FOR anyone with an interest in football, it’s like having your birthday and Christmas within a fortnight of each other. The last two rounds of the qualifiers accelerates the excitement as the second tier of teams in the country are eliminated, and dovetails nicely with the provincial finals.
That quickening of the pace in July leads us to what is by far my favourite two days of the sporting year: the fiesta that is the All-Ireland quarter-final weekend.
The draw has delivered us two interesting games and two potential humdingers. Cork and Kerry – by our reckoning, still the best two football teams in Ireland – take on the hype magnets of 2011 and 2012, Kildare and Donegal.
Donegal have assumed a mantle Kildare held last year; awarded the title of third-best team in the country without having beaten any of the genuine top three.
This phenomenon began after the 2011 Leinster semi-final between Dublin and Kildare. The exciting and controversial finish to that game led some pundits to rank Kildare third. Astonishingly, in some minds, Kildare’s eye-catching push for home meant they should be placed ahead of the Dublin team they had trailed by six points at half-time and by four with two minutes to go.
If there was much to admire in the way Kildare almost caught Dublin while playing badly, more realistic Lilywhite fans looked at the first 68 minutes rather than the last three or four and concluded that, if anything, Kildare were further off the Dubs than they had been in the 2009 Leinster final, when they could argue that, after an awful start, they had outplayed the provincial champions for a long spell.
If Kieran McGeeney’s team lost no honour in defeat to Donegal later last summer – and it is worth pointing out they have never been beaten in knockout football by more than one score these past five years – it nevertheless proved the ‘third best team in the country tag’ to have been bestowed prematurely.
Now it is de rigeur to dismiss Kildare’s credentials, even though they retain almost the exact personnel and playing style they did while being lauded through the warm months in 2011.
Their place as the team to talk up has been taken by Donegal, but why exactly are Kildare now deemed also rans and Donegal fancied by many to beat the past three All-Ireland champions en route to September glory?
These two teams, separated by a kick after almost 100 engrossing minutes 12 months ago, are still much of a muchness. They are superbly prepared, boast many fine footballers, regularly dispatch inferior teams with an alarming ruthlessness – and are ultimately likely to fall short.
Donegal, you might protest, have won two Ulster championships to Kildare’s lonely looking Division Two title, but both have beaten Tyrone, Cavan and Derry and lost to Dublin by similar margins within the past year.
The nationwide mantra is that Donegal have improved beyond all recognition this year; that appears to be based on perception rather than results, however, for, excepting the last 10 minutes against Derry and Down, Donegal have beaten much the same teams by much the same margins as they did in 2011.
Don’t think that we don’t admire either team. Both have poured their souls into elevating themselves out of the second tier; both will give and have given the very best teams in the land their fill of it and, on occasion, been unlucky not to prevail. Both are likely, however, to be carried in on their shields having fallen just short.
One problem is that people underestimate the depth of talent required to win an All-Ireland. Donegal (2010) and Kildare (2008) are both built to an extent around U21 teams that lost All-Ireland finals.
Well, Cork and Dublin struggled for years before winning breakthrough All-Irelands. That’s Cork, who have won two All-Ireland U21 titles and lost one final in recent years, and Dublin, who have taken home the gold in that grade three times in the past decade.
That does not mean it is impossible for our two challengers to claim Sam, but it does mean it is highly unlikely. If and when Kildare and Donegal fall short on Sunday, we will hear that they don’t have enough good forwards.
That is not true; both have many good forwards, and in Johnny Doyle and Michael Murphy each has a great one. The trouble is that the top three have an embarrassment of riches.
To our minds, if there is to be a surprise, then Cork look slightly more vulnerable, having played two games this championship season – one of them a cakewalk – to Kildare’s six. If Conor Counihan is naïve (Kildare particularly struggle against teams playing a sweeper in front of Tomas O’Connor) or Cork are not primed, the Rebels will meet a similar fate as they did at this stage last season.
There is one key difference to last year however – Cork have a full hand, and it would appear wise to back a team that can call on Ciaran Sheehan and Colm O’Neill to complement their established array of talent.
If you can ignore the brainwashing, then if anything, Kerry and Donegal appears more clearcut. Those backing Donegal probably envisage Sunday’s game as something akin to the All-Ireland semi-final of 2003, when Tyrone’s ferocity left a fancied Kerry team reeling. Again, there is a difference: that Tyrone group had won all around them at underage, a pedigree Donegal do not possess.
Like Kildare, Donegal are mentally strong enough to ensure that if they are to be beaten, their opponents will have a serious day’s work done.
Both upstarts can also point to the tendency for quarter-final weekend to produce upsets. It is not unthinkable that either or both of Cork and Kerry might leave Croke Park with heads bowed.
Observe, however, the spread of class footballers in the ranks of the southern giants, and you see that it is highly improbable, particularly in the Kingdom’s case. Kerry and Cork to win.