It is a pattern of the GAA summer that for weeks the games seem to meander along at a leisurely pace and the next thing we know we are canoeing through the Grand Rapids. On Sunday, the footballers of Tipperary gave a performance that reawakened a tradition dormant in the county since the second World War.
It is a massive step forward for Tipperary football and they are there now. Their belief in what they are being asked to do and the belief in their manager and the abandon with which they played is what stood out for me in their win over Galway. And even as we stand back and admire that, we have the prospect of two epic collisions in Croke Park on Saturday. It is simply a huge day of football. It is rare that you have a double bill featuring four teams fully convinced that they can win the All-Ireland.
I believe that Dublin, Donegal, Mayo and Tyrone are in that frame of mind and justifiably so. Over the course of the afternoon and early evening, something is going to give. The centre cannot hold. It brings together four big counties who are on new paths.
Dublin are lording it in their province but they are attempting to put back-to-back All-Ireland football titles together and have reached the point of no return. Tyrone are returning to Croke Park with the imprimatur that comes with being the new champions of Ulster, which makes them a different proposition. Donegal have managed to shake off the acute disappointment of their Ulster final loss by delivering a win against Cork which was like a warning of their potential to hurt teams. And Mayo, having been jolted completely off-course in Connacht, have reached another critical moment in their grand quest for an All-Ireland. Both games are like coins spinning in the air. They could land either side up.
I suppose 2011 and 2014 will be obvious reference points for the latest Donegal-Dublin saga. But when you think back to their league meeting, Dublin cruised despite holding back some of their marquee names. They fully expected to win. But that has to be countered by the fact that Donegal hadn’t done a lot of work by that stage in the season and they were a different team by the time the championship came around. Naturally, Dublin will see this as an opportunity to sort out the demons from 2014.
I do feel Dublin have progressed tactically since then. Primarily, they don’t allow themselves to be manipulated through the man-marking system they favoured that season. As we know, they like to push up on kickouts and choke the opposition for space and force them to kick the ball long. For instance, against Laois, they did that zonally, with James McCarthy pushing into the middle of the park and then the two midfielders moving to the centre and left-hand side of midfield. So you had a situation where they had two fullbacks, three halfbacks, three midfielders, three half-forwards and three full-forwards facing the Laois kickout. And they caused a lot of damage through that.
The other big innovation has been Cian O'Sullivan preventing teams from rampaging down the middle. So they have added those strings to their bow and introduced players like John Small and Eric Lowndes and the highly impressive Brian Fenton. But they have lost two significant individuals in Rory O'Carroll and Jack McCaffrey. There is no doubt that McCaffrey is a huge loss because of his pace and intensity. And for this quarter-final, he would be the natural solution to preventing the likes of Ryan McHugh, Eoin McHugh or Marty Reilly running riot. Added to that, the possible absence of James McCarthy through injury will give Donegal hope here.
Now, it remains an incredibly difficult task for any team to knock this Dublin team off their perch. They have the tactical improvisations allied to their overall athleticism and wonderful kicking game, their individual star players and collective work ethic. But they are All-Ireland champions. And there is this dynamic at play all the time. It is difficult to defend one's All-Ireland. Is the desire as strong? Are they as fresh? Have the seasons taken a toll that they aren't yet aware of? These are the questions that the game will help to answer.
What of Donegal?
After the Ulster final, I did outline my dismay with Donegal's approach. However, I was hugely impressed with how Donegal responded to that defeat in their win over Cork because losing an Ulster final can be absolutely soul-destroying. And Rory Gallagher had the task of putting them in the right frame of mind for that game. For all the talk of Donegal ageing, the team continues to get younger, which is interesting in itself. Since he has become manager, Gallagher has introduced new players who have subtly but significantly altered the profile of the team. Eoin McHugh and Marty O'Reilly can inject serious pace while Odhrán MacNiallais and Ryan McHugh have become very important players. The win over Cork may have marked Paddy McBrearty's true coming of age. So what he has managed to do is to quietly assemble a new team even while people are banging on about an old Donegal team.
Run the ball
Now, for me their approach to this game is critical. My feeling is that if Donegal go defensive, they could struggle on the scoreboard. Dublin, by their nature, give players a chance to run the ball and kick it and this will specifically suit players like the McHughs and Marty Reilly and Frank McGlynn and Odhrán. I think that Donegal still depend on senior players like Rory Kavanagh and Christy Toye and the McGees to exert huge influence at critical times in big games. Obviously, Michael Murphy remains the driving force behind the team. But I feel that the energy can be dictated by the newer players.
