It’s quarter-finals weekend, time to sort the wheat from the chaff. We’ll do this like Top Of The Pops, counting down through the rankings and saving the best for last. No prizes for guessing who we start with. . .
Say this for Cork – they have mastered the art of the PR game anyway. They’re one of the biggest football counties in the GAA and yet they’ve somehow managed to convince everybody that getting to an All-Ireland quarter-final is bonus territory. Cork should be aiming higher than that.
In fairness, they’ve had some impressive performances from individuals. Ian Maguire has been their north star for the past few seasons and he gets through a huge amount of work in every game, even when he’s carrying an injury. They have an inside line now that can do damage – Stephen Sherlock has been accurate, Brian Hurley can let loose from time to time and the new lad Cathail O’Mahony looks very sharp.
Can they make it a game going past the hour mark? It’s hard to imagine they will
Seán Powter is clearly a big player for them and if they had 15 of him, they’d be a force to be reckoned with. But it’s hard when the player the crowd hangs their hat on is constantly getting injured. He throws himself into every tackle and run as if it’s the last bit of the ball he’s ever going to get to play. If they could only keep him on the pitch, their prospects would be much better.
I can’t see how they’ll get much out of the Dubs. It looks like a damage limitation job really. They stuck with Kerry for 50 minutes in the Munster semi-final so maybe that’s where they’ll set the bar this time around. Can they make it a game going past the hour mark? It’s hard to imagine they will.
Colm Collins is no soft touch. He has a reputation for being one of the good guys and he’s popular with everyone but you wouldn’t want to mistake that for him being easily got around. He is ruthless on the little details and takes nothing for granted. He doesn’t make life easy for visiting teams – a small thing maybe but it shows that the Clare footballers mean business in a way that was never the case down the years.
Take out the penalty shoot-out against Limerick and they haven’t actually lost yet. Beating Roscommon the last day got the Croke Park factor out of the way. They’re not afraid of playing against favorites and they don’t see themselves as just being there to give the big boys a handy route to an All-Ireland semi-final. They wouldn’t even really see Derry as the big boys anyway.
My concern for Clare is that they won’t have come across anything like the Derry system all that often before. The likes of Tyrone, Monaghan and Donegal are well used to playing against that style of football and Derry took care of all three of them. So what are Clare going to bring that is different? That’s their job this week.
Derry have a lot going for them – they’re super fit, they have a complete buy-in to the gameplan, they know their system is inside-out. The challenge for them now is how to handle a game where they are expected to have no problems. Rory Gallagher was able to rally them around a cause for the Ulster Championship – now that they’ve done it, so what’s their cause going into the weekend?
In every game they’ve played so far, they’ve been underdogs. They’ve been playing Division One Ulster teams, coming up against players they’ve known their whole life. It’s easy to get up for the big fellas, especially when you have a lifetime of grudges to go settling.
Clare in Croke Park as favorites is a totally new thing. Derry have no bone to pick with Clare. They come across them odd time in the league but there’s no big rivalry there. And everybody in Derry will be telling the players that they’ve got a great draw, that they should deal with Clare no problem and the rooms are already booked for the All-Ireland semi-final. They’d want to tread carefully here.
Beyond that, in All-Ireland terms, I just don’t see their system getting it done against the better teams in Croke Park.
I wouldn’t say this about any other team but with Mayo, I think we can throw out a lot of what we have seen up to this point. Mayo have proven their quality at this level of competition and especially in Croke Park. They were appalling against Kildare – it goes without saying it won’t be good enough against Kerry. But I think it also goes without saying that they won’t be that bad again. There’s just no evidence for it.
Mayo dance to the music that’s playing. If it goes slow, they dance slow. If it kicks up into a high-tempo number, watch them move their feet. That’s why I said Kerry or Dublin would be the perfect draw for them. This is it now – get up and at it or head away back home. If we know one thing about Mayo over the past decade, it’s that they’ll always choose door number one.
They have plenty of flaws, absolutely. Tommy Conroy has been a huge loss and it’s only got worse with Ryan O’Donoghue’s injury. When Cillian O’Connor started drifting out against Kildare, it meant they were left with no forwards inside who were going to inject a bit of pace or divilment into the action. That can’t happen again against Kerry.
