James Crombie/INPHO Mayo V Kerry in 2014 - don't expect anything like this again.
Gaelic Football
Last four All-Ireland finalists meet on Saturday - and hardly a cheep
Kerry, Mayo, Tyrone and Galway are out against each other this weekend as the brand new group stages begin.

SEAMIE O’SHEA, FORMER Mayo midfielder, gets it. He really does.

This weekend could and should have been ushered in with blaring trumpets and angels singing. For this is the first weekend of the brand-new football round robins.

The raw material is there, but stories from last week around domestic abuse and Donal Óg Cusack’s views of the Tailteann Cup are still wafting into this week like the steam off an apple pie.

So nondescript does it feel right now, that the Group Stages hasn’t even got a catchy name. The GAA’s website is calling the games, ‘GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship – Round 1.’ Catchy.

No, ‘Sweet Sixteens?’ No ‘Gruesome Foursomes?’ No, ‘4×4?’ How about an adaptation of Greg Hirsch’s attempts to integrate himself with his cousins in ‘Succession’; ‘The Quad Squad?’

How lukewarm is the reception being afforded to the start of the All-Ireland series? Well, there’s been no major marketing push from the GAA, no clever pricing structures unveiled, no… effort put into it all.

And the thing is, that the GAA will always get away with it and continue to take the public for granted.

This weekend, in case you hadn’t noticed and we aren’t judging or anything, the four teams that have made up the last two All-Ireland finals, are playing each other.

Mayo head down to Fitzgerald Stadium for a Saturday 3pm throw-in, while Tyrone are making the schlep down to Pearse Stadium to face Galway. The four sides to have done battle for Sam on The Big Day in 2021 and 2022 and it all feels like a damp firework from this far out.

Ask O’Shea about previous meetings with Kerry, and you have that meeting in Limerick in 2014 in mind, and he isn’t long disabusing you of the notion this this might take off in similar fashion.

“The fact that it was in the Gaelic Grounds, a packed stadium and there was so much at stake,” he says of why that game was so memorable. As well as the duel between James O’Donoghue and Keith Higgins. And extra-time. The numerous head injuries, and a Mayo fan, later called ‘Mayo Mick’ who attempted to come on and remonstrate with the referee towards the end, before being crowned the Chieftain of Mayo later on in Supermacs when it all got a bit silly.

“Kerry hadn’t been to a final since 2011 and hadn’t won since 2009. We were on the road a few years with that group and had lost a couple of finals,” recalls O’Shea.

“There was so much at stake. It was very physical, high-scoring, we probably had the game won two or three times and kept giving it back to them. It was an unbelievable occasion.”

And then he takes a pin to our 2023 balloon.

“It’s different this week, because there is not as much at stake. Those types of games when you go in and it’s, ‘Win or go home’ and everything is on the line, it brings out those kind of occasions. The players feel it, the crowd can feel it and it feeds into the whole thing.

“The weekend, it’s a big game, it’s important and all that. But in the greater scheme of things it’s not the same as we played them in 2014 or 2017. It’s more like when we played them in the Super 8’s a couple of years later.”

Meanwhile a bit further down the road, Kerry manager Jack O’Connor is giving the game a bit more of the big sell.

“The Mayo game is going to be a really big game. They’re going to bring massive travelling support from Mayo. They’re notorious supporters, from the point of view that they back their team through thick and thin. They will bring huge support to Killarney,” he said in his pre-match briefing.

jack-oconnor Bryan Keane / INPHO Jack O'Connor. Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

“We are expecting a big Kerry support as well. Traditionally, the Kerry public like Killarney as a venue, and the atmosphere around the town, and all that. We’re expecting a huge crowd there, and I think the players will be looking forward to that.”

With Cork and Louth the other teams in that group, a win here will set up either to go right through the quarter-finals proper.

It’s a bit tighter over in Group Two, or ‘Quad Squad Two’ as we are going to call it. Tyrone are lumped in with Galway and the two face each other on a Saturday evening in Pearse Stadium.

A Saturday night  in Galway city is a fairly appetising prospect for the supporters to live it up. And it cannot be said that Tyrone have been basing their training camp in Lough Derg either as they spent last weekend in Carton House.

brian-dooher Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Champions in September 2021, where are Tyrone now? Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

The Kildare venue was a regular haunt for Tyrone in Mickey Harte’s time, with family links to the late Lee Mallaghan who restored Carton House to its’ present splendour.

In the almost five weeks since the Ulster championship defeat to Monaghan, Tyrone will have done some serious soul-searching. The way in which Derry exposed Monaghan’s own frailties has to have the Red Hands wondering how far off the pace they really are.

In any event, they have kept a low profile with practically no media engagements since.
Fresh from retaining the Nestor Cup, Galway manager Paraic Joyce was an interested spectator at the Ulster football final.

This is no massive surprise. Even before he was in the county management game, he would have been a regular face in the Gerry Arthurs Stand for big games.

It’s said that the serious stuff starts when the pre-season games are wrapped up and teams head for the league.

Once that is complete, we are told again that the serious stuff starts now, with championship hovering into view.

More than one provincial winning manager since has said that the serious stuff is actually beginning now with the group stages.

What odds we will hear it said once more with gusto after the group stages conclude?

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