you’re looking around the dressing room trying to cajole a performance out of the guys around you. You’re doing it with half a guilty conscience too because you know you’re probably not in great shape yourself. But it’s as if you’re saying, ‘Well look, if one of us steps up, the rest of us will.’
Whether you believe it or not is another story. In all honesty, you’re trying to convince yourself as much as the rest of them. And they’re doing the same when they’re talking to you. There’s a lot of big talk going on. But at least it’s based on the fact that you know the good stuff is in there somewhere.
Mayo have been in some of the biggest and best games in the country for the last five years. They’ve beaten some of the best teams and played some of the best football. But they have no All-Ireland. Don’t underestimate that factor when it comes to their state of mind. They’re still feeling their way towards one, hoping to hit on the right formula eventually. Plus, they’ve always gone through the front door.
So as much as they’ll be favourites against Fermanagh, they must have doubts about where they’re at. Think of the things feeding into their situation here. They got rid of their management over the winter. They had a poor league. They lost their Connacht title after a brutal display. All the optimism of the last few years is old news now.
And Fermanagh are sticky opposition. Mayo aren’t easing themselves in against
. Pete McGrath will have Fermanagh sizing up Mayo from a mile out. He will have them believing that they’re vulnerable and ripe for the picking. These guys gave the Dubs a rattle and weren’t one bit afraid of them in Croke Park last year. Why would they think they couldn’t catch Mayo on the hop?
I've heard some fellas saying this a big test of Stephen Rochford. I wouldn't be so sure about that. To me, this is a players' challenge. The thing that will get the Mayo players through this first test in the qualifiers is being true to the journey they've been on over the past five years. It's looking at each other and saying, "No way are we going to go out in early July, not after what we've been through."
Rochford has to be careful how he plays it. With the best will in the world, there’ll be players in that dressing room ignoring him in the build-up and playing out their own scenarios in their heads. They’ll be going (in their heads), “Yeah, fine, whatever. Little you’d know about it, boss. You weren’t here.”
This is a very fragile situation and it takes a serious operator to stand back and recognise that the players have to drive it.
The flipside is that this can turn around very quickly. Mayo only have to fall over the line against Fermanagh and suddenly things look a lot different. The adrenaline shot you get from a scare is no bad thing. You’re more alert, more focussed. You’re back on the road saying ‘Bring it on’.
That summer of 2002, we found ourselves through the qualifiers. We started scoring freely against Wicklow and Fermanagh and Kildare and by the time we got to Croke Park to play Galway, we were flying it. They were defending All-Ireland champions but we beat them out the gate.
That was the first time we played in Croke Park where we didn’t take the train up to
– we flew up and got the bus home. I still say that bus journey home was one of the greatest bonding sessions that team ever had. There was something different about being on the bus instead of the train. You felt it was more your own environment or something.
We stopped in The Poitín Still in Rathcoole and stocked up on beers for the journey home. We had to stop a few more times along the way because some of the lads were poor drinkers and got travel sickness. All through the bus, you could see fellas loosening up. Players, selectors, everyone came together.
By the time we got back in for training on the Tuesday night, half the squad – and half the management – had been sick for a day and a half after it. The craic had come back into it, the enjoyment was there again. Unknown to us, we had found the thing that made us want this to last a bit longer.
That’s all Mayo need out of the qualifiers. Hit on that thing that will make them stronger and make them enjoy the journey again. If they beat Fermanagh, they’ll be on the right track and I’d expect them to kick on from there.
But they have a few nervous days ahead of them before that.