Shane Stapleton previews the weekend's football action, with the All-Ireland SFC entering the quarter-final stage.
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We love a good narrative heading into the biggest game of the season.
Namely that Kerry don’t have the cojones to deal with the square-jawed, fire-breathing, angry Tyrone men from the north.
Conor Meyler will shut down Paudie Clifford again, the power of Conn Kilpatrick and Brian Kennedy will be too much for a Kingdom midfield lacking the retired David Moran, and Jack O’Connor’s side can only ask so much of David their Goliath. It seems as though Ryan Tubridy isn’t the only one under the microscope this week.
Of course, the Red Hands would be out of the championship by now had John Heslin found another inch of curl on his late free as Westmeath chased a winner, but victory since over Donegal has given the Ulster side momentum.
They are far from the finished article but they’re aggressive, most of their team won an All-Ireland here a couple of years ago, and they will certainly feel that the reigning champions fear them.
All of which should provide motivation for Kerry. They last did a back-to-back in 2006-07, were denied a three-in-a-row by Tyrone a year later, saw their 2021 semi-final delayed due to dubious Covid issues, and essentially their manhood is being questioned.
This will be a fight, should go down to the wire, and the Munster kingpins will hope that cramp doesn’t hit the Footballer of the Year as it did a couple of years ago.
Of their eight teams remaining, does any side rely more on one player than Kerry do on David Clifford? Outside of Derry and Shane McGuigan, probably not.
Armagh clambered past Galway without Rian O’Neill, Conor McManus is no longer the main man in Monaghan, Dublin almost got to a final last year sans Con O’Callaghan, Mayo have no true superstar, Tyrone have variety, while several men chip in for Cork.
Are you Team Clifford or Team Canavan this weekend? The Kerry brothers are thrilling in full flight and are a proven combination at this stage of the season, but the Tyrone siblings have undoubted quality.
Darragh Canavan has developed more of a selfish streak this season and has put 1-25 (0-12 frees) up on the board, while Ruairi has chipped in with 1-4. By virtue of turkey shoots against Tipp, Clare and Louth, the Kerry bros have amassed a far higher tally of 7-30 (0-10 frees, 2-0 pen, 0-1 mark) to 1-29, but Tyrone have had a much tougher path.
In saying that, Brian Dooher and Fergal Logan have seen their side win just two of five championship games — against Armagh and Donegal — and they have never quite franked their All-Ireland winning form of two seasons ago.
No game typifies the unpredictable nature of this year’s quarter-finals more than Kerry v Tyrone because it is incredibly difficult to call with any real certainty. Tyrone +3 at evens makes sense.
Kieran McGeeney has a long history of making All-Ireland SFC quarter-finals as manager of both Kildare and Armagh. He’s been here in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014 (as a selector under Paul Grimley) 2022 and 2023 and lost all but that fixture in 2010.
It’s an appalling record all told, but there’s a sense that ‘Geezer’ has built a team ready to finally take a big step.
They’ve won five of their seven championship games this season — losing to Tyrone and being beaten on penalties by Derry in the Ulster final — so there can be few questions about consistency, especially after overcoming the Tribe without O’Neill.
The week off ahead of this clash with a Farney side reliant on scores from Jack McCarron (0-19, 0-6 frees, 0-1 mark), wing-back Conor McCarthy 2-9 (0-1 free) and Michael Bannigan 0-11 (0-4 frees) could be crucial coming down the stretch. Draw half time and Armagh full time at 10/1 is enticing.
The last time Cork reached the All-Ireland semi-finals was in 2012, after cantering through a quarter-final against McGeeney’s Kildare. They are the bolters of this year’s championship and have shown remarkable staying power in recent games.
They lost to Kerry by a point but were the ones on the front-foot at the end when Steven Sherlock should have scored an equalising goal, they overpowered Mayo, and found something against Roscommon when other sides might have folded.
The downside is that John Cleary’s Leesiders are facing a Derry team playing their seventh game in this year’s championship, having won five and drawn one. The Ulster champions look in rude health and keen to return to the semi-final stage. Derry by 1-3 at 5/2 makes sense.
The game of the weekend, to many, will be Dublin v Mayo. It has been the best rivalry of the modern era and so many of the games have produced epic atmospheres at Croke Park.
The Dubs have won six of their ten meetings (two draws and two Mayo wins) over the past 11 championship seasons and, so often, it has been their powerful bench that has made the difference.
Kevin McStay rang the changes for the narrow win in Galway and was able to bring the likes of Matthew Ruane and Cillian O’Connor in to make a difference, so the feeling is now that the Connacht side have a cavalry.
A draw at 13/2 could well happen, giving us extra time as we saw in the semi-final a couple of years ago.