All-Ireland SFC: Our writers and pundits answer the big championship questions

Dublin try and claim a seventh successive title - but is there a surprise in store?

Dublin’s Con O’Callaghan and Tom O’Sullivan of Kerry clash during the 2019 All-Ireland SFC final replay at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Dublin’s Con O’Callaghan and Tom O’Sullivan of Kerry clash during the 2019 All-Ireland SFC final replay at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Seán Moran

1. Have Dublin come back to the chasing pack? And if they have, does the pack consist of anyone outside of Kerry?
Probably. The drip, drip departure of players means a loss of experience and in the case of Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion in particular, a loss of viable first-teamers. Kerry are probably stronger than in 2019 – on the basis that 2020 didn’t kill them – whereas Dublin demonstrably aren’t. Can Kerry cope defensively is the primary issue. Apart from the two of them, I can’t see any other team lifting Sam Maguire.

2. Is there a Tipperary or a Cavan hiding in the weeds this year? Which, if any, of the provincial contenders has most to fear?
Not in my view. Maybe Armagh can skip the queue in Ulster but it seems a bit soon. Galway are recent champions and live contenders nearly any year they play Mayo so should they get to the final, winning it would hardly be a major upset.

3. How can Mayo overcome the loss of Cillian O’Connor? Or has it removed them from contention?
Mayo have an admirable track record of being stronger than the sum of their parts but Cillian O’Connor has always been an important part. Replacing the all-time top scorer in the championship, the flinty presence on an evolving team and a high-yield free taker looks a bit of a stretch.

4. Give us a young player to keep an eye out for.
Matthew Tierney was one of the stars of Galway’s under-20 All-Ireland last year and has joined senior ranks with convincing and varied performances. Getting forward he struck for goal in the Dublin match and in the relegation epic in Clones, where on top of a goal assist he calmly edged Galway ahead with a 45 in the dying moments of normal time. He also equalised at the end of extra time courtesy of a spectacular mark. It was to no avail but a senior championship debut beckons.

Derry’s Shane McGuigan in action against Offaly’s Anton Sullivan during the Allianz Football League Division 3 final at Croke Park. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Derry’s Shane McGuigan in action against Offaly’s Anton Sullivan during the Allianz Football League Division 3 final at Croke Park. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

Jim McGuinness

1. Have Dublin come back to the chasing pack? And if they have, does the pack consist of anyone outside of Kerry?
For me, there is no evidence of that yet. Kerry are the obvious contender but have major issues around kick-out strategy and full-back line. In my opinion, Donegal are just a smidgen away from Kerry in that both have serious attacking talent and Donegal have a better kick-out strategy.

2. Is there a Tipperary or a Cavan hiding in the weeds this year? Which, if any, of the provincial contenders has most to fear?
The only team in the country that springs to mind is Derry. It won’t happen in Munster again. Derry have won Division Three, they are putting up big scores and if they manage to catch Donegal in Celtic Park, could they go on to claim the province? They could.

3. How can Mayo overcome the loss of Cillian O’Connor? Or has it removed them from contention?
I go into this detail in my column. Cillian is an exceptional loss but if history has taught us anything it is to not write Mayo off.

4. Give us a young player to keep an eye out for.
I was looking forward to seeing the impact that Darragh Canavan would have on Tyrone’s attack and am curious to see how Paudie Clifford’s impressive introduction to Kerry’s attack influences their summer.

Galway’s Matthew Tierney scores a goal during the Allianz Football League Division 1 South game against Dublin at St Jarlath’s Park in Tuam. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Galway’s Matthew Tierney scores a goal during the Allianz Football League Division 1 South game against Dublin at St Jarlath’s Park in Tuam. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Keith Duggan

1. Have Dublin come back to the chasing pack? And if they have, does the pack consist of anyone outside of Kerry?
Teams would be foolish to hope this is so. Con O’Callaghan, Cormac Costello and Ciarán Kilkenny are thriving. My sense is that James McCarthy is building towards a big summer. Niall Scully has become the key weapon who teams ignore to their cost. No opposition team has been brave enough to gamble on the 20-minute sustained high-ball anarchy which just might discomfort the Dublin full-back line. Their reserves are not as strong as they were four summers ago. But they may not need them as much either.

