It is difficult to keep up with everything happening in the championship with so many big games coming so close together.
Following on from the action on the pitch last weekend, two big stories emerged during the week as Diarmuid Connolly returned for Dublin and Cian O’ Neill stepped away from Kildare.
I for one am happy to see Connolly back. He has been a huge part of Dublin’s success this decade and it would be sad to see him missing their history chasing season.
I have huge respect for Jim Gavin’s team, with many of their players the best in their positions but Connolly is my favourite Dublin player. He is exciting to watch, his skill and balance are breathtaking and he likes to try audacious things on the pitch, often pulling them off.
He has the ability to step up in key moments as he did more than once against us particularly towards the end of the 2016 semi-final when he kicked two clutch points that steered them to victory in an epic match.
I also like the fact he has an edge and knows how to look after himself because he has had to put with plenty of scrutiny over the years.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he isn’t even in the 26 this weekend as Jim Gavin doesn’t do sentiment (ask Bernard Brogan – and many others – if you doubt me) but,
hopefully, we get to see the Vincent’s man at some stage over the coming weeks.
Cian departed his Kildare post with an articulate and dignified statement having given the role absolutely everything for the last four years. He has a huge job in Cork IT and commuted from his Douglas home to Kildare three or four times a week. Balancing both is extremely challenging and yet he managed to so without impacting negatively on either. He worked with me for three years in Kerry and his input was a huge part of our success in that period. I recruited him initially as a Strength and Conditioning expert and he revolutionised that area for us. From my point of view it was a huge bonus that he also excelled as a football coach and selector.
He has a love and passion for coaching that is infectious. When he took over Kildare they were at a low ebb. They had been relegated to Division 3 and we had put seven goals past them in the 2015 All-Ireland quarter-final.
Cian brought them back up to Division 1, to a Leinster final and to the Super 8s last year after beating Mayo following his Newbridge or Nowhere stance. He deserves massive credit but didn’t seem to get it. Often you are not a prophet in your own land. He is an extremely able operator and I will be surprised if he doesn’t rekindle that passion for coaching again.
As we look towards on field issues again, one of the many standout features of Kerry’s win in Killarney last weekend was the successful pressing of David Clarke’s kickouts. Mayo struggled to get the ball out of their own half and when they did they turned it over.
The game was effectively over by half-time as a result. This type of press – that we first tried against Dublin with success in the 2016 All Ireland semi-final – is a risk/reward setup.
The reward is massive when it works as your opposition can be really pinned in and put under severe pressure but on the flip side the risk is that if the opposition win ball and move it quickly you are very open at the back.
Last Sunday that risk was nullified as David Moran was at his best and David Clarke – who has been exceptional for Mayo for a long time – does not possess the long kickout required to beat that type of press.
Robbie Hennelly possesses this kicking range and I presume this was a major part of the decision to rotate them for the replay in 2016. They hoped to surprise Dublin and kick it long out over the press that had worked in the drawn game. Logically it makes sense but as we know itbackfired spectacularly. These are the margins thatdefine a manager’s legacy. Get it right and win and you are a genius. Get it wrong and you haven’t a clue.
As an extension of this, one of the most interesting things about tomorrow’s game between Kerry and Donegal is how the Munster champions deal with Shaun Patton’s restarts. If the Kerry forwards get enough ammunition they will be difficult to stop.
Patton has been outstanding in this year’s Championship with a range of kicks in his locker. He won’t have played in a match of this magnitude before though and Kerry will look to get after him early and spook him.
It will be much harder to repeat the trick and to press in Croke Park as they did in Fitzgerald Stadium. The surprise element is gone and there is more space for Patton to find little chipped kicks in Croke Park – something he is good at – but more importantly he possesses a boomer that he can launch over the top of everything.
This obviously can leave Kerry very exposed at the back. Generally it’s possible for the players out the field to read what a keeper is doing. Two steps back and he is looking to go short. A longer run and he is going to drive it.
Even Cluxton needs a longer run up for the extra long restarts. Patton, however, can go long off two steps though which complicates things further for Kerry and makes him harder to read. Donegal actually like when teams push that aggressively on them and then they go long and target Michael Murphy or Hugh McFadden.
They get runners off this and Murphy (in particular) is excellent at flicking it into the runner’s path and they are away. This isn’t new. For the last score to seal their 2012 quarter-final win over Kerry, Karl Lacey ran onto a flick to kick the insurance point.
This strategy was famously successful against Dublin in 2014 when they got two second-half goals directly from this strategy. Against Meath last weekend Murphy was again effective in releasing McHugh on a couple of occasions that led to scores.
Kerry will need someone on Murphy that can compete with him in the air, perhaps Moran may take that role at tomes. Also whoever is designated to mark McHugh will need to be alive to this threat and beat him to the flick-ons.
Kerry won’t want to give Donegal the kickout short and allow them to build from the back as Cork did in the Munster final but they won’t want to leave themselves exposed to a Donegal sucker punch either. How they strike this balance will be fascinating.
I will be interested to see if Mayo can resurrect themselves this weekend. The fact that so many of their players are based in Dublin must be a logistical nightmare in a seven-day turnaround with plenty to discuss and analyse this week as they attempt to save their season.
They looked both mentally and physically exhausted in Killarney, playing for the fourth weekend in a row and their third of four on the road. The mental fatigue led to all manner of unforced errors and the lack of appetite and aggression from a Mayo team in Championship must have been alarming for James Horan.
They looked like a team at the end of their tether. I would never write them off though as they are a resilient bunch and they always respond. Once more they find themselves backed into a corner and will have no option but to come out and fight.
But Meath will be no pushover. They impressed, albeit, losing to Donegal and are younger and fresher.
They will be anxious to get over their Leinster final drubbing to Dublin and they have the tools to put a hole in one of the big teams. If they manage it tomorrow they will sink Mayo.
In Group 2 I fear for Roscommon in Croke Park. Dublin looked back to their best for the final quarter in particular last weekend and appear to have found their mojo again. They are closing in on history and unsurprisingly rather than shying away from it they are embracing the challenge.
The other game will be interesting though. Cork have been at pains to tell us they are an attacking team and will attack. They have attacked well but significantly they have conceded large scores as well 1-19 in the Munster final, 1-15 against Laois and 5-18 last weekend.
To have any chance of beating a top team they have to reduce that total to 16 points or less. It is fine to be an all-out attacking side when you have the ball but what about when you don’t have it? It is as if they have been so anxious to rediscover an identity that they have hung everything on all-out attack.
They have plenty of bright people involved with them and I’m sure they realise it’s about getting the balance right and they also need to defend with aggression and numbers when they don’t have the ball.
Without the ball, their U20 side gave an exhibition of defending and blocking in Thursday night’s Munster final win over Kerry while still putting up a big score and staying loyal to an attacking game-plan. This wouldn’t be a bad template to follow.
The Tyrone setup will allow them to keep a sweeper in place and if they can use it as effectively as Donegal used Hugh McFadden they can cause problems for Mickey Harte’s men.
However if they are too gung-ho Tyrone will easily pick them off on the counter. Should they get the balance right their strong running game has always caused Tyrone problems even when they were at their best in the last decade.
Cork need to – and can win this one. If they do it blows Group 2 wide open.Considering all the good football that is being played at the moment it would be disappointing if the final weekend of the Super 8s is dominated by dead rubbers.