With the All-Ireland SFC quarter-finals just a week away, PAUL BRENNAN assesses the last eight standing in the race for the Sam Maguire Cup
Favourites with the bookies from a long way back, and it is hard to make a case against the Kingdom... although until they actually deliver Sam Maguire then all bets remain off.
League form and the Division One title has Jack O’Connor’s team in pole position, but it remains to be seen if an armchair ride through the Munster Championship will have been cruel or kind to them.
The last thing they needed from Monday’s quarter-final draw was - with respect - Clare. Another handy enough win against Munster opposition, which it would have been, would have done little to steel Kerry for an All-Ireland semi-final against a Dublin team with an ominous Championship look about them.
SILVER LINING: Despite one or two niggles, Kerry have, by and large, got to the sharp end of the championship without any serious injury woes. Indeed, since the League they have gained a few big game players, and that depth of experience will surely need to be called on before the summer is out.
DARK CLOUD: Fresh as a daisy or an undercooked sitting duck? No doubt the Qualifier winners come with momentum and a sense of what they’re about. Kerry haven’t had a gut-check match since the middle of the league, which remains a huge concern for all concerned.
Rumours of the Dubs’ demise after their League relegation in March would seem a tad premature and exaggerated.
They might be down (in the League) but they are far from out in the Championship, and whether it proves a good thing or not in the long run, they caught a nice break by getting Cork in the quarter-finals.
They will beat Cork, and they might get a reasonable test for 45 or so minutes, but they will arrive into the semi-finals ready and waiting for a bruised and battered Kerry or Mayo.
The return of Con O’Callaghan has, it seems, turned their fortunes around, and there is plenty of muscle memory still in this team to get over whatever winning line is in front of them.
SILVER LINING: The aforementioned Con O’Callaghan has given them an attacking focal point they didn’t have in the League, but also Brian Fenton, Dean Rock, Mick Fitzsimmons and other multiple All-Ireland title winners seem to have rediscovered their best form in the Leinster Championship and look girded for another All-Ireland title bid.
DARK CLOUD: While some of the old reliables remain, there are concerns that Dessie Farrell hasn’t found adequate replacements to make the Dublin bench the force it used to be. That lack of real depth levels the playing field and still leaves a vulnerable look to the once mighty Dubs.
Having won the Connacht Championship the hard way - beating Mayo and Roscommon - Galway find themselves somewhat penalised for provincial success by having to sit idly by as the Qualifier teams find them momentum and form.
When they couldn’t have faced Mayo again in the last eight, Armagh was probably the team they didn’t want to get, but the Orchard county it is for Padraic Joyce’s team.
Like most of the rest of us, Joyce is probably still not quite sure where exactly his team is at, but he will certainly find out on Sunday when they face an in-form Armagh.
SILVER LINING: In an odd way, Galway’s hiatus since the Connacht final might work to their advantage, if only because they haven’t had to show anything in public, whereas everyone has had the benefit of seeing Armagh in their full pomp. That allows Joyce to be working away on something new, innovative for the last month, which might be needed to topple Armagh.
DARK CLOUD: Again, the lack of game experience will work against Galway, but they also need to bring more to the party on Sunday that just relying on Shane Walsh, brilliant and all as he is. Damien Comer needs to get more into the game and be the wrecking ball at full forward he can be, but is Joyce brave enough to go route one?
We marked them out as a potential bolter from the pack before the Championship, and now Derry arrive in Croke Park as Ulster champions, having taken down some formidable teams on the way - not least the All-Ireland champions Tyrone.
Rory Gallagher for all his critics, has worked the oracle with the Oak Leafers this year, and they are bringing a winning cocktail - so far - of defensive nous and attacking smarts.
SILVER LINING: Derry won’t see this quarter-final as ‘bonus territory’ and being on the ‘good’ side of the draw, they can seriously entertain thoughts of a first All-Ireland Final appearance since they won their first and only title in 1993. They can tap into the huge mood of optimism in the county on the back of their first Ulster title since 1998.
DARK CLOUD: Is what worked in the cauldron of the Ulster Championship good enough to take to Croke Park and beat the really top teams? Playing Galway means that question probably doesn’t need to be answered fully straight away, but they are certainly going to have to adapt their game in a big way for Croke Park and the question remains, have they the personnel and manager to do that.
