Tomás Ó Sé: Monaghan must take road less travelled
There's an image in my head of a picture in circulation earlier this summer that captures all those hurls stacked up outside the door of a church in Kilkenny where the students of St Kieran's College were having a Mass to celebrate the end of the school year.
It's incredibly powerful in the context of the debate this week about the haves and the have nots in Gaelic football. What is it that makes the elite exactly that? Why is it that it comes more naturally to some than others? Coaching? Structures? Technical support?
For sure, all those things count. But when you have a group of their teens making a journey from a classroom to the aisle of a church banging a ball off a wall, spinning it in the air, catching it as it falls, doing it without a thought, you have the essence of what it's about.
In Kilkenny, it's a fashionable thing for a young man to walk a street with hurl in hand. Is it so socially acceptable everywhere else?
I can only speak for myself but the message in that picture was something I could identify with growing up in west Kerry. I don't remember trips to anywhere where the ball wasn't a prop.
We had a large gable end and we played off it for hours, catching and kicking, twisting and turning. Between the windows of the church across the road served as imaginary goalposts. The stakes were high if you miscued!
Up the road there were two 'Stop' signs and we devised games where you'd try to hit them from 20 metres away. Páidí would come out of the house from time to time, nail it three or four times and then go off about his business laughing to himself. We'd spend the evening trying to replicate it. Basic stuff. I'm sure there isn't a county in Ireland where that doesn't happen, day in, day out. But in Kerry I know it's an accepted way of young life in many, if not all, pockets of the county.
The skills weren't something picked up on the training ground. They became the habit of the street. If you're integrating the tools of your trade into so much of your everyday life, then it stands to reason that there'll be a strong natural element to what you do.
It fascinates me to see kids descending on some of the most storied hurling fields around for the half-time 'puck-around', thrilled to be honing skills for a few brief minutes in the arena where your heroes have just been. You don't see it so much, if at all, in football. Is it that the simple joy of getting out and kicking a ball around has been lost to gyms and drills? If so, that's a concern.
Kerry's win over Kildare set off a few alarm bells about the state of football and can't have done Kerry much good either. As a player, I remembering welcoming tough quarter-finals in Croke Park and, invariably, we got them.
No one gave it to us tougher than Monaghan in 2007, a county that routinely chews more than it can bite off. I had one of my strangest post-match moments that day, believing that my fisted point at the Hill 16 end was to draw the game when in fact it had won it for us.
I shook hands with Monaghan players failing to grasp why, in the eerie lull that followed, that they were so disconsolate. We were champions. Okay, they had missed a chance but how could they be so unhappy when they had another go at it, I thought. It was only back in the dressing-room when the penny dropped that we were in a semi-final!
Maybe I was a little punch-drunk from the ferocity they brought that day. They hit us from every angle and delivered some big shots, white shirts crashing into us unannounced like fleets of dodgem cars. Paul Galvin was in the thick of it that day, taking a right few belts.
That was Monaghan then though, mostly fire and brimstone. Now, they're cut from slightly different cloth. The hard edge hasn't left them but there is more sophistication to what they do.
The Dessie Mone we came across in '07 and the Dessie Mone that faces Tyrone tomorrow evening are different players and maybe that best encapsulates their transformation.
They are a team making the most of their resources; clever, tactical, patient and pro-active in how they size up opponents.
In Malachy O'Rourke, they have one of the top two or three managers in the country. And Conor McManus has established himself as one of the very best inside forwards. Few can measure a tight angle like him.
But can they really step up in Croke Park and claim 'top-four' status that their provincial crown merits? Any team that wins Ulster is entitled to that, but I have slight doubts about Monaghan. Croke Park is still a big barrier for them. They beat Kildare after extra-time there last year but then lost heavily to Dublin.
Tyrone, by contrast, have always looked more comfortable there and their improvement since the start of the year has been steady.
For me, the McMahons always just give them that bit more substance. The more I see of Mattie Donnelly, the more I like him. And that's one of Mickey Harte's greatest strengths, his trust in a player's versatility. He has the capacity to take sideways glance and think differently.
In Kerry, we don't need reminding of Joe McMahon's posting to the full-back line for the 2008 All-Ireland final, the same year Seán Cavanagh tore up the script at full-forward.
Donnelly has been a centre-back and a full-forward for him, now he's a jack-of-all-trades midfielder.
They never looked like conceding a goal against Sligo and the speed at which they filtered numbers back into a defence struck me.
That said, this is a Monaghan team with a real mission to really prove a point in Croke Park against a big team. If they don't, they'll feel they'll have left something behind again.
The other quarter-final is equally fascinating. From the control of their first half against Armagh in June, Donegal have slipped somewhat.
For far too long they didn't look themselves against Galway, failing to score for half an hour. But then Michael Murphy scored a free and his permanent move to full-forward changed everything.
I don't think I've seen a missed free change a game as much as Paul Conroy's did here for Galway. I couldn't understand how Conroy wasn't brought to midfield early in the second half when Donegal got a grip there. He had done well out around there in the first half.
Galway were also slow to change things up when Murphy switched. Did they not sense the same wreckage after what Aidan O'Shea had caused in Salthill? O'Shea's switch inside is the only obvious change the new Mayo management have made since taking over and even that can't be classed as ground-breaking.
Everything has remained pretty much as it was in 2014 and I'm not sure that's healthy. It's a massive evening for this Mayo team in what is shaping like their make-or-break year.
I sensed last year that Donegal were happier playing Kerry in an All-Ireland final than Mayo and that Mayo, now, will be comfortable it's Donegal they're facing. They haven't had a good test yet but Donegal will give it to them. With the one obvious exception in the corresponding game two years ago, they are always difficult to break down.
Last year I fell into the trap of describing Donegal as a "skeleton" of the team they were. I'll choose my words a little more carefully this time in pointing to a Mayo win.