The final nine in this year’s championship

Back in May, JPM made his debut as a guest contributor on the site when he took a look at the main championship contenders for 2011. I’m delighted to welcome him back into the guest slot now as he assesses how the final nine contenders for Sam Maguire are likely to fare out as the All-Ireland series gets underway this coming weekend. 

So here we are. The quarter-finals are upon us and lo and behold we are in the mix at the right time. Right now we have had the quarter-final final draw and everyone know what that means – only eight (actually nine at the time of writing) teams left to decide the ultimate destination for Sam Maguire 2011. If you recall what I said in my original piece I picked out six (rather obvious) contenders who stood in our way. Of that six, two have fallen by the wayside, one knocked out by another (Cork smashing Down) and Galway who were knocked for six by us. So who’s left and more to the point what have they got?

1: Kerry v Limerick

H’mm – it’s about the only thing I can say right now abut the kingdom this year. They looked really good against Cork in the first half of the Munster final. They have a serious fluidity about them. Pat Spillane would call it total football and I would have to agree with him somewhat. Everyone is involved and what’s noticeable about Kerry this year is the control that they have when they are in possession. They don’t panic and if the perfect pass isn’t easily available, then a simpler pass is completed. So they keep possession and try a different route. Kerry look like they’re trying to transform the game of Gaelic football into a Barcelona system – i.e. keep control of the ball and have the patience to work the perfect openings. This is a great attitude to have but it also takes some serious ability. Kerry has shown they do have players who can deliver on this style.

However, having said that, I don’t believe they can maintain this gameplan for 70 minutes. Against Cork in the second half they fell away badly. Even though they rallied in the concluding minutes of that Munster Final I feel Cork let it slip from their grasp. As well as that, I’m not sure they have the physicality this year that’s been available to previous Kerry teams. If they are starved themselves of possession they may not have the players (consistently) who can dig in and win that hard ball back to allow them play to their desired gameplan. And I think that’s the key to beating Kerry. Winning that hard dirty ball around the middle third and denying them their precious possession.

Limerick have had a good season. After the initial drubbing by Kerry in Munster they have progressed steadily and now find themselves in a new dimension. Along the way they have overcome Offaly, Waterford and Wexford. Not big guns, no, but every win gave them confidence and this was shown ultimately in their performance against Wexford, with their never say die attitude coming good at the end.

The big drawback for them of course is the draw itself. Anyone, rather than Kerry for a second time, would have been a novel pairing for Limerick. But that’s the luck of the draw. On paper it looks a comfortable tie for Kerry and I’m pretty sure the bookies will have it that way to.

2: Dublin v Tyrone/Roscommon

Well Dublin are Leinster champions. Again. They have a gameplan that has worked so far. 12 or 13 fellas behind the ball and let the Brogans (along with someone else running from deep) have the space up front to make hay. Note as well how Dublin manage to escape the criticism for what would be a so-called negative style of play. Makes you wonder. But anyway so far it has worked well for them and they have overcome some slippery slopes, notably Kildare in the Leinster semi-final. Another big plus is the Croke Park effect. Playing there all the time has been of serious benefit to them. Croker is the biggest pitch in the country and by now they know every inch of it backwards. For instance they know how far a ball can travel before it runs out of play. So they know how hard they can hammer that liathróid and still allow the inside line a chance to get on it. They know how long it takes to get from one end of the pitch to the other when you’re running flat out. And even more importantly, they how much this takes out of you.

Plus they have the support to roar them on. It has to be worth a couple of points not to mention the pressure it exerts on the ref! So they will be tough to crack in Croker. And how does one orchestrate the nutcracker suite for this? Well the first answer is that there may be no need.

The most annoying question for any Dublin fan is why have they taken so long to win back Sam Maguire. The weight of expectation on the teams’ backs is the Ball and Chain around their necks. And this year even more so. Dublin fans expect their team to win this year especially after coming so close against Cork last year. They expect it a lot! And this just might be their failing. Can this Dublin team cope with the pressure and hype that surrounds them? After what happened in the League final doubts have to be there.

