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Strangers at the top table

The race for Sam had been reduced to four, but not the quartet that anyone had predicted.

Back at the end of June, Dublin, Cork, Down and Kildare were either bedevilled by doubt or even, it seemed, mired in crisis. Now all four will believe this can be their year. We look at the runners and riders.

DUBLIN

LOWEST POINT? The 68th minute of their Leinster semi-final meltdown. Brian Farrell has just poked home Meath's fifth goal. Coming on top of those scary first 50 minutes against Wexford, Project Gilroy looks in a state of terminal confusion.

TURNING THE CORNER? The 62nd minute of their round three qualifier against Armagh. Dublin have rediscovered their defensive mindset, their focus, their work ethic ... but all that may have counted for nought without Philly McMahon's intuitive run back to his own goal-line, where he stopped a certain Brian Mallon goal and prevented Armagh from edging two points clear.

QUARTER-FINAL RATING? Eight out of 10. Okay, so they got the occasional lucky break and they could conceivably have lost if Tyrone had taken all their chances ... but this was a performance of real substance, predicated on a sound tactical plan to take out the former champions.

THE GAFFER GRAPH? Soaring sky high. Pat Gilroy seemed to briefly abandon the game plan against Meath, and was pilloried as a result. His subsequent reversion to spring tactics and youth has worked the oracle; outsmarting Mickey Harte looks swell on the CV.

TALISMAN? Bernard Brogan. Free-scoring and full of confidence, he looks the obvious candidate for Footballer of the Year in the event that Dublin go the distance.

BACK DOOR MAN? Michael Darragh Macauley. A bundle of endless energy, he has kickstarted the Dublin engine and appears immune to big-match nerves.

PUSHING HARD? The fit-again Cian O'Sullivan looks the most likely candidate for starting promotion, but Paul Flynn must also be desperately close to earning a recall. With 19 days to go, will Giller stick or twist?

THEY'LL WIN SAM IF? They can handle the hype (yes, it's back!) ... and if the other forwards deliver more scores to supplement the bould Bernard ... and if Cork's wavering form hasn't been a case of lulling the Blues into a false sense of optimism.

CUTE HOOR ASSESSMENT? For the first time all summer, they'll pack out Croker. The sunshine fans will be back in their droves. The city will go mad. Oh, this is bad news for the Blues -- they're never the same when people actually expect them to win.

WHAT THE BOOKIES SAY? Still not entirely convinced -- Boylesports are quoting them at 11/8 to beat Cork in 70 minutes, and second favourites at 5/2 for the Holy Grail.

MOST LIKELY TO SAY? "We're still a long way off the Big Two ... eh, whoever they are."

CORK

LOWEST POINT? Squeezed out in extra-time of the Munster semi-final replay. Two days running, they let winning positions slip. No disgrace in losing to Kerry, except that everyone was now wondering if the pre-race favourites had the ring craft, killer instinct or mental strength to go all the way.

TURNING THE CORNER? Has it even happened yet? Surviving extra-time against Limerick should have been the wake-up call ... it didn't seem that way for the opening 40 minutes against Roscommon.

QUARTER-FINAL RATING? Six out of 10 (and only four for the first half). The good news? The Rebels appeared to stumble upon their strongest team during the second half, and that has long been Cork's biggest conundrum.

THE GAFFER GRAPH? Middle of the road, hitting a few potholes along the way. Conor Counihan's graph has mirrored his team's up-and-down formguide.

TALISMAN? The decade-long answer has been Graham Canty, but his form has been steady as opposed to inspiring and now Cork's hamstrung hero faces the proverbial race against time to face the Dubs. So we'll plump for Daniel Goulding: bundles of potential, occasionally infuriating but a proven score-getter.

BACK DOOR MAN? Nicholas Murphy has been skirting on the periphery, but his match-turning, second-half cameo against the Rossies has surely propelled the veteran midfielder back into the starting frame.

PUSHING HARD? See above. Ditto Donncha O'Connor. And John Miskella. And maybe Alan O'Connor.

THEY'LL WIN SAM IF? The theory that you have to lose one (or two!) finals before you win an All-Ireland proves on the money ... and if they can rediscover the compelling form of last spring.

CUTE HOOR ASSESSMENT? I tell ya boy, this Dublin match is set up perfectly for us Langers. Playing poorly, but with huge scope for improvement and bench options. Better still, the other 'capital' will go mental for the next three weeks.

WHAT THE BOOKIES SAY? Rated 8/11 to beat Dublin, and 11/8 favourites to claim the cup.

