Saturday 17 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: After months of poor football fare Mayo-Kerry must sate our appetite for championship drama

Éamonn Fitzmaurice is staying on as Kerry boss
Éamonn Fitzmaurice is staying on as Kerry boss

Eamonn Sweeney

Watching this year's football championship has been a bit like going to a restaurant, ordering a steak and being told that first you'll have to eat some quinoa. "How much?" "About a dozen bowls of it. But don't worry, you'll have plenty of time. It'll be hours before the steak is ready." Today, we finally get to the main course.

It is likely that today's losing manager will not manage his county again. This may sound harsh, because in a normal year having steered your team to an All-Ireland semi-final would count as an achievement. But the standard has been so piss-poor outside the top four and the lack of top-class competition so glaringly obvious that reaching this stage is the least you'd expect from Kerry and Mayo. As John Malkovich says in Dangerous Liasons, "One does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat."

I say top four but the truth is that we don't know if the elite is even that large. Should Mayo and Tyrone ship beatings over the next eight days it may turn out that we've spent several months merely setting up a rematch of the league final. After that league final Tomás Ó Sé lamented that it would be the middle of August before the next meaningful match took place. That seemed harsh, but it's turned out to be true.

The non-competitive nature of the championship is best illustrated by the fact that we have not learned a single new thing about Kerry since it started. Their progress to this stage has been one long cruise, their main problem maintaining interest in games they had in the bag from the get-go.

Mayo haven't had the same problem. Their alarming scrapes and close shaves have provided this dreadful championship with most of its interest. Those wearing red and green spectacles might be inclined to invoke that old cliché about one sign of a good team being their ability to win without playing well. But it surely cannot be good for a serious team to have been as poor as Mayo have been for most of this year's journey.

The disparity between where Mayo should be and where they have been is summed up by the difference between their two games against Roscommon. James Kielt of Derry had a shot from the sideline which could have eliminated them in their first qualifier. Cork had goal chances which would have buried them before extra-time came about.

And there was a split second at the death in their drawn game against Roscommon when Colin Compton was racing down the wing and one ambitious swing of the boot might have finished it all. Really good teams don't cut things that close. It's impossible to imagine Kerry or Dublin finding themselves in the same position against the type of mediocre opposition Mayo have struggled to overcome. Yet they were just as unimpressive in their run to last year's All-Ireland final and almost beat Dublin there.

It would be tough on Éamonn Fitzmaurice to lose the Kerry job. He took charge during a period when a generation of great players was retiring or declining and an extraordinary crop of young talent has yet to arrive at senior level. He has done as well as could be expected, sneaking one All-Ireland victory and twice going close against superior Dublin sides. Yet the Kingdom clearly believe that this year can be the 1978 for their generation, the year when metropolitan dominance is brought to an end and the natural order of things restored. To be denied another crack at the Dubs would be a disaster along the lines of the 2003 semi-final defeat by Tyrone which cost Páidí Ó Sé his job.

Stephen Rochford also needs to win today. For most of his reign Mayo have looked a much less impressive side than they did under the direction of James Horan. The manager's face has been saved by their ability to eventually winkle out victories most of the time. Yet a loss to Kerry today will copper-fasten the idea that they have effectively journeyed backwards since their previous meeting with the Munster champions at this stage. You have to go back to 1978 for the last time Mayo failed to qualify for successive Connacht finals. Defeat today will make that damning statistic seem a bit more significant.

It has been a great year for premature judgments on managers. Take Kevin McStay and Kieran McGeeney. Damned for being relegated from Division One and failing to get promoted from Division Three respectively, both seemed to be redeemed by reaching the quarter-finals. Cue the 'where are their critics now?' articles. Then came humiliating quarter-final losses which left you unsure whether it was their critics or their defenders who had been a bit previous.

You can only really judge a team when they've played their final game of the championship. By the end of today, unless it's a draw, we'll know exactly where Fitzmaurice and Rochford stand. And at last we might see a serious football match between two good teams.

These steaks better be worth the wait.

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport