The quarter-finals have invariably been the stage for the eventual winner to make a big statement — a game they won very convincingly but went in to the match as slight underdogs with question marks hanging over them: 2011 gave us Dublin beating Tyrone by 0-22 to 0-17 in the rain and missing four goals, 2009 gave us Kerry playing poorly in the qualifiers before blowing Dublin away 1-24 to 1-7, 2008 a previously unimpressive Tyrone hammering Dublin in the rain 3-14 to 1-8, 2006 Kerry answering their critics to beat Armagh 3-15 to 1-13. Of the five leading contenders (Dublin, Donegal, Cork, Kerry, Kildare), the Lilywhites will go into the Cork match as underdogs and are the ones under the radar with the most questions over them. Maybe they will be the ones to make the big statement.
2. How Kerry go about unlocking the Donegal defence
No doubt Jack O’Connor will have noted the success big Cavan full-forward Eugene Keating had against Donegal full-back Neil McGee, scoring five points from play and being fouled for a penalty. And he will also have noted Tyrone missing five scoreable frees against Donegal. With Kieran Donaghy as target man and Bryan Sheehan as free-taker, Kerry can profit here. Throw in the football brain of Colm Cooper, Declan O’Sullivan and Tomas Ó Sé, Sheehan’s ability to kick points from distance, Declan and Darran O’Sullivan’s penetration, Paul Galvin and Donncha Walsh chipping in with an odd score and turning over possession in the tackle, then on paper Kerry have all the tools to unlock the tightest defence gaelic football has seen. The question is, will they?
3. Laois conditioning
Under Justin McNulty Laois have greatly improved their physical conditioning and having put such an effort into achieving this, they are undoubtedly going to put it to best use. They have a physically strong and experienced midfield diamond in John O’Loughlin, Brendan Quigley, Colm Begley and Padraig Clancy that is effective at gaining a stranglehold on a game.
Tactically they will cut down space in their own defence with a big emphasis on not conceding goals and hit with pace on the counter-attack.
Padraig Clancy has a fluid role at centre-forward and can kick a score but can move to midfield if they need to win ball and also to full-forward if they require a physical presence there.
Laois won’t be bullied by anyone and have the conditioning to compete with Dublin.
The question is, are they good enough?
4. Conor Laverty
If you want to stop Down, this is the man to stop. With Martin Clarke gone, Benny Coulter regaining fitness and Danny Hughes only playing a bit-part with injury, Laverty has become their main man. Meath played Down in a recent challenge match and I was really impressed with him. Although named in the full-forward line he will drift out deep to get on the ball. Has a great ability to hold up the ball and attract defenders before releasing a colleague with his vision for a goal chance. Although slight of build he can look after himself. If Down are to beat Mayo today, they will need to score goals and Laverty is the man who will be central to that.
5. Tomas O’Connor
The fulcrum of Kildare’s attack and, in my opinion, a very effective target man. A big physical full-back like Kevin Reilly has done well on him in the past but it helps to drop a defender in front of him to cut off the supply. Will Michael Shields be big enough to handle him or would a physical player like Eoin Cadogan be more suitable? Cork have the option of Graham Canty who may be suited to dropping back in front of O’Connor but Cork don’t want to leave playmaker Mikey Conway free. Either way, Cork need to handle O’Connor because if he wins ball and lays it off to support runners, Cork could be in trouble.