It’s the day before the National Football League Division One decider and, for the first time in seven years, we’re in it. Time, I guess, for a day-before-the-big-match post.
Sure, the match isn’t, in truth, all that big. The League is only the League and once the final is done with tomorrow there’ll be little in the way of hoopla afterwards, no matter which way the result goes.
For both sides, the trip to Croke Park tomorrow is their reward for the satisfactory Division One campaigns they’ve put in. They’ve been the two most consistent teams in the top tier this spring – them that bit more so than us – and tomorrow’s decider gives them the opportunity to test each other in front of a big enough crowd at HQ. That opportunity, plus the extra match both will get, is a real bonus at this time of year.
From our point of view, it’s great to be back at Croke Park so soon after our last underwhelming visit. We never got going at all against Dublin and it was as if the memory banks of all those totemic battles we’d had at the venue over the years had somehow been wiped. Tomorrow gives us the chance to show this was just a one-off.
It’s also a chance for silverware. Even if it is only the League, there’s a cup – and medals – on offer for the winners. Kerry are well used to claiming titles but the last one of any kind we won was the Connacht Championship way back in 2015. A League crown to end this hugely positive spring campaign would be a perfect boost for us heading into summer and the tricky provincial challenge that awaits us once more there.
James Horan has demonstrated repeatedly with his team selections that it’s towards the summer he’s aiming. Final or no final, that’s an approach he’s bravely – and correctly – stuck to with his pick for tomorrow.
It’s a pity that – as Mike Finnerty predicted on the podcast – injuries have ruled out David Clarke, Michael Plunkett and Fionn McDonagh. All three would have been in line to start, if fit, and there would have been little argument had they done so.
But that misfortune has opened the doors for others.
Robbie Hennelly’s performance was one of our few bright spots the night we played Dublin and he deserves his chance to start in tomorrow’s final. Lee Keegan is recalled – his 100th start for Mayo – to line out on the pitch where he’s put in so many scintillating performances for us down the years, displays that have seen him garlanded with four All-Stars and the 2016 Footballer of the Year award.
Fergal Boland’s sparkling contributions to the wins over Kerry and Monaghan see him rewarded with a start tomorrow at wing-forward. Darren Coen lines out at full-forward, which will be the Hollymount/Carramore player’s first appearance for the county at Croke Park since he came off the bench in the second half of the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final.
But all the focus will be on James Carr. The Ardagh club man lines out at senior level for the county for the very first time tomorrow, becoming, in the process, the first Ardagh player ever to appear at this level. Every Mayo supporter will, I’m sure, join me in wishing James all the very best on his debut at HQ tomorrow.
The lads will, of course, be joined at Croke Park tomorrow by a big, vociferous Mayo following. While the lads will be wearing dark blue shirts on the pitch, there’s sure to be plenty of the more traditional Green and Red in the stands.
I’m okay with the changed strip, I have to say. Afflicted as I am with colour-blindness, anything that helps me to distinguish clearly our lot from theirs is okay with me. So blue will do.
It’s an easy jaunt for me down to HQ tomorrow but many of you will, of course, be taking to the roads. If you are, you might want to listen to our League final preview episode of the podcast while you’re making your way east. It’s available on SoundCloud here.
If you are on the road today, take it handy and rest those voices. They’ll be needed at HQ. Back tomorrow morning with some final pre-match thoughts.