Tyrone hold box seat in race for Sam
FOR some of the 12 counties left in the race for Sam Maguire, this season has already been a success, while for others, the serious business is just beginning.
This is the stage where a lot of teams will have aimed for at the start of the season, regardless of how their provincial campaigns panned out. A place in the last 12 is a reasonable achievement for many counties and, if managers who are in action this weekend are being honest, they will be hoping to secure a quarter-final draw against Roscommon, who are the weakest side left in the competition.
Fergal O'Donnell's side have been the surprise packet of the season and I have put them at the bottom of the list, despite the fact that they are Connacht champions. It's a ranking that will cause much rancour among those who celebrated joyously in Castlebar last Sunday, while there are others who may find themselves lower down or further up the list than you'd expect, but here's my ratings of the 12 teams left in the race for Sam.
Mickey Harte’s side moved to the top of the list after the manner of their win over Monaghan last weekend and in each of their games so far, they seem to have had another gear to hit if they needed it. Seamus McEnaney’s men could hardly have been in better form going into last Sunday’s match, but Tyrone were still streets ahead of them. They are well-drilled and experienced and have no obvious weakness. There’s more to come from star performers like Owen Mulligan and Sean Cavanagh, meaning Harte’s men are in the box seat.
It's difficult to leave the reigning All-Ireland champions off top spot, particularly after they beat Cork in Munster, but they might be a little bit vulnerable in the quarter-finals where they'll be missing six of the side that started last year's decider, including the suspended duo of Paul Galvin and Tomas O Se. There are still question marks over Kerry's midfield and those two will be sorely missed in that regard as they do plenty of sweeping up around the middle third. The long break will do them no harm and if they make the last four, they'll take a whole world of stopping.
After yet another championship defeat to Kerry earlier this year, there has to be question marks over their ability to match the Kingdom when it comes down to football's serious business. In a way, the qualifiers have been good to Conor Counihan, who is getting a better notion of his strongest 15 with each outing, but they haven't been asked serious questions in the back door by either Cavan or Wexford. They should beat Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds tomorrow, which will be another step towards realising their undoubted potential. If they can do that and get over Kerry in the wide open spaces of Croke Park, they will win the All-Ireland.
Winners of an undoubtedly tarnished Leinster title that might make them unpopular throughout the rest of the country, but they don't worry about such things in Meath. Their forward line was disappointing against Louth, but they'll hardly be as bad again. Graham Reilly is one of the finds of the championship, while their defence is better than a lot of people give them credit for. Like Kerry, their midfield remains a problem, as Louth proved in the Leinster final. If they can get some sort of foothold there over 70 minutes, they'll be a serious test for anyone.
The Farney men would be much further down the list if we were to put more stock in their Ulster final performance, but up to that point, they looked like the real deal. They're back in Croke Park now and that has brought the best out of them in the past, not least when they came to within an inch of beating Kerry in 2007. They are still a very strong outfit, but when Paul Finlay and Tommy Freeman were wrapped up against Tyrone, Monaghan fell apart. Those two have to be on top of their game, and if they are, they'll beat Kildare tomorrow and advance to the last eight.
Pat Gilroy will be quietly pleased with how his side have evolved over the last couple of months. He'll know the qualifier draw was kind to them, giving his side home advantage against both Tipp and Armagh. They should have too much for Louth and if they get a favourable draw against the likes of Roscommon in the last eight, they would be in the semi-finals and that would represent a successful season for Dublin.
Peter Fitzpatrick's side have been a breath of fresh air in the championship with their open, attacking style of play. Their progress this year hasn't been as much a surprise to me as it has to others, as they feature possibly the best midfield pairing in the country in Paddy Keenan and Brian White and also a very decent inside line with JP Rooney and Colm Judge. They won't fear playing Dublin in Croke Park, but a lot will depend on how the react to the Leinster final controversy. If they can rediscover the form they found against Meath, they'll run the Dubs close.
Kieran McGeeney has done well to get their season back on track after their capitulation against Louth and they have improved with each outing. The win over Derry in Celtic Park was their most impressive performance to date, which suggests they are coming to form at the right time. However, they are still very reliant on John Doyle and this is their fifth weekend of action on the trot, so Monaghan might be that little bit fresher.
The Mourne men find themselves in the last 12 without having played particularly well to this point. James McCartan did well enough to get the show back on the road after their disappointing defeat to Tyrone and they have done just enough to get by in the interim matches. At stages in the league, they looked like a serious proposition, not least when they beat Kildare by 11 points down in Newbridge. But they look like they can grind out a result and should be a little ahead of Sligo.
Ranking them 10 of 12 might be a little unfair given that they have beaten both Mayo and Galway in the Connacht championship, but the turnaround from such a morale-sapping defeat like the one to Roscommon could prove their undoing. Manager Kevin Walsh has already shown himself to be a shrewd operator, but to refocus his players this week will be his biggest test to date. Eamonn O'Hara, David Kelly and Alan Costello will have to drag this side over the line if they are to see the quarter-finals.
Another side that can feel hard done by to be second from bottom on the list, especially in light of their Munster final display against Kerry. But you get the sense they emptied everything they had in themselves into that provincial decider. There's not much more Mickey Ned O'Sullivan can do for them and the same goes for John Galvin, who was heroic against Kerry. Even if they have home advantage, the draw against Cork means that this is the end of the line for the Treaty men.
Most Roscommon people would have bitten your hand off if you offered them a Connacht title and an All-Ireland quarter-final exit at the start of the season, especially in light of their woeful championship performances last year. They were wonderful in their win over Sligo last weekend, with midfielders Karol Mannion and Michael Finneran giving a superb display of high fielding. They have nothing to lose next day out, but will be the side that most teams will be hoping to draw in the last eight.