With Cork already safely into the 2009 All-Ireland football final after their battering of Tyrone last weekend, our attention swings this Sunday to who will join them? Kerry or Meath.
Kerry have been in the last five All-Ireland finals, winning three, and no Kerry team has ever contested six All-Ireland finals in succession.
Two key duels could decide if they can do just that and send the Royals packing next Sunday in Croke Park.
MICHAEL McCARTHY (KERRY ) V JOE SHERIDAN (MEATH )
Meath’s Joe Sheridan and Kerry’s Mike McCarthy both took breaks at different stages from intercounty football. Now both are back in harness for their counties’ quests for a place in the All-Ireland final.
Sheridan made his debut for Meath in 2004 against Laois in the Leinster championship and subsequently pulled out of the panel in 2007. He came back into the Royal fold last season after a one-year break.
McCarthy was different. He retired at the top of the game in 2006 after collecting his third All Ireland medal, only to be persuaded by Jack O’Connor earlier this summer to come back and plug a gap. He has done that, and more.
McCarthy’s return after two full years out of intercounty football has the potential to be the managerial coup of the year. The Kilcummin man has been in scintillating form and he has shored up a previously leaky Kerry defence.
We should not be surprised by that. He has pace, good ball skills, and is known to be “Mr Reliable” as evidenced by his three All Stars from ’00, ’04, and ’05. However those statuettes were garnered in the full-back line and he is revelling in the freedom of the half-back line where he has been located by O’Connor in his second coming.
The way he bombed forward to set up Colm Cooper’s early goal against Dublin was evidence enough of a man enjoying his ball.
Likewise Sheridan is enjoying this season. He did not start against Dublin in their Leinster championship defeat, but Eamon O’Brien has been hugely impressed by his work-rate, power play, and scoring rate since Waterford in the first round of the qualifiers.
Sheridan has hit 1-11 in the last five games and was the star turn against Mayo when he hit 0-4 from play and had a hand in both his side’s goals.
His height, skill, large physique, and straight running make him a difficult forward to keep out from goal.
Against Mayo he alternated between centre-forward and full-forward and that inter-changing had the affect of destabilising the fulcrum of the Mayo rearguard. He is a good man under a high ball and he will be put in on the edge of the square to try to ruffle a few Kerry feathers at some stage on Sunday too.
If that happens, McCarthy may be the very man to go back and take him on in front of Diarmuid Murphy’s goal.
I would give the advantage in this duel to Kerry as McCarthy’s greater pace, greater experience, self-belief and mobility should see him able to cancel out Sheridan’s scoring threat.
NIGEL CRAWFORD (MEATH ) V DARRAGH O SE (KERRY )
Before I typed a single sentence for this duel, I pulled out the 1999 All-Ireland match programme between Meath and Cork. A quick trip down memory lane.
There, numbered proudly at number 8 on one centre page is Nigel Crawford (St Peter’s, Dunboyne ), flanked by a Royal legend in John McDermott.
On the other side are the names of Nicholas Murphy and Michael O’Sullivan (Carbery Rangers ) of Cork.
If I could find the 1997 one, Darragh Ó Sé would be there too, en-route to collecting the first of his five Celtic crosses. In this era, that is a magnificent collection, and there may be another kick in him yet.
These two steadfast veterans will stand toe to toe next Sunday and their duel can have a decisive say in which team advances to tackle Murphy in late September.
Both attacks looked lively and efficient in the quarter finals and supply is the key for any forward division.
So who will prevail?
Crawford is having a really solid season for the Royals and standing at 6’4”, he has a few spare inches in height over the Kerry man. He will need them all to compete with Ó Sé in the air, as he is still one of the best fielders in the game. Another significant advantage for Crawford is that Darragh is a few years older and is pushing up towards 34.
He has a phenomenal number of championship games played and a lot of hard miles on the clock. Sometimes the “head gasket” can go in a player when he leasts expects it to, and no more than the likes of Conor Gormley and Brian Dooher last Sunday, even great players can “hit the wall” in the space of any given 70 minutes.
Also the Gaeltacht man can get quite frustrated when things do not go his way. He needs to be very disciplined this weekend.
Against Tyrone in last year’s final he seemed to be unsure of where or who he should follow and pick-up, but with Jack O’Connor back at the helm he seems to be more confident in his exact role.
I would expect Meath to target Ó Sé when he is in possession and try to get covering half-forwards to put extra pressure on him every time he has the ball in hand. He has not had a full season of training and is more of a “60-minute” player now rather than the full game. However he can set up the platform for a Kerry victory in that timeframe.
Crawford has matured considerably as a player in the past few seasons and his partnership with Brian Meade is flourishing for Eamonn O’Brien, however he does not have the mobility to fully exploit Darragh’s aging limbs.
It should be a titanic battle, but it is difficult not to go for Ó Sé’s experience and guile swinging a narrow edge for the kingdom.