Keeping things fresh in tight turnaround decisive for final four

EAMONN FITZMAURICE: Keeping things fresh in tight turnaround decisive for final four
Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly takes control as he is confronted by a posse of Tyrone players - Michael McKernan, Darren McCurry, Rory Brennan, Ben McDonnell, and David Mulgrew during theAll-Ireland SFC quarter-final at Healy Park. Picture: Oliver McVeigh

And with that, the Super 8 became the final four with the remaining quartet arguably the best in the country.

The semi-finals will come thick and fast next weekend, almost too thick and fast. For the supporter, they have, at best, a day or two to flesh out this past weekend’s matches before the focus shifts towards the penultimate round of the championship. I am all for tightening the inter-county calendar and reducing the training-to-match ratio, but two weeks remains the ideal gap between games at this stage of the season.

Despite a lethargic win in Omagh - the contest had more of a pitch-opening feel than a big championship match about it - Dublin are still very much the team to beat. But the other three counties left will all fancy themselves to varying degrees.

Mayo are still standing after another brave performance. Their physicality and aggression were back to where it needs to be in defeating Donegal Saturday night. In possession, they ran the hard lines that have become their hallmark and they looked much more like themselves. They couldn’t have been more different from the team that rocked up in Killarney three weeks ago. Their tackle count of 66 was telling but the intent and body language of all their players as they hunted in packs was the Mayo we have become accustomed to over the last number of years.

Donegal looked to be shocked with the intensity Mayo brought and, as I suspected, the Ulster champions are not quite ready to dine at the top table yet. They coughed up a lot of possession in contact and displayed a complete lack of composure in the final ten minutes when the game was still there to be won, or drawn, and they had to chances to achieve this. They will learn from it though.

On the flipside, Mayo will need to improve exponentially for Dublin on Saturday. Their shot conversion rate was shocking. They converted 11 attempts out of 28, scoring 1-10, a 29% success rate. Even their goal came from an attempt for a point by Jason Doherty that landed short for Cillian O’Connor finished neatly.

This is one of the hardest balls of the lot for a back to defend. Rob Hennelly got the nod in goals but didn’t grab hold of the jersey as he could have. James Horan still has a decision to make next weekend if David Clarke is available. Hennelly looked nervous and anxious. When a goalkeeper is fully in control of his game he exudes calm. He has a ball and tee at each post to allow him to get away quick kickouts. On Saturday evening Hennelly, more often than not, was chasing down the ball that had just gone dead and then was hurrying his restart, which were not as good as they should be, even allowing for the difficult air and ground conditions. Mayo won 63% of their own kickout which won’t be good enough against the All-Ireland champions. They still have injury problems with no sign of Diarmuid O’Connor again and Jason Doherty now looking like he could be in trouble.

Their battle with Dublin will be intriguing though. While it is worth reminding ourselves that they have not beaten Dublin in league or championship since 2012, Mayo can still ask lots of questions. They create and thrive in chaos with the frantic helter-skelter nature of their game. Dublin don’t like this. They prefer structure and predictability. Mayo aren’t as good as they were in 2017 and Dublin are better, so logically one would expect Dublin to win pulling up. However, logic and this Mayo team don’t go hand-in-hand.

The main talking point of the weekend was Diarmuid Connolly’s return in Omagh yesterday. He looked good on the ball but rusty without it. His movement and timing when tackling looked like a player that has been away for a spell. He now has a game under his belt though and can be an option for Jim Gavin. The Dublin manager already has a wealth of options but he is lacking that kicker from out the field since Paul Flynn and Connolly moved on. By getting Connolly back in the fold, he has the option should he need it in a match. As a bonus, by design or otherwise, there will be so much talk and debate about Connolly’s return that the five-in-a-row will hardly be mentioned this week.

I also feel Gavin is viewing Rory O’Carroll in a similar light in terms of increasing the type of player available to him. He looked well off it yesterday when marking a forward with good movement. However, he has always been excellent at defending a target man. Should Mayo place Aidan O’Shea at the edge of the square or if Dublin came up against Kerry and Tommy Walsh down the line, Gavin has that base covered also. Dublin are in rude health as they face into next weekends semi-final and it will be a shock if they lose.

Mickey Harte’s decision to rest his frontliners for next Sunday’s semi-final will be judged on the Kerry match rather than yesterday. It is one of those judgement calls that is justified by a win. It made sense giving his players a weekend off, having them fresh for Kerry and avoiding a costly injury to any of his key players.

Peter Keane did not have such a luxury. Harte will have viewed playing Kerry or Mayo as being the same challenge and he won’t have shown Jim Gavin his cards a month out from a prospective All-Ireland final he expects to get to. The only downside is some of his main men are coming into game cold, which at this stage of the season shouldn’t be a significant factor. He will have been happy that they were quite competitive for much of the game yesterday and some of the panel members put up their hand by playing well.

From a Kerry perspective, the lads will be quite happy with where they are at. They have five championship games under the belt, winning four and drawing one so they can’t be undercooked as has happened us in the past. Bar the Mayo game they have been well tested in each of them. They will know from now on that with the safety net removed things will get tougher. There are still issues defensively and on kickouts but there is plenty to be happy about. A lot of players are playing well and that confidence from winning games is evident. They can score in all kinds of ways and have a really strong squad with different types of players available for different duties depending on the opposition. They will need David Clifford to recover from injury this week, though.

Tyrone will be a very different test from what Kerry have faced so far this year. They have improved significantly since 2018 and now are a hardened championship team. They are flexible and won’t allow the Kerry forwards the freedom they got in the Super 8s. I feel that Kerry still have the better footballers but this Tyrone hurdle will be the toughest task to date. That is a positive though as overcoming that challenge means you are All-Ireland final ready.

For the four teams it is a tight turnaround to get everything in order for next weekend. The players who played 50 minutes-plus will do very little early in the week other than recover. Sleep, eat well, get to the sea for a dip and get any knocks looked after. They will probably play 20 mins of football later in the week to keep their skills and touch sharp for the weekend. It is an extremely tough few days for managers and their management teams.

For the Tuesday night session they will look to review the weekend’s performance before beginning to look ahead. Opposition analysis will be done on Thursday night and maybe even a bit in the hotel the night before the game. There is a lot of footage there at this stage of the season and poring through all of that can be brain-numbing. Balancing that homework with not overdoing it and having your own mind and body fresh for the challenge ahead is always a test. It is also a delicate balancing act to avoid overloading the players with information the week of a game.

Quality was never more important than quantity. For a semi-final or final, I always preferred to drip feed the information to them gradually, starting a fortnight out from the match but needs must this week.

As the managers knuckle down for the week the rest of us have two massive games to look forward to and there are bound to be twists and turns. Fasten the seat belts.

Quirke's Football Podcast: Mayo's rock-solid bunch of people. Dubs demystified. Kerry need dogs. With Tony McEntee and Cian O'Neill

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