Secondly it has to be said they were damn lucky against Kildare. Luck like that gets you places but it also runs out. I would prefer to have that bit of luck in the All-Ireland final rather than a provincial semi. Finally the best way to stop Dublin is either one of 2 ways:

  • Do a Dublin on them and bring 12 or 13 fellas back and crowd them out.
  • Slow down the play up the field so there’s time for cover to be in place on the danger men.

So overall – are they the real deal? Answer – well they’re here so they have to be taken seriously. And are they beatable? Definitely.

Tyrone/Roscommon

2-13 to 0-13. Just looking at it now that’s the final score in the Tyrone v Armagh match. Now they play the Rossies and they will be hot favorites here too. Their early blip against Donegal has long been forgotten about, and the rumours of discontent in the camp have been quashed somewhat. Owen Mulligan is back and Brian Dooher was allowed to sit on the bench for the start of this match. (I would love to have a Brian Dooher on our bench to bring in when required). The problems facing Tyrone however have not gone away. The hunger might be there to win the All-Ireland but that hunger is equal for a lot of teams mentioned in this preview. There is serious tough opposition out there right now in the quarter-finals and this is Tyrone’s biggest problem.

They will have played an awful lot of football just to get to this juncture alone and they’re still not even at the quarter-final stage. Now they have to step up considerably to a higher level if they want to push on for the ultimate triumph. This is all to the Rossies’ advantage. This game will be in a neutral venue and it will be interesting to see the team named by Mickey Harte. Will he have one eye on the quarter-final pairing and write off the Rossies?  Fergal O’Donnell’s team also have nothing to lose. Their failure to retain the Nestor Cup must have hurt their pride but that might just be the spark to ignite them. A chance to play the Dubs in Croker is one to relish for any Ros fan. And they can now afford to throw caution to the wind. Also they have had 13 days to recover instead of the ridiculous six that was the norm. This extra week could be crucial. Remember Tyrone haven’t had it. Tyrone may be favorites for this but it might be a lot closer than people expect.

3: Donegal v Kildare

The men from the O’Donnell County are back in Croke Park. This may not sound like much of a statement but the simple fact is that Donegal are not really regular contenders at the business end of the championship. 2009 and 2003 were the last times they competed in Croker, both times via the back door. In 2009 they lost to Cork and in 2003 they got to the semis before losing to Armagh. Previous to that their other notable successful effort in Croker was 1992. Up until then, they had never ever won there in the championship. Luckily for them (ahem) they met a rather generous team on that day and then went a step further to take home the big one. Their current manager Jim McGuiness was part of that 1992 squad. But what of his team?

Well, Donegal are good! By any standards winning the Ulster title is a difficult task. It’s been 19 years since they won it, again going back to 1992. So what’s so special about them? Donegal this year are big, they are strong and they are mobile. Plus they have two big men in the inside line in Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden who can mix it, play good football and score as well. I saw Murphy lift the Anglo-Celt Cup on the telly and the first thing that sprung to mind was “Jesus – look at the size of him”.

They have been criticised for their style of play but is it effective? Damn right it is. They have a mean, mean defence. They have conceded only one goal in four games to date in the championship. And no team thus far has scored more than nine times against them (Cavan scoring the most with 1-8).  No other team at this stage can compare with those stats. Donegal’s star is rising. They won the NFL Division 2 title this year. The only question regards Donegal is how much more do they want after what they have achieved so far? Can they keep it going and push on after the success in Ulster and in winning the NFL Division 2?