In short, I feel that in order for Donegal to win the game, they simply must take Dublin on. Currently, the Dubs average 24.3 points per game in the championship. Donegal must strike the balance between very solid defence and a bold attacking approach. I don't mean an out-an-out shootout but leaving two to three players up the park so that we can bridge the gap between defence and attack. Otherwise I don't see how we will get enough scores on the board. We saw how potent Donegal are and how slick their passing is when they attacked in numbers against Cork. I think if they unleash that against Dublin, they will cause trouble.
There are other variables. Do Donegal allow Stephen Cluxton to go short with his kickouts? It is a lot of possession to concede. In 2014, we did push up but we still only won three out of 21 kickouts. And we got lucky once or twice – specifically when Christy Toye recovered to make a massive tackle and dispossession on Michael Darragh MacAuley when he was winding up for one of those runs.
But even if you don’t win primary possession, by pushing up on Dublin there is a chance that you can force them into a hurried decision or get a good hard challenge in or force a long pass or a mistake here and there. Every manager has to weigh up the chance of causing that disruption and not letting them have their way against allowing them saunter up field at will. These are the decisions.
So that’s why I hope Donegal take Dublin on. I think we need to be able to find Patrick, and his current form may help to give Michael Murphy a bit of breathing space. And I do think there are other threats in the Donegal team that people forget about. There is pace in key areas and that brings all kinds of danger. If Ryan McHugh gets on ball in the right area, he will cause damage. People know his threat but stopping it is a different matter. Eoin McHugh carries a similar threat and you would expect him to make six or seven quality incisions on Saturday because he has that ability. I believe Donegal can win but they are facing an immense challenge and, in order to win, they will have to get a lot of things right.
Critical day for Mayo
Saturday is a critical day for Mayo. Earlier in the summer, we spoke about this day arriving where Mayo won't quite know where they are until they meet a serious team. This is it. Basic questions: have they the quality to break down this Tyrone defence? I'm not sure. Have they sorted their fullback issue? I'm not certain. Have they the collective ability to win this game? Yes.
You know what you are going to get with Tyrone. Mickey Harte has developed a defensive system which can seem impenetrable and they are slick and clinical in the transition. They set up the wall against Donegal and were very disciplined in just holding and waiting, and then used guys like Niall Sludden and Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly to carry at pace. Once they get inside the 45, I believe they are always probing for a goal chance. They will pursue the goal until those avenues are shut down and then recycle for a point on the loop. They may have taken their cue from Dublin in this regard: if we get in there, be cool and make the right decision. And a championship goal is a massive score because it doesn't just give you a huge psychological boost, it seriously wounds the opposition. And Tyrone will look to hurt Mayo in this way.
Faith in their forwards
Can Mayo look at Tyrone with no fear? They will play with a certain style and put faith in their forwards to win the ball. Tyrone struggle when teams push up on them. In the Ulster final, when Donegal did just that, Niall Morgan's decision-making seemed to become narrower. And for all their qualities, they don't have a huge number of tall players. Mayo have that advantage. So they can win a long, high ball battle.
I think Mayo's best chance of scoring a goal is off the kickout. Kicking 16 or 17 points against that Tyrone defence is a tall order, so Mayo may need a goal. Key for me would be to win primary possession, have a runner off the shoulder and launch the ball down on that Tyrone fullback line before they can settle. Mayo can do this. Aidan O'Shea against any Tyrone fullback: you have to fancy him. Now, if Colm Cavanagh is there covering, it is a different story. But on Mayo's kickout, the space should be there.
There are intangible factors at play for Mayo now. We all admire the relentless fire they have shown for the past five years. But do Mayo believe they are good enough? The weird thing is that Tyrone may have moved ahead of them in this regard. They are Ulster champions and are heading to Dublin walking a few inches taller. They rubber-stamped their self-belief three weeks ago. Mayo need to prove to themselves that they are still good enough to win the All-Ireland. And if they step into the arena in dominant, front-foot mode and there is no sign of psychological damage from losing their bearings in Connacht, I will be incredibly impressed. But if they try to feel their way into this game, the Tyrone system could swallow them up before they know what is happening.
My feeling is Mayo will start conservatively and that will place Tyrone in a really strong position. For me, Mayo are in the same position as Donegal. They need to get everything right to get past a team that brings a fixed set of qualities and strengths to the table. Mayo are going to need to be inventive and creative and have a plan to match what Tyrone will do. If they do that, they could absolutely win the game. And if Donegal do the things we were speaking of earlier, they also can win their game. That’s what I believe.
The Olympic Games start in Rio on Friday evening but for all of us lucky enough to be in Croke Park, it will feel as if the Jones' Road is the epicentre of the sporting world. All eyes will be fixed as two of the big contenders fall. And, of course, the men from Kerry will be among the most interested of neutral spectators.