The gift team that keeps on giving, they are here again and nobody - even Kerry - will have really wanted them in an All-Ireland quarter-final. Beaten by Galway in Connacht, before eking out unconvincing Qualifier wins over Monaghan and Kildare, James Horan’s team is not travelling well, but from Kerry’s point of view, there’s always a feeling that there is one huge game in them every summer.
They are still down a few key bodies through injury, and Aidan O’Shea remains a puzzle Horan seems unable to solve, but when the rubber hits the road around All-Ireland quarter-final and semi-final stage few teams in the last decade have what Mayo bring to the big house.
SILVER LINING: Kerry might have hosed them back in early April in a one-sided Division One League Final, but Mayo have the benefit of last weekend’s Qualifier win over Kildare at Croke Park, and when margins are so tight at this stage that has to count for something. That and two tough games since Kerry last played.
DARK CLOUD: They have got a few players back over the last couple of weeks - Jordan Flynn and Paddy Durcan among them - but Ryan O’Donoghue remains sidelined and Cillian O’Connor still looks a little short of match fitness. Mayo’s best chance against Kerry is to bring chaos, but have they the personnel and fitness to do so?
After a disastrous League campaign - barely surviving the drop back to Division 3 -, then losing their manager Keith Ricken to ill health, and finally the whole ‘Pairc Ui Rinn or nowhere’ fiasco, Cork have somehow ended up in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
Okay, after a sound Munster semi-final loss to Kerry, the Qualifier draw was more than kind to the,: they got Louth and then Limerick and even got to play both of them in Pairc Ui Chaoimh.
Now, however, they head for the rarefied air of Croke Park in June, which is not an environment almost all of these Cork player are used to.
SILVER LINING: If one county can really feel they are in bonus territory then it has to be Cork. After all the distractions of the spring, this is a fixture no one on Leeside could hardly have imagined they would be playing. They draw - finally - have been most unkind, but under John Cleary’s steady management Cork have a shot to nothing against a Championship favourite and should take lots from the experience whatever the outcome.
DARK CLOUD: Dublin! Any other opposition would have given Cork a reasonable chance to believe they could get to the last four but it is what it is, and all they can do is set themselves up to have a brave cut off Dublin.
If one had to pick just two Ulster teams to be in the All-Ireland quarter-finals few would have picked Derry and few would have gone for Armagh. But Kieran McGeeney’s team is here on merit and being on the ‘right side’ of the draw there is no reason to back against them going all the way to the July 24 All-Ireland final now.
It wasn’t a huge surprise to many that they beat a poor Donegal side to reach the last eight, but they manner in which they are playing is impressive to say the least.
They still have a bit of that old Armagh / Geezer hardness about them, but they are much more about playing the football than the man these days.
SILVER LINING: Rian O’Neill is playing as good as any inside forward in the country right now, and the input on Kieran Donaghy as a coach is becoming more apparent with every game they play. They also have the benefit of that early League win over Dublin in Croke Park, though their opponent Galway was there more recently for the Division 2 final.
DARK CLOUD: After losing to Donegal in the Ulster Championship they then beat Tyrone and Donegal in the Qualifiers, but will all that Ulster opposition help them or hamper them against a more open playing team like Galway?
A rare All-Ireland quarter-final appearance for the Banner county but due reward for them, and especially their long serving manager Colm Collins. It would be easy to fall into patronising tones about this team, but then have been arguably Munster’s second best team - certainly the most consistent over League and Championship for a few years now.
They got caught in a provincial penalty shoot-out by Limerick but rebounded with wins over Meath and Roscommon, the latter one a heroic effort in Croke Park that spoke volumes to their mental strength as much as anything else.
SILVER LINING: As far as the draw went, they could have done a lot worse than Derry. It will certainly be a clash of styles, but there is a familiarity their from Division 2, and Collins will certainly tailor his game plan to Clare’s strengths rather than focussing too much on Derry.
DARK CLOUD: As Ulster champions Derry will be slight favourites for this one, and the fear for Clare is that last week’s win at the death over Roscommon might have left them mentally drained for another huge game at Headquarters. Or maybe not!