We have reached the turning point in the championship. Four interesting games and eight teams in Headquarters having travelled different paths and harbouring different aspirations.
For some there is an expectation that they will win the All-Ireland; others dream of reaching the final and those for whom running out for the semi-finals would be like the realisation of a fantasy.
Derry vs Clare is a fixture with ‘cagey’ written all over it. These teams know each other from the national league. They are both pleased to be playing each other. Derry have the great psychological endowment of having won a first Ulster in 24 years whereas Clare are buoyed by the late win – and more importantly the manner of it – over Roscommon.
It was such an amazing recovery, capped by Jamie Malone’s huge point in the dying seconds. Still, it was a game Roscommon should have won and this quarter-final will be a hard watch for them.
Derry are worthy Ulster champions after beating Tyrone, Monaghan and Donegal. They come to Dublin full of confidence and most people expect them to advance very easily but Clare are a similar team in the way they set up with bodies back and one forward on the inside line – allowing of course that Keelan Sexton did a brilliant job in that role the last day.
For me, there are two interesting Derry perspectives. One is how they defend the open spaces in Croke Park with the system they use, particularly in the context of any later games they might be involved in if they get over this, which I think they will. Two, how Derry deal with being favourites after a summer of upsetting more fancied teams.
The psychological impact of being the hunted rather than the hunter is part of that and I don’t think Clare will fear Derry, who after all have climbed recently from Division Four to Division Two while Clare never left Division Two.
Later in the evening Dublin play Cork. I worked at the Kerry-Cork Munster semi-final and was impressed at how John Cleary had Cork organised with six defenders, a sweeper in front of the D and a sweeper in front of him along the 45 – double sweepers in a straight line so they were able to man mark and double up very quickly.
They made it difficult for Kerry for a long time but for many in the country, this will be an observational exercise: where are Dublin after an undemanding provincial campaign? Can they re-produce the football that destroyed Kildare and even develop it?
If they can, it will be good enough not just to beat Cork but in my view, to win the next two matches as well.
Dublin have had to reassess after last year when the transition from swashbuckling to a more controlled, possession-based game hit the wall. It might have served them well as an antidote to blanket defence – high possession counts combined with well-judged incisions to create scoring chances – but it became very predictable.
They eventually lost confidence in it and like a tightrope walker with increasing doubts, they were bound to fall and everyone realised that was about to happen, which it finally did.
In fairness to Dessie Farrell he knew a change was needed in style and the main effect has been to bring unpredictability to Dublin’s attack. That means they’re back trying to hurt teams through their kicking game, most obviously in the Leinster final.
They were using 40, 50, 60-metre passes to full forwards and then quickly offloading to runners coming from deep. That is a very difficult style to play against because it’s not the man kicking the ball nor the receiver who are of concern but the third man runner, who could be coming from anywhere.
If anyone gets a metre in front of their man along the 45 – as we saw in the Leinster final for those goals – it’s lights out. Worse again, if there are multiple runners, they have the pace and athleticism and if they get that metre on you, it’s a struggle to make it up.
The kicking game has transformed them and it feels like we’re back at the beginning of the last decade.
From the first match in the championship against Wexford, the change in emphasis has been noticeable. You had Con O’Callaghan, Dean Rock and Cormac Costello positioned close to goal as a three-pronged point of attack. That’s crucial and there’s a serious discipline required from inside forwards to hold that shape.
The start position is on the small parallelogram on that line and as the play has been building up, they hold that distance inside and when the ball goes, the runners are coming.
They are also doing something that others aren’t. They are getting ahead of the ball and we saw that against Kildare as well: punching those holes; opposition defenders going to the ball, which is then flicked over their head and then bang, they are straight in on goal.
So those are the vital components: the willingness and capacity to kick the ball inside; tracking those third-man runners; the discipline of the inside guys and the quality of players they have to build attacks with the running game by getting players ahead of the ball.