Kildare on the other hand want and need to win this. Coming so agonisingly close last year to be shunted out by a controversial goal early in the game hurt the Lillywhites. In this year’s Leinster semi they were controversially penalised again so Kildare people must feel they are owed one. Kildare also play a unique running brand of football. It’s a 15 man game for them and the good thing about Kildare is that they allow everyone the opportunity to blast forward and have a pot. Corner backs can score as much as corner forwards. To achieve this they are extremely fit. They are probably the fittest team out there in the last nine. In getting to this stage they have overcome stiff opposition, hammering Laois away, beating Meath in Navan and overcoming Derry comfortably in Croke Park. Pretty impressive stuff although the Derry game was always going to be a big ask for the defeated Ulster finalists. Kildare do also have problems though. Their style and play is so unique it’s almost peculiar. They do have a dedicated scorer in Johnny Doyle but unfortunately for Kildare because of their approach half of the time he could be in midfield or even behind it. Other than him they don’t really have a natural go-to forward to get the crucial scores in a tight game. And this could be their downfall against this so far unyielding Donegal rearguard.

4: Mayo v Cork

Unfortunately for us we have drawn the worst possible pick out of the bowl. As Homer would say when the names came out, “D’oh!!” Since being asleep in the first half of the Munster final Cork have woken up with a serious hangover and even more frighteningly a serious call to arms. They have re-grouped since then and have improved immensely in the meantime. I watched them destroy Down on Saturday. This was not just a run of the mill beating. Cork came to Croker and Cork hammered Down! They completely outplayed Down in almost all sectors of the pitch. Once Noel O’Leary was switched onto Marty Clarke Down had no answer. Croker as well suits Cork’s style. The bigger pitch and more space both benefit Cork’s handpassing style. Once they are through, the big runners can then lope on knowing in all likelihood that they won’t be caught. They popped over points at will yesterday and in the end the scoreboard reflected one more accustomed to a game of hurling than what we’re used to in Gaelic. Cork are impressive and to be honest they look like the real deal in terms of who is resolute about winning this years All-Ireland.

And what about us? Ara Ladeda!!! Sure is there any point in saying anything positive about “poor oul Mayo”? Our exceptionally poor showing against London in the first round has moulded nearly everyone’s thinking that we are not worth bothering about this year. A lot of negative things have been written about us (on this site obviously as well), that we don’t have the talent or the wherewithal to win anything major.

The Connacht championship itself has been ridiculed across the country and although a lot of this can be put down to the conditions as much as the talent on view, the winners have already been marked down for an automatic scalding in the All-Ireland series.

And it may well come to pass just as predicted. We are noted for our remarkable collapses in Croke Park, racking up tremendous wallopings in the process. Last year’s League final, 2006, 2004, the list goes on back through time. It’s also noteworthy that we take most of our severest beatings from the boys down South. I often wondered why. (For some other post maybe.) But, it’s to our credit that we don’t just lie down and die like everyone outside the county seems to want us to do. We still come back for MORE!! And another hope at pinching the big one. And this is the blessing in disguise. We are coming in completely under the radar against Cork and rightly so. And that’s the way to have it.

James Horan this year has begun his tenure with notable success. A provincial title win in your first year when you take into account all the new faces on board says a lot for the man in charge. Winning it in the style that they did (coming from a four-point gap at half time in both major ties) is also a testament to the team and their own self-belief.

Going into Croke Park our county have nothing to fear as after all there is no expectation out there. This allows the team to play with a certain freedom and devil-may-care attitude. They can afford to throw caution to the wind and as long as there are no hidings, the year will be viewed as a success for all those loyal to our county. And lets be honest – these viewpoints are the only ones that really matter.

 

Overall from a neutral’s point of view the draw is quite a good one. The so-called “big guns” are separated and the outcome of the draw means that it is virtually impossible for two teams from the one province to eventually meet in the final. In fact I think the only possible outcome here would be ourselves against the Rossies. Wouldn’t that be a sickener for all the national pundits out there?  On the whole we also definitely have the harder side of the draw and we therefore must be realistic. What we want to achieve should be based on what this team have achieved thus far. We are the champion representatives of our province and that is the right we have earned going into the cauldrons ahead. So roll on the weekend and let us shout for our county and be proud of who we are and where we’re from.

2 thoughts on “The final nine in this year’s championship

  1. The lack of comments means I have to comment! Nice previews, intrigued by your view of the Donegal-Kildare match …

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