2. Is there a Tipperary or a Cavan hiding in the weeds this year? Which, if any, of the provincial contenders has most to fear?
It may be unfair to label Armagh as a Cinderella team given their peerless record in Ulster in the 00s. They were impressive and luckless in the league. They have attacking ball players. The recruitment of Kieran Donaghy to the coaching staff was a smart bit of business. You can bet they will be meaner than they were in the 2020 championship and will be keenly aware that they last won the Anglo-Celt in 2008. No team will fancy meeting them.

3. How can Mayo overcome the loss of Cillian O’Connor? Or has it removed them from contention?
By pure bloody-mindedness. O’Connor is a hugely significant loss but Mayo have demonstrated an uncanny ability to absorb the disappearance of big stars and morph into something else. What that something else might be remains to be seen. They can still make it through to the last four on instinct and talent. Then the fun begins.

4. Give us a young player to keep an eye out for.
The brightest aspect of Galway’s league season was the impression that Matthew Tierney made at midfield. A key player on last year’s under-20 side, he possesses the best of old and new in that he is a traditional high fielding middleman who is also a natural playmaker and score taker – and a potential thorn at full forward. Galway may have found their next Walsh.

Tyrone’s Matthew Donnelly and Rian O’Neill of Armagh in action during the Allianz Football League Division 1 North game at the Athletic Grounds. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Tyrone’s Matthew Donnelly and Rian O’Neill of Armagh in action during the Allianz Football League Division 1 North game at the Athletic Grounds. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Kevin McStay

1. Have Dublin come back to the chasing pack? And if they have, does the pack consist of anyone outside of Kerry?
No, I don’t think so. There are just two wolves in the pack this year. And Kerry have closed the gap significantly on Dublin and will plan to build on their 2019 close run with them. The best of the rest? Probably Donegal if in PMO (perfect mechanical order) but a dark horse might be Galway – they played lots of good ball away to Monaghan but that was lost in the fog of defeat.

2. Is there a Tipperary or a Cavan hiding in the weeds this year? Which, if any, of the provincial contenders has most to fear?
No, don’t think so – 2020 has forewarned the various favourites. Dublin and Kerry will trot to their respective provincial titles. Up north, the winners of Monaghan v Armagh will have a big say in their final. Here in the west, it’s between the usual top three. Roscommon are not playing well enough but that has never ruled them out of the title hunt.

3. How can Mayo overcome the loss of Cillian O’Connor? Or has it removed them from contention?
His loss will be felt in three areas: scoring totals; free-taking and leadership. In the four league games he scored a third of Mayo’s total. In championship, it’s usually closer to 50 per cent of the total. Free-taking is not a gimme and O’Connor is national standard. Mayo have a few decent free-takers to fill the void but not with the same assured accuracy. The young emerging players will miss his coaxing, leadership and insistence on hard work. But Mayo will start with 15 players and Cillian’s replacement will just have to fill those big boots as best he can. His loss means the outcome in Connacht is no longer clearcut and the elusive All-Ireland is, most likely, a bridge too far.

4. Give us a young player to keep an eye out for.
If Armagh get a run in the Ulster championship, and I have a real sense they will, then Rian O’Neill is likely to be their star turn. He has it all – size, power, skill, accuracy, free-taking, goal-scoring. He just needs a few championship opportunities to show us.

Peadar Ó Cofaigh Byrne and Roscommon’s Gary Patterson at the end of the Allianz Football League Division 1 South game at Dr Hyde Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Peadar Ó Cofaigh Byrne and Roscommon’s Gary Patterson at the end of the Allianz Football League Division 1 South game at Dr Hyde Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Ian O’Riordan

1. Have Dublin come back to the chasing pack? And if they have, does the pack consist of anyone outside of Kerry?
In long-distance running terms, the chasing pack have certainly gathered some pace, it’s just not yet entirely clear if Dublin have slowed down. Hunger is still the greatest sauce, and there’s no denying have that going for them too. Right now, no one else outside of Kerry has the proper appetite to take on and beat Dublin.

