Croke Park braced for busy weekend as championship hots up
Over 100,000 expected at headquarters as eight teams put their year’s hopes on the line
Down’s Conor McGinn in action against Tyrone. The Mourne men will be seeking to secure a quarter-final place when they face Tyrone. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
All back to Croker, then. If the football championship is a summer party, we’re reaching the point at which the liggers have been moved on and the chosen few who remain are being beckoned into the good room.
Eight teams, four games, one weekend. The last two qualifiers tonight, the first two quarter-finals tomorrow. Most likely somewhere north of 100,000 through the gates across the two days. No riff-raff, as Basil Fawlty would say.
And quite right, too.
You make it through the front gate on this weekend, your riff-raff days are behind you, for one season at least.
It was on this weekend last year that Tipperary skittled Galway, that Patrick McBrearty put on the performance of the summer against Cork, that Clare got to kiss the sky, however momentarily, against Kerry.
It’s the only weekend of the championship when eight counties land up to Jones’ Road in a convoy. That’s a right old kaleidoscope of different dreams.
For the first time in 15 years, three Connacht teams will play in Croke Park on the same weekend. At least one of them will survive it, as Mayo and Roscommon face off on Sunday – the first ever meeting of two Connacht teams at Croke Park.
The Rossies haven’t beaten their rivals to the west since 2001, a game that stands as their only win in the fixture in a quarter of a century. Moreover, they haven’t won a game in Croke Park since 1980. Now would be a fine time to lay a whole manner of ghosts.
The other quarter-final pairs a couple of grand old dames of the game in Galway and Kerry but any possible lustre in the fixture will depend on Galway playing with the pattern of history.
In the recent past, this fixture has tended to follow a terribly familiar road – Kerry and Galway get drawn together, we get served up a grand, free-flowing, no-animals-were-hurt-in-the-making-of-this-match exhibition and Kerry stroll onto the next round unhassled by it all. For all their old-world grandeur, Galway haven’t beaten Kerry since 1965.
For this to be different, Galway have to be different. Their last two appearances in Croke Park suggest they might just be. Tipperary gave them a thorough rinsing last year, sparing them total embarrassment by only walking in four goals when they could feasibly have reached double figures.
In the Division Two league final earlier this year, they packed their defence to frustrate Kildare and carry home the trophy. Informed by both experiences, you’d imagine they might come with something similar here. Sorry, classic-hunters.
Kerry won’t mind either way. They never do. Their first appearance in Croke Park of the summer always carries a certain level of intrigue. They haven’t lost at this stage since 2012 and not as Munster champions since 2010. They haven’t lost to a Connacht team at any stage since 1996. We presume they’re in rude health because history doesn’t give us any option. Anything to the contrary will shake the championship to its back teeth.
Before tomorrow, the last knockings of the qualifiers play out tonight. Down’s slightly dubious reward for their defenestration of Monaghan last month has been a tonking by Tyrone in the Ulster final and now a chance for Monaghan to make amends.
The general assumption that Malachy O’Rourke’s team will do just that is exactly the sort of insult that Down will mine for motivation here. After all, theirs is the county with the history of performing in Croke Park.
For Monaghan, it is a chance to rescue something from a summer that promised oodles more than it has so far delivered. It has been a patchy couple of months for Conor McManus, Jack McCarron and the rest of their strike forwards – without improvement in that sector, Monaghan could be gone before the quarter-finals for the second year in a row.
The final qualifier game could well be the tie of the weekend. Kildare and Armagh are plainly sides on the up. Young, pacy, attacking, easy on the eye. Assuming neither of them puts out a blanket, this one could take off and light up Saturday night.
Either way, the business is getting ever more serious as the days go by.