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Shane Stapleton: All-Ireland SFC qualifiers preview

01 Jun | BY Shane Stapleton | MIN READ TIME |
Shane Stapleton: All-Ireland SFC qualifiers preview

In his weekly GAA column for the Betway Insider, Shane Stapleton previews matches at Mayo, Clare, Cork and Armagh.

Six of the eight managers contesting this weekend’s All-Ireland SFC qualifiers have a combined 69 years of senior inter-county service between them.

Mickey Harte tops the charts with 20, having spent 18 seasons in charge of Tyrone and lifted Sam Maguire on three occasions before immediately throwing his lot in with Louth.

In two seasons, he has transformed the Wee County with back-to-back promotions and this weekend pits his experience at this level against newcomer John Cleary, who was recently thrust into the Cork hotseat after Keith Ricken stepped aside due to health reasons.

A strong track record imbues players with belief but that doesn’t preclude fresh faces from winning the day. After all, Fergal Logan and Brian Dooher took over the Tyrone reins from Harte in 2021 and immediately ended a 13-year wait for All-Ireland glory that had punctuated the latter portion of Harte’s tenure.

For whatever reason — perhaps his imposing physical shape and a jawline you could set your watch by — Kieran ‘Geezer’ McGeeney has retained the veneer of a young boss, but he is second on the list with 14 years of managerial service (and a couple of more in backroom teams).

He was appointed by Kildare at the age of 35 in late 2007 and has never left the coalface since. His title haul with the Lilies amounted to a Division 2 league title, while more recently he collected Division 3 crowns with Armagh in both 2015 and 2018.

There’s a sense that this Orchard County team, who face Tyrone this weekend, are a coming side. Yet rewind back to Paul Grimley’s final season in charge in 2014, when McGeeney was a selector, and the perception was similar back then.

They had beaten Harte’s Red Hands in Omagh of all places, and worked their way through the qualifiers, before losing a classic All-Ireland quarter-final to Donegal at Croke Park.

Here we are, in season number eight under ‘Geezer’ and despite never making an Ulster final, the feeling is that this side is on the cusp of something. Perhaps a brilliant league win over the Dubs created unrealistic expectations.

They have since been hammered by Donegal in the provincial championship and it feels like another case of one step forwards, two steps back. Yet now is the perfect time to change their fortunes, and McGeeney does have a reputation as a back-door maestro.

Tyrone have seen several players walk away, were battered by Derry in Ulster, and backing up an All-Ireland title win has never been their forte historically. Not only that, but they had a cause in 2021 when the semi-final against Kerry was postponed, and the eyes of an island were trained on their every move. Information was thin on the ground, they took offence to any questioning of their bonafides, and their successes were in some ways born of a siege mentality.

For whichever side wins at the Athletic Grounds, the road to Croke Park and a season of huge progress opens before them. A quarter-final against one of Limerick, Roscommon, Donegal or Kildare awaits — each of whom look beatable. It must also be remembered that Kerry and Dublin are on the one side of the draw, so there’s also the chance of avoiding a big-two titan until the final.

Mayo and Monaghan also understand what’s at stake when they meet in Castlebar on Sunday. With 20 years of management between them, James Horan (7) and Seamus ‘Banty’ McEnaney (13: ten with Monaghan, two with Meath, one with Wexford) may both feel like the collective breaths of their respective counties are hot on their necks. Both have had their tactics questioned at home and beyond, and pessimism seems to be the order of the day among their supporters.

Horan has taken his side to All-Ireland finals but they have always come up short, and a ridiculous injury list threatens to scupper Mayo’s hopes once more. Lee Keegan will go down as the county’s greatest ever player but, at 32, does not have much time left to win that elusive Celtic Cross.

While hope is often what kills Mayo folk, Monaghan have never burdened their players with that same level of expectation. They have famous soldiers in Conor McManus and Darren Hughes, who have been on the scene since before McGeeney took over Kildare, but their county’s only ever All-Ireland final appearance was in 1930. Underlining the point is that the 2018 semi-final was their first in 30 years.

Incredibly, this will be a first ever championship meeting of Mayo and Monaghan, while their maiden competitive clash was a league game in 1981. In terms of shared history, there’s little of note, even if they danced together many times in recent NFL seasons. What they do have in common is a survival instinct.

Mayo have come through the qualifiers to reach All-Ireland finals in the past, while Monaghan have escaped league relegation on three occasions over the past five years despite being in the dropzone during injury time each time. Cats will soon be looking to borrow lives from these two.

A man who helped prepare Mayo for backdoor runs to the biggest game of all was Tony McEntee, who this weekend manages Sligo in the Tailteann Cup against Leitrim. The latter are managed by a player that McEntee coached during that era, Andy Moran. It’s the small world of the GAA once again pitting former allies against each other.

Colm Collins has the longest unbroken reign with a single team as he leads Clare for a ninth season against Andy McEntee, who survived a delegates vote to remain in charge for season number six. The axe will likely fall on the latter if he does not claim victory for Meath.

The all-or-nothing life of a manager. Never far from the cliff-edge, no matter what you’ve done in the past.

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Shane Stapleton

Multimedia journalist who produces content on Gaelic games, regularly features on Irish TV and radio, and who has won two All-Ireland club hurling titles as a player.

Shane Stapleton

Multimedia journalist who produces content on Gaelic games, regularly features on Irish TV and radio, and who has won two All-Ireland club hurling titles as a player.