Tomás Ó Sé: Jim Gavin’s troops still setting standards others struggling to meet but they still miss Diarmuid Connolly
Con Houlihan used to liken the so-called weaker counties to Oliver Twist - always "asking for more".
Most of the time, they're well entitled to as well. But, honestly, I think their broad objections to a second-tier championship are beginning to look weaker by the day. Let me put it this way. The 'Super 8s' have already been transformative, just needing a few tweaks, as every new system does. But last weekend gave us a glimpse of what our championship can become.
Taking these big games out of Croke Park was vital. I mean Kildare-Galway would have been lost at Headquarters, but it turned Newbridge into a bearpit. Same thing with Monaghan v Kerry in Clones. Now, I can't remember any All-Ireland quarter-finals from the last few years, but last weekend's games in Omagh, Clones and Newbridge will be remembered well beyond this season.
And the next step, in my opinion, should be the creation of that second tier with promotion and relegation. Play the semi-finals and final as curtain-raisers to the main All-Ireland semi-finals and final.
If you're not in the top tier, fight for your right to get up there. But do it by winning games, not through a sense of entitlement.
Whoever wins the bottom tier should then be guaranteed promotion, replacing the poorest performer in the Super 8s. Hand on heart, the provincial championships probably should be scrapped, but they won't be. So this is the way forward now.
Last weekend was absolutely thrilling, even if the issue of inconsistent refereeing just won't go away. David Coldrick was superb on Saturday night. He let play go. The following day, Maurice Deegan didn't. That's what frustrates players and managers.
Like I understand where Kevin McStay was coming from last Saturday, even if I can't condone what he did. Likewise, the recent frustrations of Killian Young and Daniel Flynn. They deserved what they got, but why did they react the way they did? That question never seems to be asked.
What are the linesmen doing when something blatant is happening in front of their eyes? Anyway, with one, decisive round of games to play, this is how I view the Super 8s teams.
It doesn't matter what gets thrown at this group because I thought Tyrone were outstanding last Saturday night in Omagh, yet it made no difference. They'd have beaten any other team in the country. But nobody ever catches this Dublin team cold. Even after cruising through a non-event of a Leinster Championship, they were still ready for anything thrown at them.
Last Saturday, a lot of Dublin forwards were under the cosh, but the likes of Jack McCaffrey, Philly McMahon, James McCarthy and Brian Howard all came bombing forward to nail important scores. Tyrone's greatest strength is their running game, but look at the defensive covering of Con O'Callaghan, Paul Mannion and Dean Rock.
Dublin are the most disciplined tacklers in the game and they gave an exhibition of the art in Omagh. They are a lesson to everybody. Look at Mannion's turnover on his own 14-yard line. Outstanding.
A lot of people are saying O'Callaghan isn't really clicking this year, but I guarantee you that Jim Gavin would have been delighted with his contribution against Tyrone.
It's only because of the unselfish running by someone like the young Cuala man that their defenders get those openings.
Dublin, clearly, aren't moving as fluidly as they were a year ago, but I still can't see anybody else playing at their level. That said, if there's a glimpse of light for the opposition, it might have been in how Tyrone squeezed them in the last ten minutes. There were four or five turnovers in that period that showed the Dubs to be human.
But is there a team equipped to do that for 70 minutes against them? I'd say it just feels too much of a gamble. But a chink? I still have a suspicion that, for all the excellence of newcomers, Howard and Eoin Murchan, they're still going to miss Diarmuid Connolly at some point. He could live with the most intense opposition scrutiny and still be a game-changer.
From here on in, that might just become an issue.
I'm still not entirely sold on them, but their form-line is exceptional. The only team that's beaten them this year is Dublin and it's plain to anyone that they're a lot tougher mentally as a group.
Even though they've lost two big players in Ciarán Duggan and Paul Conroy, I thought Galway coped really well around the middle of the field last Sunday against a big, physical, athletic team like Kildare. People think I'm very grudging in my praise of them and that's certainly not my intention. I just think they still, sometimes, get the balance wrong.
Some days they can tie themselves up in a tactical strait-jacket and almost forget to come out to play. But they're a work in progress and the evidence suggests that they're beginning to get that balance right now more often than not.
Kevin Walsh has done an outstanding job in turning them into serious contenders and the work-rate running through the team is a constant. But they need to get Shane Walsh into more offensive positions more often.
They need to be more clinical because a better opponent than Kildare might easily catch them with a sucker punch. Damien Comer was terrific the last day, but imagine the weapon he could be with Walsh running off his shoulder? Ian Burke is an absolute revelation too, a real ball-winner who is always, always out in front.
Yet, there's still something not quite 100pc about them. They've been cut open a few times this year, not least by Roscommon in the first half of the Connacht final. So there are still serious questions about that full-back line and, even with that protective half-circle across last Sunday, they were still penetrated too easily. That's a worry. Break through that half-circle and they look really vulnerable.
To be fair, Galway are ticking nearly all the boxes. But can they win Sam? Still not convinced.
I have to be blunt here, Kerry might have the footballers, but they're leaking smoke at both ends of the field.
They still struggle against packed defences and I'm still trying to identify a really top-notch one-to-one marker at the back. Jason Foley and Tadhg Morley have been big losses, but the big, glaring issue for me has been Kerry's lack of intensity.
Like, I'm not entirely sure what actually defines a tackle, but the official stats of last weekend show that Dublin made 56 against Tyrone.
Kerry made 28 against Monaghan.
That, to me, says everything. It's not enough just to get men into defensive positions, they've got to have the requisite aggression.
There's not a full-back line in Ireland that won't be cut open if the boys outside them are just playing charades.
The Michael McCarthys and Tom Sullivans of past Kerry teams would always say that to us. 'Just give us a f**king chance!' That didn't necessarily mean turning the ball over. But it did mean applying pressure. Real, physical, in-your-face pressure.
