Shane Stapleton previews the weekend's football action, with the All-Ireland SFC entering the semi-final stage.
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Deep into injury time of their last two All-Ireland SFC semi-finals, Dublin have been level pegging.
Having held a 0-10 to 0-4 ahead against Mayo in 2021, the capital were eventually hunted down in the dying embers of normal time, before being passed out during the extra periods.
Cormac Costello’s goal gave the Dubs a shot of life in last year’s final-four meeting with Kerry, after which the matter was decided by the final kick.
Sean O’Shea’s monstrous free into the Hill 16 end was the sort of clutch moment that Dublin had become known for under Pat Gilroy and more especially Jim Gavin.
Dessie Farrell already has an All-Ireland title to his name as manager after turning the five-in-a-row into six in the winter of 2020, with Mayo again falling flat on the big day.
The relief on the Na Fianna man’s face on the final whistle was palpable, and there is a sense that the pressure is just as great heading into the business end of this season. Three years in a row without Sam would be quite an asterisk on his reign.
He has brought back the original clutch Dublin player of this generation in Stephen Cluxton, the man who hit the winning free in the 2011 All-Ireland final, a Footballer of the Year in Jack McCaffrey, an All Star in Paul Mannion, and former boss Gilroy.
Nothing is being left to chance and, by dint of that, it has the feeling of a last throw of the dice by Farrell. Win or bust, this may well be his final season.
What he cannot afford is to continue a trend of losing the big games when the white line is in sight. The thought of coming up short against Monaghan is unthinkable in the capital.
That’s not to suggest that the Farney County are not rated by the Sky Blues because it is known that Gilroy regularly played challenge matches against them in order to find out which of his panellists had the stomach for battle.
They know that Vinny Corey will ask his Monaghan men to bring this game into the trenches, with the hope that Conor McCarthy, Jack McCarron and Gary Mohan can get the scores, with veterans Karl O’Connell and Conor McManus still capable of game-winning brilliance.
The football semi-finals truly are very much a country for old men (in inter-county terms) as 10 stars well into their 30s are likely to feature this weekend.
McManus, O’Connell, brothers Kieran and Darren Hughes for Monaghan, Dublin’s James McCarthy, Mick Fitzsimons, Cluxton and Dean Rock, Chrissy McKaigue of Derry, and Kerry’s Paul Geaney. It might well be a young man’s game, but sometimes it is the seasoned athlete that give them direction.
Monaghan are likely to give it a right shot, but have never ever beaten a true big dog at this stage, so getting within seven points at 11/10 might be a decent bet.
To some, rightly or wrongly, the meeting of Kerry v Derry is a clash of good versus evil.
The traditionalists who like to kick the ball, play with flair, and have a superstar in everyone’s favourite player David Clifford.
On the other side is the dark destroyer, the defensively-solid Ulster team that set up to choke out attacks, and then squeeze in enough scores at the other end.
The truth is that Derry have evolved. During last year’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Galway they proved to be gun-shy when the posts were in front of them, with goalkeeper Odhran Lynch strangely one of the few willing to take a shot on around the D.
This year, the Magherafelt custodian is still raiding from deep but a host of outfielders are now willing to take on mid-distance efforts.
Shane McGuigan remains a sharpshooter, Paul Cassidy has a sweet right boot, Conor Glass, Ethan Doherty, and Brendan Rodgers are all looking to get in on the point-scoring act. Shut down one avenue and you may well be inviting trouble down another.
No team has isolated attackers in defensive positions better than the Oak Leafers, and the manner in which Conor McCluskey exposed Conor McManus for a goal in the Ulster semi-final may well explain how the latter has since become an impact substitute.
Will Clifford allow himself to be dragged back inside his own 45 to defend, or will Jack O’Connor simply tell the Fossa man that no team would dare leave him unmarked if he remains upfield?
In many ways, the latter would give both teams a better chance of getting on the scoresheet. Number one, it will mean one defender fewer for Derry to work the ball past, and it means Kerry will be able to counter-attack with a bigger threat and with the long kick-pass on.
Should Kerry be penned in by Derry and Clifford be forced into a defensive role at times, then McCluskey would love nothing more than to run at a man who terrorised him six years ago.
In the 2017 minor final, The Kingdom hammered their northern rivals by 6-17 to 1-8 on a day when Clifford announced himself to the football world with 4-4 from play.
McCloskey is unlikely to ever forget the thankless task of tagging the Fossa star back then, and revenge is a dish best served by any means necessary.
Midfielder Diarmuid O’Connor is the one other Kerry starter who was in the XV that day at Croke Park, while Padraig McGrogan survives on the other side.
Any concerns that people had surrounding the Kingdom’s mettle were dispelled somewhat in how they dismissed another Ulster behemoth, Tyrone, at the quarter-final stage.
O’Connor gave a huge performance against the Red Hands and it put on hold the endless talk of David Moran’s loss from the middle sector after the latter’s retirement. Steel will be needed once more.
It’s 40/1 for a draw at both half-time and full-time. This one could be just that tight.