Sunday 10 December 2017

Down Keeping faith in trying circumstances

Joining forces with history

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

For several years, Down were the equivalent of the school student who's always voted most likely to achieve something special without actually doing it. Not a season went by when some sage didn't nod importantly and declare: "watch Down, I have a feeling this will be their year."

And so it went year after year through the second half of the 1990s and right through the last decade. The qualifiers were meant to suit counties like Down but, while some others made the expected progress, the Mournes remained immune to back-door invitations.

Until this year, that is. Unquestionably, the qualifier draw was kind to them but they still had to be good enough to exploit it. Longford had beaten Mayo, but that was mostly down to the spiralling decline of the green-and-red. Besides, Down drew Longford at home.

Offaly away was tricky but negotiable, while Round 4 handed Down a weary Sligo side who were never likely to overcome the six-day turnaround handicap. So when Down qualified for a quarter-final clash with Kerry, the general assumption was that their limit had been reached.

And then something interesting happened. Down supporters began to talk of the county's 100pc championship record against Kerry. Whether it was designed to boost Down or worry Kerry, it had the desired effect on both fronts.

Kerry tried to dismiss it as irrelevant, but they couldn't ignore that it was Down who were the first Ulster team to assert authority over the Kingdom. It's impossible to measure the impact that Down's perfect championship record against Kerry had on last Saturday's game. Suffice to say that once Down put themselves in a position to win the game, they didn't resort to looking over their shoulders as others tend to do against Kerry. What's more, Kerry knew that wasn't going to happen.

Down's semi-final record isn't anywhere near as good as their return against Kerry. They have won five of 12 semi-finals, beating Offaly (1960), Kerry (1961, 1991), Galway (1968) and Cork (1994), while losing to Galway (1959, 1965, 1971), Dublin (1963, 1978), Meath (1966), Offaly (1981).

They have never played Kildare in the championship so both sides are heading for new territory that, frankly, seemed well beyond their reach in mid-June.

James McCartan spoke last weekend of how they had harnessed being written off as a motivation to propel them through the qualifiers and, once they got to Croke Park to take on Kerry, momentum took over.

It was based essentially on the free-spirited approach adopted by Down but drew support too from history's gushing well.

Odds -- Pre-championship: 40/1; Pre qualifiers: 66/1; Now 9/2.

Dublin

Keeping faith in trying circumstances

It would have been easy for Pat Gilroy to be ever so slightly smug last Saturday after Dublin had delivered their best championship victory since the 1995 All-Ireland final and rescued a season that appeared to be heading for ignominy just five weeks earlier, when they conceded five goals in a Leinster championship game for the first time in 81 years.

Instead, they were through to the All-Ireland semi-final for only the fourth time in 14 years. And this time, they had seen off one of football's superpowers.

If Gilroy felt like publicly congratulating himself for presiding over the dramatic turnaround, he disguised it well. In fact, he was the essence of equanimity as he calmly explained how Dublin had recovered from the grim reality of an 11-point trimming by Meath to move into what he termed "bonus territory".

Gilroy has conducted himself most impressively this year. Last season ended disastrously, leading to claims among some of Dublin's sceptical intelligentsia that he was out of his depth and that there was a grim inevitability about how his term would end.

It seemed to be heading inexorably towards crisis point after the Meath game, but, just as Gilroy didn't over-hype last Saturday's success, he didn't overreact to that Leinster wipeout.

Gilroy faced the press immediately after the Meath game, looking and sounding like a man who believed that what had happened wasn't real. He defended his stricken defence, pointing out that they were left exposed by a lack of cover from elsewhere.

"We felt over the last few years that we didn't have a chance to rectify bad performances until the following year. It's different this time," he said.

And so it was, although few would have believed that the corrective procedures would have worked so well. One key area of improvement has been in Dublin's support play. It had been extremely good during the league campaign but, for some reason, disintegrated against Wexford and Meath.

It returned in the qualifiers and reached its highest grade yet against Tyrone. Having been outscored by 0-8 to 0-2 between the 23rd and 41st minutes by a team with a deserved reputation for seeing off opposition who fell behind, Dublin were facing the ultimate test.

Their response was more than enough to suggest that even if Dublin don't win the All-Ireland title this year, they have discovered a vital quality, based on sheer hard work and an unyielding determination to support colleagues.

It was evident all over the pitch last Saturday, from rapidly improving full-back Rory O'Carroll on to midfield and the effervescent presence of Michael Darragh Macauley, and into the attack where Bernard Brogan has put himself in prime position for Footballer of the Year, while Eoghan O'Gara brings an unpredictability that wasn't there in previous years.

And when Gilroy looks to his subs bench, he can call on a wide range of talent, including Paul Flynn, Kevin McManamon, Eamon Fennell, Conal Keaney, 'Mossie' Quinn, Cian O'Sullivan and Darren Magee.

The foundations for the new Dublin structure were put down in what was their best league campaign for 11 years. They later shuddered a little against Wexford and looked to have cracked against Meath, but, ultimately, the damage proved no more than superficial.

Wisely though, Gilroy is retaining a sense of perspective.

"It wouldn't have been our expectation that we would beat one of the top three this year. We thought there would be a bit of a gap," he said. Just as he didn't panic after the Meath setback, he's not overvaluing Dublin stock on the basis of the Tyrone win. It's a middle ground that is serving Dublin well.