And that's a glaring shortcoming in this Kerry team.
Another is their indiscipline. Kerry committed the most fouls last weekend too and that's an issue that clearly needs to be addressed. They were rescued on Sunday by a teenager, scoring one of the goals of the decade. David Clifford has been absolutely sensational, along with Kieran Donaghy - one of the very few Kerry men who stood up to Monaghan's off-the-ball antics and general physicality. Yet even young Clifford will look at a couple of moments when he let his man come running out to create an attacking overlap. When forwards do that, it creates a domino effect.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice can pick who he likes in goals or in the full-back line but, if Kerry aren't getting a squeeze on further up the field, he might as well be re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Kerry need to press harder, press more aggressively.
A famous Paul O'Connell speech from the '07 Six Nations comes to mind. The one before the French game where he says: "If someone's walking, you get on his case. If I'm f**king walking, I want to hear it!'
I don't see that in Kerry now. I need to.
I really admired the way they never dropped their heads last weekend despite every invitation coming from the Dubs. They're an admirable group in so many ways.
We saw the likes of Michael McKernan and Frank Burns getting outstanding scores from the back in Omagh, but what happens if they don't do that? The long ball in just isn't an option for Tyrone and that'll probably come against them.
Look, there's resilience there in huge quantities. Dublin blotted out Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly and Niall Sludden, yet they couldn't shake Tyrone off their tails. That was credit to their intensity, their turnover power. In many ways, the story of Omagh was of both forward lines being caught in a defensive net.
For all that, it was compelling to watch, with a lot to like about both teams. But my gut instinct is that, to be contenders from here on in, Tyrone are going to have to press higher up the field. And I'm just not sure they're willing to do that.
So do they play Michael Murphy inside? They've lost Paddy McBrearty for the year and, now, Eoghan Bán Gallagher is gone for next weekend too. So their two best players from the National League will be missing when they face Tyrone in Ballybofey.
Murphy was outstanding against Roscommon, but we now know that Roscommon give you room inside that the serious teams simply don't.
I give huge credit to Declan Bonner for the way he's re-invented Donegal. I suspect he understood that they were becoming demoralised with ultra-defensive football. Some of the more established lads like Murphy and Odhrán Mac Niallais look to have a new spring in their step now because I think they can sense the new possibilities here.
Donegal are a real attacking threat now and, if they can look a little open at the back, it's nothing to, say, the likes of Kerry. That said, we now know better than to make any sweeping judgements on what a team does against Roscommon.
So what to do with Murphy?
He gives Donegal huge presence around the middle of the field and, yet, I think if Donegal really want to go for this, he's got to be on the edge of the 'square'. Bonner needs to get that message across to his other players in the middle third. 'Lads, we need the big man inside! Others need to step into the breach now!'
Look, it'll be a gamble because the likes of Colm Cavanagh and Frank Burns will be on top of him. He'll be double-teamed every step of the way. But if there's a goal chance in this game for Donegal, Murphy's the man they'll want on the end of it. MONAGHAN (16/1) They will feel sucker-punched this week and it won't be for the first time.
Just as they should have beaten Fermanagh in Ulster, they'll know full well they should have beaten Kerry last Sunday. If Malachy O'Rourke's men don't make the semi-finals now, I'm not sure they'll ever forgive themselves. They had chances to put a final nail in the Kerry coffin and didn't take them.
To me, they're over-reliant on three players. Those three are Rory Beggan, Karl O'Connell and Conor McManus. Listen, they were outstanding on Sunday, out-working and out-fighting Kerry, winning the tactical battle.
They had Kerry on the back foot for most of the day. Kerry's forwards were certainly seriously rattled by Monaghan's physicality.
But two things struck me on Sunday. Firstly, the space given to McManus was ridiculous and I can't see that happening again in this championship. And, secondly, I sometimes think the pressure gets to Beggan a little. And that pressure is massively on Monaghan now. They know what they've left behind and what the consequences of that might be.
Last Sunday will have felt a loss to them, no question. They need to rise themselves for Galway in Salthill now, a team I'd imagine who are determined to avoid Dublin in the semi-finals. Suddenly, Monaghan have it all to do. KILDARE (N/A) I take my hat off to them for turning their season around after what had been a pretty abysmal year.
They justified their place in the Super 8s after beating Mayo and it's absolutely vital that they build on this now, that they carry this momentum into next season. I personally think it's hard on Daniel Flynn, their outstanding forward, to be missing next weekend through suspension. No, he shouldn't have swung his arm back like he did, but it was clear as day that the guy was antagonised. He'll be a huge loss.
But Kildare have grown before our eyes in these last few weeks and Cian O'Neill should get massive credit for that.
They had seven different scorers from play against Galway and went down with all guns blazing. To be honest, that performance would have been unimaginable after the Leinster Championship defeat by Carlow. They've added hugely to the season and, though their campaign is effectively over now, I don't doubt O'Neill will be on a personal mission to get them to finish with a big performance in Kerry.
There's great, young talent coming through in the county and I think the next big challenge for Kildare is to give Dublin a serious rattle in Leinster next year. ROSCOMMON (N/A) I don't want to be too hard on them, but they're in trouble at the back and they're in trouble at midfield. So they've a decision to make this winter. Maybe more specifically, if Kevin McStay stays, he has a decision to make. Because they've looked completely naive at this level.
Roscommon have the forwards for Super 8s football, but they come up short everywhere else.
Teams are nailing them for big scores and I think they've struggled to establish a functioning kick-out strategy. Look, they earned their right to play at this level and, maybe, there will always be a whipping boy in the eight teams that qualify.
But it will surely hurt McStay and Roscommon that they were exactly that. This year's whipping boy.