What a brilliant weekend for Tipperary and Cavan, the best football stories of the year. Upsets like those would do the heart good. Tipperary winning Munster is an unbelievable achievement, Cavan coming from the preliminary round to take Ulster is some going as well. They deserve all the plaudits coming to them and more.
But I want to make this column about Cork and Donegal. I want to start by making it clear that nothing should take away from what Cavan and Tipperary did. Both winning teams met the occasion in the right way, both teams were tactically very smart and both teams have top-class players who understood what was at stake and showed off their skills accordingly. Nothing I say here should be taken as an attempt to do them down in any way, shape or form.
The reality is that Cork and Donegal will both take a long time before they forgive themselves for Sunday. They were both beaten by the better team on the day. But they will know themselves that shouldn’t have been the case. They were both outfought and outsmarted and they have nobody to blame but themselves.
In every sport, there are favourites and there are underdogs. The underdog goes in knowing that everything has to go right for them to win. And for everything to go right, everything has to be done right. But an underdog can do everything right and still come up short. That’s why they are underdogs.
I was lucky enough to play in Kerry teams that were favourites a lot of the time we went out
The flipside is that favourites can sometimes get away with not doing everything right and still win. And that’s a dangerous thing to know. That’s why the best favourites are the ones who play as underdogs. They take nothing for granted. They play knowing that there is a possibility that they will lose. They work to do everything right, knowing that if they keep on doing it they will eventually show why they went in as favourites.
I don't care if you're playing football, soccer, rugby, that's the deal. Start the game as if you're already losing, play until the other crowd are beaten, get out of Dodge. Non-negotiable. There's no such thing as a great team on paper. You show your quality when the ball is thrown in or it doesn't matter a damn what ability you have.
How many Donegal players showed their ability on Sunday? How many Cork players? Okay, you can argue that they weren’t let, that Cavan and Tipperary played too well to allow it. But so what? Did they think it was going to be easy? Is that what they think winning trophies is about?
Donegal and Cork were favourite because people on the outside looking in made certain assumptions. In Donegal's case, we assumed that they were going to play the way a Division One team should play against a county that has just been relegated to Division Three. Fast, accurate, ruthless. They were none of those.
In the first three minutes alone, Donegal made several heedless mistakes when they got into the Cavan 45. Paddy McBrearty took their first shot a minute in – an easy one on his left leg only 30 yards out. Not only did he kick it wide of the posts, he dropped it short as well. Ray Galligan had time to stop it going out and to set up an attack that led to Cavan's first point.
After that, there was a long kick into the D by Paul Brennan where three Cavan defenders had their pick of who was going to collect it ahead of Michael Murphy. And about 30 seconds later, Michael Langan had Jamie Brennan free inside but couldn't find him with a 10-yard handpass.
This was all simple stuff, the kind of poor concentration mistakes that get you a bollocking if you make them in the warm-up. All within the first three minutes of the game.
As for Cork, they barely made it into the Tipperary 45 in the opening exchanges. When they did, Brian Hurley made a hash of a fairly straight-forward pick-up to end their first attack. A few minutes later, he missed a handy kick for a point on the near side. Soon after that, Kevin O'Donovan gave away a free for touching the ball on the ground 25 yards from the Tipperary goal.
Luke Connolly seemed to be the only one of their forward line who knew he was playing in a Munster final. The first three times he was involved in the game, he scored a point on the run, curled in a mighty free from the wrong side and gave an excellent fist-pass inside that got spoiled when O'Donovan gave away the free.
But all around him, Cork players were lax, they were second to the ball, they were leaving passes short. Like Kerry in the previous game, it told you that too many of them had gone into the day with the wrong attitude. Tipperary came to win a war, Cork came to see it out.
Cork were playing as if they knew it would all come out alright in the end. But that’s the one sure-fire way to get in trouble when you’re the team who should win. Your alarm bells aren’t going off because you’re confident in the things you know you’re good at. You bide your time, you don’t get flustered, you trust that it will come. Next thing you know, the opposition are five points up and you’re still waiting.