MOST LIKELY TO SAY? "Whatever about me being in trouble depending on the result today, most of you would be for the sack after what you predicted!" (Editor: Conor Counihan actually did say this, didn't he?)

DOWN

LOWEST POINT? The last 50 minutes against Tyrone when they scored only two points, having made a blistering start. The post-match consensus? For all their spring promise, 2010 was at least a year too early for this Down team.

TURNING THE CORNER? Surviving Offaly's opening onslaught in round three of the qualifiers. The team bus almost got lost on the way to Tullamore. Then the defence leaked four goal chances in the first 12 minutes -- but only one was taken.

QUARTER-FINAL RATING? Eight out of 10. Stunning start, weathered a Kerry storm, and then pushed on again. The champions looked old and vulnerable but Down had the belief and, yes, the class to capitalise.

THE GAFFER GRAPH? Reaching for Everest. To win top-flight promotion in year one would have constituted progress for James McCartan. To scalp Kerry and reach the last four confirms that this playing legend is the real deal as a manager too.

TALISMAN? Marty Clarke. The playmaking wizard, back home from Oz, is the man who makes Down tick, playing with a maturity which belies his youth.

BACK DOOR MAN? Dan Gordon. Reinventing the big midfielder as a full-back has proved an inspired choice -- and a prophetic one in the context of their quarter-final match-up with Kerry's giant totem, Kieran Donaghy.

PUSHING HARD? Several subs delivered lively cameos against 14 Kerrymen, but it's debatable if McCartan will make any changes given that super-sub Ronan Murtagh scored 1-5 against Sligo -- and still didn't start the next day.

THEY'LL WIN SAM IF? You believe the notion that a team can come from nowhere and go all the way in a manager's debut season, especially now that the Down 'swagger' is back.

CUTE HOOR ASSESSMENT? Now, we actually reckon Wee James is a bone fide cute hoor who can charm the press and disarm his rivals in the same breath ... but could it be possible that Down have already played their All-Ireland final?

WHAT THE BOOKIES SAY? Seem to agree with the above assessment: they are 5/4 to beat Kildare, and fourth favourites for Sam at 9/2.

MOST LIKELY TO SAY? "The gloss that was put on the game at the end, sometimes as a manager you'd prefer if those went wide and we had won by four or three points because some people start hyping it up." (Guess who said this after Down hammered Kildare by 11 points last February? Wee James is a prophet too).

KILDARE

LOWEST POINT? That fateful Saturday evening in Navan last June. Their full-back line ripped to pieces by unfancied Louth. And all the promise of 2009 seemingly turned to dust.

TURNING THE CORNER? The emotionally charged drawn qualifier at home to Antrim, having buried Dermot Earley Snr earlier that day. A traumatic week for their midfield leader and the entire squad, but they survived extra-time and haven't looked back since.

QUARTER-FINAL RATING? Nine out of 10. Even more electrifying than the displays of Down and Dublin. True, they didn't have to slay a giant -- but to recover from six down and the early loss of Dermot Earley Jnr was hugely impressive.

THE GAFFER GRAPH? A diamond Geezer all over again. Back in June, they wondered if Kieran McGeeney was the same manager without his departed sidekick, Paul Grimley. They aren't asking that question any more.

TALISMAN? Johnny Doyle. The Monaghan blip? Never happened! The Kildare skipper never hides, even when the radar is off, and it was spot-on last Sunday. Endless work and wonderful talent rolled into one.

BACK DOOR MAN? Peter Kelly. Didn't feature in the Louth debacle, but a man-marking revelation ever since. His promotion also freed up Emmet Bolton to escape his unhappy existence in the corner for life as a half-back. Hey presto!

PUSHING HARD? Obviously Hugh Lynch -- if Earley's knee rules him out against Down. You can't rule out Mick Foley either. Then again, we're no longer surprised by McGeeney's capacity to constantly surprise.

THEY'LL WIN SAM IF? They can keep their heads in a county that rivals Dublin for suddenly erupting expectation ... and if they can unlock the elusive secret to a flying start ... and keep the wides down ... and keep playing with their current joie de vivre.

CUTE HOOR ASSESSMENT? Remember '98? The whole place went mental. They were shoo-ins for Sam. And look what happened next ...

WHAT THE BOOKIES SAY? Marginal 4/5 favourites to see off Down in 70 minutes, and third favourites at 10/3 for the fabled canister.

MOST LIKELY TO SAY? "If we fail to -- whatyamacallit -- prepare, we may as well prepare to fail."


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