2. Is there a Tipperary or a Cavan hiding in the weeds this year? Which, if any, of the provincial contenders has most to fear?
As joyful as it was to watch at the time, there was a sense too that for both Tipperary and Cavan there was no great certainty around when they might contend again. Their league showing reflected that, which leaves Ulster and Connacht as the only provincial championship with some intrigue. Looking to make 10 Ulster finals in 11 years, Donegal know too what that fear is all about.

3. How can Mayo overcome the loss of Cillian O’Connor? Or has it removed them from contention?
Like an Olympic relay team going in without their anchor runner, there is always someone there to step in – just not anyone with the same class or experience. O’Connor was a joy last season, his appetite for football one of the main reasons Mayo progressed to the final. Without that, their position as contenders is significantly weakened.

4. Give us a young player to keep an eye out for.
Peadar Ó Cofaigh Byrne is no youngster anymore and has been 6ft6in for a few years now – but still he’s grown in considerable stature in his few league appearances this year. He looks set to throw his considerable weight and size around the Dublin midfield this summer. Good luck to anyone who stands in his way.

Kerry’s Paudie Clifford in action against Dublin during the Allianz Football League Division 1 South game at Semple Stadium in Thurles. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Kerry’s Paudie Clifford in action against Dublin during the Allianz Football League Division 1 South game at Semple Stadium in Thurles. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Darragh Ó Sé

1. Have Dublin come back to the chasing pack? And if they have, does the pack consist of anyone outside of Kerry?
There does seem to be a bit of lethargy about the Dubs compared to other years but they’re still winning games handy enough. I think Donegal might be up there along with Kerry and we’ll find out about Galway against Roscommon. I think Tyrone have gone back and Mayo will struggle.

2. Is there a Tipperary or a Cavan hiding in the weeds this year? Which, if any, of the provincial contenders has most to fear?
Not to my mind, no. For one thing, I think the surprise factor is gone after last year and all the bigger guns will be on their guard. The time of the year is a big thing to take into account too. I don’t see as much chance of shocks happening in the summer where the dry ball and the fast ground separates the best players from the rest.

3. How can Mayo overcome the loss of Cillian O’Connor? Or has it removed them from contention?
It is disastrous for them and yeah, I do believe has taken them out of contention. If you just boil it down to his scoring feats alone, they need to replace 10 points a game. They struggle with scoring consistently outside of him at the best of times.

4. Give us a young player to keep an eye out for.
Paudie Clifford isn’t young but he’s the one new addition to Peter Keane’s team this year. The big question in Kerry has always been can he play at the pace of county football. I’ll be very interested to see how that plays out because he has been very good through the league.

Kildare’s Darragh Kirwan. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Kildare’s Darragh Kirwan. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Malachy Clerkin

1. Have Dublin come back to the chasing pack? And if they have, does the pack consist of anyone outside of Kerry?
They have stopped streaking away from the pack, at least. Not quite the same thing but I do have them down as being more catchable now. Their strength in tight games has always been their bench and it doesn’t look as deep as before. Kerry and Mayo are next on the road, with the peloton a good bit back.

2. Is there a Tipperary or a Cavan hiding in the weeds this year? Which, if any, of the provincial contenders has most to fear?
Not in Leinster or Munster – and Roscommon just played Division One ball so they don’t qualify. In Ulster though, Derry are coming from a long way back but they’re gathering pace. They have a future All Star in Shane McGuigan and Conor Glass has settled back in really well. Tough road ahead but don’t rule them out.

3. How can Mayo overcome the loss of Cillian O’Connor? Or has it removed them from contention?
“This is impossible. But because you are you, there is a chance.” Jürgen Klopp’s speech to his Liverpool team before Barcelona applies here. Mayo can overcome it because they are Mayo. Have we learned nothing from watching them for a decade? Also, they have a handy run to the Connacht final and a month to work on their solution. They are absolutely in contention.

4. Give us a young player to keep an eye out for.
Darragh Kirwan’s summer might not last very long – Kildare could get Dublin in the Leinster semi-final and that will be that. But the little-and-large combination he is forging with Jimmy Hyland has given Jack O’Connor’s side a cutting edge. A beautiful left-footed kicker, he also set up three of Kildare’s five goals in the league. Looks to have a big future.

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