They need one of their great Mayo days on Sunday. They need to empty everything into it. I think Kerry will win but am I wary of what Mayo might find within themselves? Wouldn’t I be mad not to be?
= 3 Galway and Armagh
I can’t really split these two. By rights, I probably should be a man about it and rank one above the other but I really don’t see an awful lot to choose between them. And sure look, it’s my list and I can do what I like with it. If you feel strongly about it, write up your own one.
I think Galway are exactly where Pádraic Joyce would have hoped they would be. He has had to handle a fair bit of adversity during his reign but they’re in a good place now. He has his star trio of Paul Conroy, Damien Comer and Shane Walsh all fit and hopping off the ground. How often has he been able to say that going into the biggest game of the season?
The really interesting thing about this game is the decision Joyce has to make. Setting up defensively was the key to their Connacht title and it was the right strategy against Mayo and Roscommon. Now he has to decide whether it’s the right strategy against Armagh and especially against Armagh in Croke Park.
It’s a real stick-or-twist one. If you have ambitions to win the All-Ireland – and you can be sure that’s number one on Joyce’s list – there’s very little future in going to Croke Park in high summer and playing conservatively. But on the other hand, if this is a shoot-out on Sunday, won’t it play right into Armagh’s hands?
Armagh are coming on the crest of a wave. It’s very noticeable that the guys who put their hands up in the early rounds of the league are the ones who’ve come to the fore again. The likes of Rian O’Neill, Jarly Burg Burns, Rory Grugan – they all had a bit of a dip as the league wore on but they’re flying now.
If I have a worry for Armagh, it’s that they won’t be used to this kind of stage and occasion. The last time they got to an All-Ireland quarter-final in Croke Park, they were annihilated by Tyrone in 2017. None of them have played in an Ulster final in a packed Clones or anything like it. Some of the older lads would have been around for Donegal in 2014 but that’s a long time ago. The potential is there for them to tighten up when they least expect it.
I think Armagh have the potential to win the All-Ireland if they get past this one. But I’ll give Galway the nod by the tiniest margin.
Here he goes, I hear you say. Giving Kerry the number two spot. Cute hoors gonna cute-hoor. Well, believe what you want to believe.
My reason for ranking Kerry behind Dublin is fairly simple. This Dublin team has won All-Irelands, this Kerry team hasn’t. When you get to this end of the competition, there’s only one currency and that’s medals. Dublin have buckets and buckets of them, Kerry only have whatever David Moran, Paul Murphy and Stephen O’Brien have in the drawer at home.
Kerry haven’t beaten anyone yet. Cork matched them for 50 minutes and Limerick offered up no resistance. We think Kerry are probably very good but we don’t know. We have nothing to go on. Collectively Kerry have defended much better this year than previously but even so, three of our defense are unproven at this level and Tom O’Sullivan hasn’t hit the heights he’s capable of yet. Also, I would not be overly confident about our goalkeeper in a pressure situation.
Kerry’s strengths are obvious. The attack is in good shape and the midfield is very mobile and athletic. I think they’re probably better with Moran finishing games than starting them because he has the experience and know how to see them out of tight spots. They showed in Munster that they don’t need David Clifford shooting the lights out put up a score – but that will obviously change from here on out.
I think Mayo is exactly the test they need. Huge game coming up.
They were never going to fall too far. I don’t have them in the number one spot on the back of winning Leinster – they could do that in their sleep at this stage. I have them here because of how they looked doing it.
Their body language is the biggest indicator that they’re back in the right mindset. The Dubs have been all business since the end of the league. They rattled in five goals against Kildare in the first half and they barely raised a smile after any of them. They’re back to not celebrating scores, the same as in the Jim Gavin era. That’s a level of focus and intent that should make everyone else worried.
Every team had a bite out of them during the league. So they have a chip on their shoulder to go and prove everyone wrong. When you think about it, the vast majority of these fellas have had their entire career without anyone saying a bad word against them. Getting relegated, having to hear people slagging off Dessie Farrell – even having some people calling for his head! That’s all the kind of stuff they’ve been able to use to get right for the summer.
They won’t have any problem with Cork. And until either Kerry or Mayo beat them, their experience of winning All-Irelands means I find it hard to look past them.