Odds -- Pre-championship: 8/1; Pre-qualifiers 16/1; Now: 5/2.

Kildare

A case for the defence

Kerry won two All-Ireland titles in 1980-81 (they got a bye to the 1980 Munster final) by winning a total of seven games; Kildare have already played seven games in this year's championship and are only in the semi-finals.

Different times, but then change can come much more quickly than that. Indeed, in Kildare's case it arrived in a gushing torrent after their Leinster first-round defeat by Louth on June 5. Unlike Dublin, who lost by 11 points to Meath, Kildare's six-point defeat didn't make quite the same impact nationally.

In reality, though, it was a horror story as they conceded a higher total against a mid-table Division 3 side than Dublin did against Meath. What's more, it was in a provincial quarter-final, which left Kildare a fence further back than Dublin in the qualifiers.

As with Gilroy in Dublin, Kieran McGeeney knew the blame game would deal him the first hand. "You make decisions and, if they go well, you get claps on the back. When they don't, you get a kick in the a***. So, I'll expect plenty of those over the next few days," he said after the Louth game.

Two months on, it's clap-on-the-back time as Kildare prepare for their first semi-final in 10 years. Back then, Mick O'Dwyer was in charge of a squad regarded as the best produced by Kildare for decades. It still came up short, losing to Galway for the second time in three seasons.

Now, a squad that few thought was anything special has picked its way carefully through one of the tougher qualifying lanes. Leitrim were the easiest opposition but, other than that, few would have fancied Kildare's route, which took them home and away to Antrim, then to Celtic Park where they beat Derry, followed by a clash with Monaghan in Croke Park.

Facing any Ulster team is always a big challenge, but to remove three of them from the championship in the space of three weeks points to a mental and physical durability that wasn't always associated with Kildare. McGeeney's role in the hardening of Kildare's resolve deserves to be recognised.

Kildare have started slowly in virtually all of their games only to work their way through the problems so comfortably that, with the exception of the drawn game with Antrim -- an occasion bathed in emotion following the funeral of Dermot Earley Snr that day -- their winning margin has been by an impressive average of eight points.

What's more, they have cut their giveaway rate from 1-22 against Louth to an average of just over 0-11 per game. That's even better than Dublin's big improvement since losing to Meath.

Kildare restricted Meath to 0-3 in the second half last Sunday and, with the attack growing in confidence and efficiency, there's a sense that something big is happening in Lilywhite land.

They will be keeping a close watch on Dermot Earley's injury update because, while replacement Hugh Lynch did well last Sunday, Earley remains a significant reference point in what has turned into a splendid season.

Odds -- Pre-Championship: 40/1; Pre-qualifiers 80/1; Now: 7/2.

Cork

Insiders took the outside route

They are in the semi-finals, but then the only surprise would have been if they weren't. However, unlike last year when they put 1-27 on Donegal in the All-Ireland quarter-final, they were no more than functional against Roscommon last Sunday.

This, after coming dangerously close to elimination against Limerick eight days earlier. So which is the real Cork? An advanced work in progress waiting to peak at exactly the right time? A flawed entity that, even with Kerry and Tyrone departed, will still find some opposition too slick for them?

It's difficult to know. Make a case for the former and the counter-argument concentrates on the uneven nature of their performances. Point to the latter and be reminded that Cork are more proven at this level than Dublin, Down or Kildare.

Wing-back Noel O'Leary gave it straight after last Sunday's win: "Dublin would blow us away if we gave that sort of performance in the semi-final."

He's right, but then it's unlikely that Cork will be as disengaged as they were up until the 45th minute against Roscommon. It was as if they always felt they could win and it wasn't until Roscommon had the audacity to take the lead that Cork switched on for the demands of the occasion.

Once they did that, they looked extremely effective. However, there's one unusual dimension to Cork -- they have arrived in the semi-final without a clear pecking order among the squad.

Nicholas Murphy, Donncha O'Connor, John Miskella and Alan O'Connor, all of whom played in last year's All-Ireland, were on the bench until the second half last Sunday. Each made an important contribution -- Murphy and Alan O'Connor as midfield stabilisers; Donncha O'Connor as a creative force in attack and Miskella as a tigerish defender.

Question is -- are they to be retained for the clash with Dublin? It can be argued that Conor Counihan is in the lucky position of having so many good players that it makes the starting 15 difficult to choose. Alternatively, is it a case of having lots of players of similar standard but not enough leaders to guide them up the steeper slopes?

That certainly appears to be the case in attack, the area that has proved of most concern on the really big Croke Park days. Last year, for instance, the forwards started well against Kerry before being sucked into a type of game for which they were totally unprepared.

Instead of adopting a wide, expansive approach, Cork allowed themselves to be herded away from the sidelines, causing severe crowding in-field. That type of game always suits the backs and was especially productive for such an experienced Kerry defence. The same happened, to some degree, against Kerry in this year's Munster semi-final replay.

Cork have moved into the All-Ireland favourites' slot on the basis of what they did in past campaigns. The confidence that they can win a first All-Ireland since 1990 centres on a belief that their experience gives them an advantage not enjoyed by the other contenders. It's certainly a help but Cork will need a whole lot more than that -- and also a whole lot more than anything we've seen so far from them this summer -- to sign off on the big deal.

Odds -- Pre-Championship: 5/2; Pre-qualifiers: 4/1; Now: 5/4.

Irish Independent

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