That’s not that way to approach these games. Not at all. I was lucky enough to play in Kerry teams that were favourites a lot of the time we went out. I played in games where we went in with the wrong attitude and I played in games where we did it right. In fairness to Cork and Donegal, it can be a fine line. But if you want to be a top team, it’s not even up for discussion.
Here's what ye're up against, lads – we're going to play it fast, we're going to nail every pass and we're going to put every shot between the posts. Don't be getting any notions
Anyone in an intercounty championship team is obviously well able to play, given the right conditions. Your job when you are playing in a team that is supposed to be a contender for titles is to take those conditions away from the opposition. You have to go in and make it very clear that this is not a day for heroes among the underdogs. Don’t let that seed grow in their ranks.
Again, I’m not interested in doing Cavan or Tipperary down here but the reality is that they will both play in Division Three next year. It’s obvious that both teams have seriously good players and very astute management. But Cavan have been relegated two years in a row and Tipp had to win on the last day of the league to stay out of Division Four. How do you square that with them both being able to win a provincial championship?
Well, on a very basic level, it’s because on certain days when conditions haven’t gone in their favour, some of their players haven’t been as good as they can be. That’s all football comes down to – on any given day, if 12 of your players put in a seven out of 10 performance or higher, you will generally win more than you lose. Plenty of Cavan and Tipperary players didn’t reach that standard in league games over the last two years.
But they managed it last Sunday. They managed it because an Ulster final or a Munster final is a bigger day than a league game. That’s a given. But Cavan and Tipperary have been in provincial finals before – Cavan last year, Tipperary in 2016 – and those were big days too. They still ended up beaten out the gate on both occasions because the favourites did their job.
Sunday was a perfect day for football, both in Cork and Armagh. A dry ball, a clear day, no wind. In the first 10 minutes of a game on a day like that, your job is to set the tone as favourites. Here's what ye're up against, lads – we're going to play it fast, we're going to nail every pass and we're going to put every shot between the posts. Don't be getting any notions.
Instead, Cork were 0-3 to 0-0 down inside the first three minutes. Donegal were 0-4 to 0-1 behind after seven. Straight away, Tipperary and Cavan had achieved their first goal – no early giveaways, no statement of intent from the favourites, nothing to fear here. They grew in confidence from there so that even when Donegal and Cork came back at them and went ahead, Cavan and Tipperary both knew they were well able for the task at hand.
This is what Dublin are so good at. They are murderous from the start. They don't entertain any question of the other teams in Leinster making a game of it. And all the more so if, like Meath, there's a chance they might be making progress. Ye scored 12 goals in two games? Right, well playtime's over. This is a different thing altogether.
That's the intensity Dublin bring to every game. They go out, they take every game seriously, they execute the skills of the game at a relentless speed
Dublin do the right thing over and over again. They play like they're on the edge because they know that mistakes aren't really tolerated. You improve or you're gone. Paddy Small kicked a few wides for the second game in a row and was sitting in the stands for the last half an hour for the second game in a row.
Look at Cormac Costello’s face when he realised he was being sent off. He wasn’t thinking, “Oh no, I’ve let my team down.” He knew it didn’t matter in the slightest in terms of the team because they had been home and hosed for the guts of an hour at that stage. No, he was thinking, “That’s my year gone.”
He's going to miss the semi-final, he's already a sub, Paul Mannion and Kevin McManamon are going to leapfrog him. Maybe Paddy Andrews as well. His face told you straight away that he knew how far down the pecking order a red card was sending him.
That’s the intensity Dublin bring to every game. They go out, they take every game seriously, they execute the skills of the game at a relentless speed. They crush all dreams of an upset as quickly as possible, they get a bite to eat and they head for home. They don’t even look to me to be enjoying it.
And why would they? Enjoyment isn’t part of it. I never enjoyed it. You enjoy the aftermath, you enjoy sharing it with your friends and teammates and family. But in the middle of it, when it’s happening, it’s not about enjoyment. It’s about getting it done.
Cork and Donegal both had their chance to take the next step, to build on the good work they’ve been doing and to move on to an All-Ireland semi-final. They didn’t get it done. All they have now is the regret of a wasted year.
Meanwhile, Dublin plough on, out of everyone else’s reach. No time for messing, no interest in fairytales. There isn’t a hope of anyone stopping them.