Add in the best midfielder in the country, the best centre forward in the country in my opinion in terms of play making and then, Con O’Callaghan, who’s probably the second-best inside forward in the country and you could throw in another 10 around that.
They are top, top-level players and this season in what seems like the blink of an eye, they are back, like they’re waiting to pick up Sam Maguire at the lost property after mislaying it last year.
Behind all of the previewing, the consensus expectation is that Dublin will play Kerry in next month’s semi-final. People have been anticipating that as the game of the season for a long time but quarter-finals weekends are surrounded by notions that waver as the day approaches.
Which brings us to Kerry-Mayo. What of Kerry?
They too have major ambitions and I’m of the view that it will take a very good team and a very good performance to beat them. They have one of the strongest, most athletic profiles left in the competition. They’ve done an incredible job building this up over the past couple of years and they now have real strength, speed and power.
It enables them to switch between a very strong running game and a more expansive and traditional kicking game. Their defenders scored 0-6 in the Munster final. We know they can kick the ball and have the inside forwards to win possession as well as score.
They’ve a good style up front so for Tom O’Sullivan, Brian Ó Beaglaoich and the flying Gavin White to be getting on the scoreboard like that is significant and can be even more so in Croke Park.
Of course Mayo have been doing this for a long time, bringing players from deep and this year it’s not an exaggeration to say that those players have held them together, particularly against Monaghan and Kildare.
No less than the Kerry players mentioned, Lee Keegan, Oisín Mullin and Patrick Durcan are top class in this department – taking the game to the opposition, injecting directness and taking vital scores.
On their day they can drag any team into the cave and make it extremely hard for them to get out. As with Dublin, though, all eyes will be on Kerry to learn two things.
One, will we see their credentials tested? Will we see them on the ropes at any stage? Are they going to have to produce a performance under serious pressure?
Secondly, if that happens, what’s the response? It’s no secret that Kerry have been building towards this All-Ireland. There’s no doubt about that among the players and certainly, the population, who all feel it’s overdue. The appointment of Jack O’Connor’s management was also geared towards this end.
For all the talk, they haven’t won it yet and the pressure falls on young shoulders most of whom haven’t won it previously and most obviously David Clifford. It’s not like Kerry have no other forwards but look at last year when they lost him during the All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone and his impact can be appreciated.
If he’s injury-free and firing, Kerry will be hard to stop. Look at his display in the league final when Mayo got a spanking. That may be to Mayo’s advantage for this game because a manager likes to have players taking a long, hard look at themselves, particularly going into a big match. There would have been plenty of that going on during the league final video analysis session.
It will hardly be enough but I expect a better performance.
Galway-Armagh has the most potential of the weekend’s matches. Both will be acutely aware of the significance of where they are and the possibilities of the road ahead to this year’s final.
Armagh will be high on confidence after beating Tyrone and Donegal that they are again capable of taking their place on the national stage. We should see that reflected in a huge presence at Croke Park. Stylistically they are mixing it up well: asking questions with their goalkeeper, defending well and not being afraid to kick the ball and with a marquee forward, Rian O’Neill in explosive form.
That confidence could be seen when Donegal went on the rampage after the early goal in Clones. The response from Armagh was really, really impressive and the belief was tangible.
You could say the same things about Galway, who have come in a little under the radar despite beating the best teams in Connacht. That’s not a bad thing. They too have quality in attack with Shane Walsh, Damien Comer and Rob Finnerty on the inside line and powered from behind by Paul Conroy, who’s having an unbelievable season.
Most strikingly for me, though, are the steps they have taken to improve their structure. They’re now a team that is well set up, difficult to break down and most importantly hard to beat.
Both teams will allow each other to play at times but they’ll also be well set up so it will be physical and there will be contact. There are also forwards who are good enough to get the better of their direct marker. I expect a tight, skilful game that could go down to the wire.
My marginal preference for Armagh is based simply on the harder road they have travelled. I think they are more battle hardened than their opponents and in a contest of tight margins that can prove invaluable.
One thing is for sure. Come Monday morning, we will know a lot about the football championship.