Seán Moran: Mayo will have no fear at happy hunting ground
Roscommon will find it a better prospect playing Tyrone in the Hyde than Croke Park
Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor celebrates after the qualifier victory against Galway at the Gaelic Grounds in Co Limerick. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
There was still a sense of anticipation in Limerick on Saturday night as twilight darkened. The usual after-match stragglers headed for home, Mayo back on the highway, and Galway struggling to come to terms with the earliest exit from both football and hurling championships the county has ever made.
It was hard to disregard the symmetry of James Horan’s Mayo management, which in its first term ended on an emotional evening at the Gaelic Grounds after losing to Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final replay, dogged by controversy and ill fortune.
By the end of the weekend’s final qualifier round it looked very much as if his first championship back in harness had sprung to life in the same place.
Curiously, the traditional prescription for teams on the road as long as Mayo has been to make sure to win your province. Instead they once again travelled the highways and byways of the qualifiers like an ambitious county councillor chasing a seat in the Seanad.
Mayo by now have failed to win Connacht as often as they claimed it this decade and still they go on, this time for a first crack at the quarter-final round robin.
It was hardly intentional, but they have to an extent replicated their league progress, reacting to becoming becalmed half way through the campaign by finishing strongly to put themselves back in contention.
It has been a fair achievement given the scale of injuries but players are coming back, and if the team makes the All-Ireland semi-finals in a month’s time they will almost be at full strength.
Is it fortuitous? Of course it is. Armagh nearly had them beaten in round three, just as Derry had two years previously in round two. In the latter year Mayo proceeded all the way to an All-Ireland final, which they lost to a free in the sixth minute of injury time.
Yet there’s nothing new in the requirement for luck if you’re going to progress in the qualifiers. Ten years ago Kerry were within a saved penalty of going out to Sligo but went on to win the All-Ireland.
Cork in 2010 are probably Mayo’s most encouraging template. Alone of counties who won the All-Ireland by travelling the qualifier route, Conor Counihan’s team hadn’t previously won it by taking the direct approach. They had lost two finals, making them almost achievers compared to Mayo’s four plus one replay.
The injuries at centre field are most debilitating for Horan, and with Aidan O’Shea not looking 100 per cent last Saturday they were struggling in that area, which will come with a higher tariff against their rivals over the coming weeks.
More encouraging was the performance of the attack, which features three newcomers from last year: Darren Coen, a recall rather than a rookie, James Carr and Fionn McDonagh. They joined a fit-again Cillian O’Connor in a unit that effectively buried the match in the opening quarter.
Their next date, with Kerry down in Killarney, is in one way daunting because the Munster champions are starting their campaign at home, but if anyone is entitled to travel there with a justifiable sense of optimism it’s Horan’s team.
Mayo have already beaten Kerry twice this year, once in Tralee and once in Croke Park in the league final. Further, they haven’t actually lost any of their league matches in Kerry this decade. It is, strangely, a happy hunting ground.
Peter Keane and his team will obviously have a view on that, but unlike opponents who have scrapped through the qualifiers, Kerry haven’t established a convincing rhythm and will need to find one.
Last year none of the teams who lost in phase one of the quarter-finals made it out of their group, which raises the stakes going into the weekend.
It should be pointed out that this phase last year involved the Croke Park round between provincial champions with the qualifiers also playing each other. That meant that any team losing was giving themselves a lot to do as they had played one of their direct rivals.
The changed format, which rewards provincial champions by giving them home advantage on the opening weekend, also gives a definite opportunity to the away teams as they could go a long way to knocking out their first-round opponents by beating them at home.
For Roscommon, having to play Tyrone in the Hyde is a far more enticing prospect than having to run around Croke Park after them as happened last year.
Dublin will also be glad of the home venue against Cork. After a fitful league and a customarily untaxing Leinster Championship, the step-up in last year’s round robin to play Ulster champions Donegal wasn’t easy, although assisted by their opponents’ contentment with a modest defeat.
Cork have a decent history at Croke Park, although they have lost their four most recent championship outings, against Donegal (2012 and 2016), Mayo (2014) and Dublin (2013). They are one of six teams to beat Dublin at the venue in the Jim Gavin era.
Having slipped to Division Three they will not be expected to turn over the All-Ireland champions, but Kerry found out last year that taking on practised opposition when you’ve had a cake walk of a provincial championship is lined with pitfalls.
The re-emergence of Cork and Meath is reassuring for counties with a strong modern tradition, but the old sense of achievement that used to accompany reaching the August Bank Holiday quarter-finals is now something more ambiguous – an opportunity to mix it with the best teams but also the menace that can bring over three matches.
Five matches left for one county to win an All-Ireland: to be fair to the experimental format it’s intriguing.