When you get to this time of year, you can generally split the teams into two categories. Teams who are looking to win the All-Ireland and teams who are waiting to be knocked out.
The latter might be telling themselves they're all out for Sam Maguire but in reality, their days are numbered. If you look at the eight teams playing this weekend, you can safely put Kerry in the first category and pretty much all the rest of them in the second one.
All of them, except Mayo. They could be in one category, they could be in the other. This year, more than ever, it's very hard to be certain.
Without a doubt, we know for sure they’re aiming for an All-Ireland. But watching them only just getting through these qualifier games, you wouldn’t be surprised if their road was nearly at an end. They are the exception.
That’s what makes them so much fun to watch. If this was any other team, you would look at their games and go: “Right, well, that was exciting but really, so what? They’re only prolonging the agony. They’ll be gone soon”.
But because it’s Mayo, because we know what they’re capable of when they get to Croke Park, you can’t look away. You get wrapped up in the story and wonder where it’s going to go next.
At times, they seem to be a bit all over the shop. Still leaking bad goals at the wrong time, the same thing that has killed them in years gone by. But in the middle of it, they go and put in a shooting performance on Saturday against Cork that only a serious team is capable of. That was outstanding, the kind of display that should have had them out the gap and on the bus home long before the end.
But they weren't so you have those doubts. Some of their players are in ordinary enough form. Big players, the likes of Lee Keegan and Keith Higgins. Keegan walked for a silly black card against Cork, Higgins got turned for the first goal and was caught out of position for the second. That spells trouble – and not just for the basic reason of them not playing well.
If a player of middling ability isn’t going great, it’s not a crippling loss. You will usually have someone of similar standard on the bench to replace him and the pair of them will compete for the jersey the next day. Hopefully, they will both improve along the way.
But if one of your exceptional players is off form, not only do you have nobody to replace him with – nobody as good, anyway – but the player himself will be in danger of trying to force it. He can lose a bit of focus and try to impose himself on the game in other ways.
I’d say that’s what happened with Keegan’s black card the other night. He was getting frustrated with how he was playing, first and foremost. He was belting forward to get involved in the game a bit more and when the Cork player started dragging out of him, he snapped and stuck out his boot to trip him. It was an obvious black card.
Keegan is getting a taste of what it’s like to be on the other side of the coin. That’s a few black cards and red cards he’s picked up over the past few years in big games and it’s something he needs to sort out. No more than how he has played Diarmuid Connolly in the past, players in other teams now suspect that he can be picked at and dragged out of and that he might react. He is in that bracket now and he has to learn to deal with it.
If you are going to play a physical game, your first job is to work out where the boundaries are. When I was playing, you could get away with more than you can in today’s game. There was no black card back then. And even with a yellow card, you could maybe talk your way out of one early in a game.
I never went out to be dirty but I knew that to win games, there had to be an element of physicality involved. There had to be a certain amount of throwing yourself about and imposing order. You knew you were going to have to crash into fellas. That was a given. They key was knowing what way to crash into them that was within the boundaries of what the referee would allow but would still leave your mark.
Those boundaries have changed since I retired but the same rule is still in place. You have to know where you can push it and where you can’t. If you want to impose yourself on another player physically, you have to know what you can do. You have to know the tastes of the referee of the day. And you have to know what people think of you.
Lee Keegan has to know at this stage that his days of getting away with a silly trip like that are over and gone. He's been involved in too many battles and lived too long on the edge. Someone like Paddy Durcan might get the benefit of the doubt in a situation like that but Keegan won't. Even maybe a Bernard Brogan, one of the whiter-than-white type of lads, maybe they could get a pass. But sorry Lee, those days are gone.
So he has to act accordingly. That's his job now. Look at Seán Cavanagh getting his nipple twisted in the Ulster final. No reaction. That's a great sign of a fella, to hold his head like that. Cavanagh has learned. Don't react, don't get involved. Otherwise, you're a liability. And I think that's where Keegan is in danger of finding himself at the moment.
He actually doesn't even have to look as far as Cavanagh for his example here. Aidan O'Shea is taking a world of punishment in every game and he's probably Mayo's player of the season so far. O'Shea is like Michael Murphy in these games – he's paying a Big Man tax every time he gets the ball. He has to get hit twice has hard to get half the frees.
If he was in the wrong headspace, he’d be throwing his hat at it or letting it affect his game. But he never loses his temper. There must have been at least half a dozen times in that Cork game where he came back into his own half to collect the ball, carried it into traffic, shipped two or three tackles and laid the ball off to a team-mate who was able to run into the space he had made. He was basically used as a battering ram to free up the other players. He took brutal punishment and kept on trucking.
You can usually take Mayo’s temperature by taking Aidan O’Shea’s. He was in and out of the team when they were in and out of sorts. He is growing as the summer has gone along and he’s finding his best form coming into Croke Park. We don’t know for sure yet but I suspect the same is true for Mayo as a whole.
You can see that Roscommon fancy having a right cut off Mayo on Sunday and I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw them tipped in a few places to beat them. But anyone doing that is ignoring the Croke Park factor. Mayo are coming to a place where they feel at home and where they have had success. Roscommon are new to it all. That gives Mayo a massive advantage.
Qualifiers are for winning. You get through them as best you can. They are means to an end – and that end is to be on the bus coming down Clonliffe Road with a Garda escort looking at supporters out the window. Again, you get to this time of year and you split the teams in two – the ones that are delighted with themselves for reaching Croke Park and the ones who are here on business.
When Kerry struggled through the qualifiers in 2009, it was the sight of Croke Park that woke us up. We went up there with the attitude of: “Listen, everything up to now was only shadow boxing”.
And it was. When you’re playing in the qualifiers, half the games aren’t on the TV. Or if they are, the viewing figures aren’t hectic. The crowds are generally small – anything over 10,000 is a massive crowd at a qualifier. So in a way, you kind of feel you are playing these games half in secret.
I remember thinking that in 2009. We were getting through games that people weren’t watching because they presumed we’d walk them. Longford, Sligo, Antrim, teams everyone thought we’d hammer.
So when we were going to Croke Park, I was saying: “You know what? People have no idea how bad we’ve been. They’ve only seen highlights or heard reports. This is Croke Park – there’s no hiding it here if we don’t turn this thing around.”
What you do in Croke Park depends so much on what Croke Park means to you. For Kerry players, it means you’re counting down the games it will take to win an All-Ireland. Three. Two. One. For plenty of teams, it’s an end in itself. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what Roscommon are thinking in their heart of hearts. Their Connacht title is in the bag – that might be enough for 2017.
What does Croke Park mean to this Mayo team?
It means some of the biggest days of their lives. It means the time when they felt most alive, the games when they had to be at their emotional and physical peak. They have been beaten in Croke Park but when’s the last time they let themselves down? They don’t do that in recent history. They see Croke Park and they perform.
So let’s go back to the start. Which box do you put them in? The All-Ireland box or the waiting-to-be-knocked out box? For what it’s worth, I reckon they will take Roscommon on Sunday and sure then they’re only two games away.
Mayo being Mayo, we probably won’t know for sure which box they belong to until they’re walking up the steps of the Hogan Stand.