No quarter to be given as Croke Park gets ready to be lit up
Donegal’s Rory Kavanagh with Monaghan’s Padraig Donaghy. Photograph: Inpho/Presseye/William Cherry
And so it came to pass. The six teams pegged by everyone at the start of the summer to be still standing come the August bank holiday all arrive with various degrees of solidity beneath their feet, joined by a couple of hardy survivors from the north.
Eight counties left in the football championship, with Dublin, Kerry, Cork and Cavan on one side of the draw and Donegal, Mayo, Tyrone and Monaghan on the other. Tray tables stowed, seats to an upright position.
The GAA could hardly have gerrymandered a more satisfying draw.
Croke Park will fairly hum this coming weekend, each of the four fixtures coming freighted with the promise of a decent encounter at the very least.
Ulster champions Monaghan will get proceedings underway against Tyrone at 5pm on Saturday, followed by Dublin v Cork at 7pm. Sunday’s card opens with a doughty examination of Kerry’s abilities against the blanket defence of Cavan (2pm), all leading to the standout tie of the weekend when Donegal and Mayo resume hostilities at 4pm.
“The fact that it’s Mayo is going to add a lot of spice to the occasion for everybody,” said Rory Gallagher, Donegal’s assistant manager.
“It was an All-Ireland final that had been built up and obviously we got the win and Mayo are going to have huge incentive to beat us now. We feel there’s a huge prize there to get to an All Ireland semi-final.
“We’re in such a different position than we were last year. We went into the All Ireland series last year as provincial champions and being honest about it, we went into those games this time last year hoping to get the handier draws.
“And we got Kerry, which was the toughest draw. This time we are the toughest draw. We’re coming in as All Ireland champions and teams would have wanted to avoid us.”
Donegal will have to wait most of the week to see if Mark McHugh is sufficiently recovered to take his place in the starting line-up.
The deep thigh injury he suffered against Monaghan meant he was still on crutches over the weekend and his availability is Donegal’s one serious worry. Karl Lacey came on for the last 20 minutes of their win over Laois on Saturday evening and it is assumed that he will be fit to start the rematch of the All-Ireland final over which he had such influence last September.
With four Ulster teams left in the last eight – the first time that’s happened since 2004 – it was inevitable that two of them would meet each other. So it is that Monaghan will face Tyrone, a team they have never beaten in the championship during the Mickey Harte era.
Indeed, you have to go all the way back to 1988 for the last Monaghan victory over Tyrone. Harte was in Clones for the Ulster final and was taken with what he saw, as he explained after his side’s two-point win over Meath on Saturday night.
“Monaghan were more than impressive against Donegal,” said Hartes, “and if they produce that kind of form, probably what we did today wouldn’t be any good. So we’ll have to improve on all our performances this year.
“They tackled with a great ferocity. They smothered Donegal and didn’t let them hurt them where I mattered. I suppose they took their three key inside players out of the game in terms of scores.
“The most impressive thing about them was having played so much and so well in the first half to be only 0-5 to 0-2 up Donegal probably felt in a good enough place because they are very capable of overhauling that kind of lead and in the second half Monaghan had to knock on and get some more scores and they did that.
“They kept that gap, they never let Donegal any closer than three which was an amazing feat on its own and they just pulled away in the end.
“Our performances, anything we have played to date would not beat the Monaghan I saw in the Ulster final last Sunday.”