I was doing co-commentary on the Kerry v Clare qualifier match last Saturday at the Limerick Gaelic Grounds. I definitely got the short straw on this one as, at times, during the game it was hard to comprehend that this was in fact a championship encounter, such was the feeble challenge from the Banner men. There was a great deal of anticipation and excitement amongst the press boys as they waited for the live draw to see who would be playing who this weekend. Irrespective of the pairings, this weekend was always going to throw up one of the most eagerly anticipated set of quarter-finals in the twelve years of the back door format and, with, it the most open All-Ireland race in living memory. The sense of excitement is created by the possibility of shocks and also by the novelty of matches between teams that have sometimes never played in championship, as with next Sunday when Kerry play Donegal in one of the most eagerly awaited quarter-finals ever. We also have the unique pairing of Mayo v Down which has undoubtedly created its own excitement locally. I remarked to one of the RTE sound men sitting beside me when the draw paired Mayo with Down, that it was a great draw for Mayo. His response was that it was a great draw for Down too. And I suppose we were both right. But let us not confuse the issue here. I believe Down appear to be the easier of the four options that were available, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a handy game for Mayo. Down will also think they have a mighty chance of beating Mayo. The Mourne men are certainly no world beaters and I will be surprised if we don’t progress to a semi-final on September 2. The standard of the Ulster championship isn’t what it used to be, so Ulster teams, with perhaps the exception of Donegal, appear to be ordinary enough. Yes, Down are probably a better team when they come to Croke Park, but Mayo too will relish the opportunity of playing at HQ. With everything at stake and the threat of possible elimination I think the Mayo lads will really be inspired to rediscover something close to their real potential. We definitely didn’t see the best of Mayo in what was a rather dull Connacht championship, but we have come to expect a little bit of magic a couple of times a year from Mayo. And now is the time to deliver a performance that will lift the confidence of both players and supporters. I have been getting mixed responses on the street, with many unsure of the capabilities of this Mayo side. But these players are smart enough to realise that the standard of football required to win championship encounters in Croke Park will most definitely have to be miles ahead of the standard we have witnessed to date this year in the Hyde or McHale Park. I think Mayo will prevail if they are a lot tighter in defence as Down are a side capable of punching holes in a rear guard that isn’t on top of its game. I flagged it here two weeks ago that our half back line in particular must stay at home and mind the house. Donal Vaughan is due a big game but he has shown us, particularly last year, that he thrives in Croke Park. I expect a big game from our centre back, one which will give the team enormous momentum if he can get those knees pumping! With the return of Aidan O’Shea to Mayo’s midfield, ( I would be shocked if the big Breaffy man wasn’t there for the throw in on Saturday evening ) Mayo possess two outstanding ball winners in this crucial sector as Barry Moran is playing with huge confidence at the moment. It is important, therefore, to have these two competing for primary possession in and around midfield. To ensure this happens, Mayo must not allow any short kick outs to a free Down man. Mayo’s pair can be potential match winners if Down areforced to go long with kick outs. Mayo will have to be incisive and smart in moving the ball into the scoring zone. Our forwards haven’t sparkled in the two matches played in the championship so far and must deliver a better performance tomorrow if Mayo are to have any chance. With they type of forwards Mayo possess, they must get early fast ball into the inside line where I hope Cillian O'Connor is deployed, if they are to do any damage. And finally, nice football doesn’t get you too far these days. Mayo will need to get stuck in from the throw in and get the game on their terms because there’s so much at stake here! Our minors are really up against when they take to the field against the All- Ireland champions, Tipperary. I hope they play to their potential and enjoy what is a fantastic occasion for these young men.
The August Bank Holiday weekend is where all the big teams are
However, all the talk is about the clash of Kerry and Donegal. Incidentally, Dublin should have little difficulty in seeing off Laois and I believe Cork will finally bring closure to Kildare’s topsy turvey season. All the serious contenders target the August weekend to be still involved in the race for Sam. It is the time of the season when you have to be at your very best as the safety net of the back door is gone. Lose and you are out! The big teams normally try to peak around this time and Kerry, in particular, seem to have managed this art a little better than most. Kerry never appear too troubled when they lose to Cork in the Munster Championship as they realise the championship really starts on the August bank holiday weekend. That is why I believe we could potentially have the best game of the championship to date when both Kerry and Donegal clash on Sunday. They are two teams with contrasting styles and both come to this stage of the competition full of confidence and playing with real momentum. All teams remaining have a long road ahead yet but Donegal are many people’s favourites to win the title this year. There are a formidable unit, no longer overly defensive and certainly unselfish in their play. Their support running is exceptional and relentless and will they undoubtedly cause problems for some ageing Kerry legs.
However, despite a very poor performance against Westmeath, Kerry have established a winning momentum of their own and have in the processironed out several deficiencies from their Munster championship defeat. I think Donegal have it all to lose this Sunday. Yes, they are riding a crest of a wave at the moment and the Donegal supporters appear to be getting really excited as their level of expectation rises. There are reports of unprecedented sales of Donegal jerseys, flags and bunting.In fact anything that resembles the county colours is flying out of shop doors. It reminds me a little of what happened here in Mayo in1996 and 1997. And we know what that can do to a team. I often thought over the intervening years that if we could just have taken the Mayo team away to some far flung remote island in the weeks leading into those finals, we might have had a better chance of winning. All this hype puts huge pressure onto a team and I just wonder if it might spook Donegal ever so slightly. Kerry teams thrive on any sniff of vulnerability or weakness in an opposition and, for that reason alone, it might be enough to tip the balance in their favour. Oh I could be so wrong here, but rather than sit on the fence, I am going to stick my neck out and suggest Kerry to get over the line by the narrowest of margins.