Saturday 24 August 2019

Colm O'Rourke: 'Gallagher loss gives Kingdom the edge'

Kerry are building momentum and can take advantage of Donegal's stuttering defence

Ryan McHugh played a key role for Donegal last weekend alongside Paddy McBrearty and Michael Murphy. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Ryan McHugh played a key role for Donegal last weekend alongside Paddy McBrearty and Michael Murphy. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

The Super 8 should always throw up a couple of great contests and so we have Kerry against Donegal today and Dublin against Tyrone in Omagh next week.

But I still often wonder what was the rationale behind this concept. There are not eight super teams and, for me, the old knock-out quarter-finals signalled when the championship really started. The real downside of this format is that we will again see at least one dead rubber in the last round. How many will be interested in watching Roscommon and Cork when the crowds in Cork are always small anyway? The players from both counties won't want anything to do with it either - they would much prefer to be going on holidays or back to their clubs. One thing for sure is, training with the county team will not be an attraction.

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Then again, Dublin might decide to rest all their players for the trip to Tyrone and not bother playing for top spot. That would throw the cat amongst the pigeons in the other group as Kerry will want to finish first to avoid the Dubs in the semi-final. Be careful what you wish for.

The real doomsday scenario could arise where three teams end up on two points and one goes into the All-Ireland semi-final having lost two games. If that county had come through the back door they could lose three championship matches and still win the All-Ireland. It is not my idea of how a championship should be run. Presumably those who came up with the idea had figured out all these permutations and decided to plough on regardless. What we end up with is a neutered championship compared to the do-or-die of previous years.

What we have now really suits counties with a strong panel. That was demonstrated last week with Dublin, Donegal and Tyrone sending on the reinforcements in the last quarter. They made a big impact against tiring opposition. This usually means tight games can change quickly when good subs come on. It was not as clear with Kerry, because they had the game under control so the quality of their bench was not tested. Today will be different.

Kerry improved greatly last Sunday on their Munster final performance. They got all the match-ups right, their physicality was good - even if I thought the idea of them being bullied in previous meetings was overplayed - and they played a high tempo game from the very beginning. From early on a lot of Mayo players were giving off black smoke. They were tired physically but even more so mentally and never got to the pace of the game.

From a Mayo point of view the loss is not really a big deal. A win today and there is a real knock-out match against Donegal in Castlebar in two weeks. So maybe James Horan and his management were playing it cool. When the game was gone some older players were taken off, those who needed game time came on and some young lads were given extra experience. Perhaps they just folded their tent and moved on to the next battle with their forces intact. Or they could be ready to be pushed over the edge. Time reveals all.

Kerry and Donegal have longer-term interests. A win today and they can probably plan for the semi-final. A loss for Donegal would leave them in a difficult position. They will not relish going to Castlebar needing to win. The injury to Eoghan Bán Gallagher is also significant. He has the pace and football ability to shine in Croke Park, where pace is king. It is a big blow for them as Gallagher is a coming star.

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Donegal will not be happy at having to turn to their bench to salvage the game last week against Meath. Although they looked slightly the better team all through, they were a point behind going into the last quarter. The final blitz was ruthless but they will not be happy with the number of clear goal chances Meath created. Donegal's defensive wall was easily breached on several occasions. Indeed if Meath's disallowed goal in the second-half had stood the natives would have been getting very restless.

Donegal are a good team with the potential to be a very good team. They are big, strong, mobile and have very good individual footballers as well as an honest team ethic. Last week the three big players were Michael Murphy, Ryan McHugh and Paddy McBrearty but there is excellent back-up everywhere. McBrearty has come back from serious injury better than even he could have hoped. He has built up enormous power in his arms and upper body, enough to hold off a raging bull never mind a corner back. Then he shoots for scores with great accuracy. With McBrearty and Jamie Brennan inside, Donegal are a real threat to all.

The Kerry young guns came good last week but the show moves on and becomes more difficult. It is still asking a lot of David Clifford and Sean O'Shea to be the main men in the forward line. At least Paul Geaney came back to some form and David Moran was outstanding at midfield. Even more important was the performances of Tom O'Sullivan and Jason Foley. They made sure the back door was kept shut and, after so many goals being conceded in the league and against Cork, that must have brought a smile to Peter Keane's face.

This will be an entertaining game. Donegal will allow Kerry on to them when they lose possession and try to jam up the space in front of Clifford. That did not work very well against Meath as there were a lot of openings. Donegal will also have the benefit of Shaun Patton in goals who is now competition to Stephen Cluxton in terms of calm efficiency so they should win most of their own kick-outs. The Kerry kick-out may be more of a lottery but that puts responsibility on midfielders to win their own ball. Nothing wrong with that either.

It is hard to pick a winner here. Donegal are more exposed and were very impressive against Tyrone and Cavan and I thought less so against Meath. Kerry are only beginning their serious football and may be improving rapidly. With Gallagher out Donegal have been struck a heavy blow that may just tilt the game towards Kerry.

The undercard will be just as interesting. Maybe the two games will end in draws and then you could have everyone ending up on three points after the last round. Meath did well last week for a long way but are limited by their kick-out, a lack of tall high-catching players around midfield and the subs have not been making much impact. I feel sorry for goalkeeper Andy Colgan. Ten years ago he would have just kicked the ball out and let the best man win it, now he and other keepers come in for more scrutiny than an axe murderer. The plus side for Meath is that the players gave just as good as they got against Donegal for three quarters of the game last week.

Mayo have been staggering from one saga to another. Injury and mental tiredness eventually wore them down last Sunday and in truth they were ripe for plucking. Now they are back playing knock-out football and it will sharpen their focus. They may even be better with the return to Croke Park and with all their problems it is easy to be dismissive. However, there is enough of a hard core there to take on the best. Beware the sting of a dying wasp.

Many of the Mayo newcomers are not doing enough. They are fine when things are going well but James Carr and Fionn McDonagh need to do more, a lot more, to help their older colleagues. Meath should take at least some heart from last week. The big problem is finishing out games and the top teams do most of their damage in the last quarter. That is the test for Meath - to hang in there and not fall apart when the game is up for grabs. They should be able to do that today.

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