Different, yet the same

LP HARTLEY’S opening prologue to his most famous novel, The Go-Between, “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” has become a well-worn proverb at this stage, but it never seems more apt in a football context than at this stage of the championship every year.

Kerry and Tyrone, winners for the last seven seasons, have long acknowledged the fact that the championship begins anew on August weekend and all that happens before is merely about getting there. Despite winning their respective provincial championships, nobody knows better than the those squads that the past really is a foreign country and that from here on in we step into a new landscape for which there are no maps.

Kerry and Tyrone have more reasons than most to relish quarter-final stages of the championship. Both sides have, at this stage, provided the GAA public with some of the most memorable moments of the past decade: Remember Owen Mulligan’s slaloming run and goal five years ago? What about Kieran Donaghy’s win and spin moment that finally broke Armagh in ‘06? Who can forget Marc O Sé’s diving block on Tomás Freeman the following year? Or Tyrone’s rhapsody in the rain in ‘08 – the best exhibition of foot-passing I have seen in the new Croke Park? And finally, Gooch’s razing of Hill 16 after 38 seconds last year.

All season-defining moments, and all sharpening the appetite ahead of the weekend’s action.

History may not be all that pertinent to a team’s performance as we head into phase two of championship 2010, but that is not to say that history doesn’t have a role to play this weekend.

Kerry people are sick to the teeth of the history lessons being given since last Sunday’s draw and some of the reminders of Down’s pre-eminence in past clashes between the counties is bound to have pricked players’ sensibilities. The fact that Down have never lost to Kerry in championship football is almost certainly irrelevant in the current context, but I know I wouldn’t mind the opportunity of being part of the first Kerry team to set that record straight. The same, of course, applies to James McCartan’s team.

The nuts and bolts of the issue are this: Kerry are as vulnerable as they are likely to be all year but they still have more players than Down who know the geography of both field and occasion. A concentrated effort and a fraction of the ruthlessness displayed at this stage last year should see them through but the Ulster men are good enough and resilient enough to beat them should performance levels drop anywhere below what we’ve come to expect.

Given their default setting for intense bouts of foreboding, Kerry supporters will worry about the spectacular misfire at midfield four weeks ago. They will also have good reason to worry about the absence of Tomás O Sé and Paul Galvin.

They should however be more concerned about planning for the Gooch being held some day and about Kieran Donaghy getting bogged down in a mire of little niggles as he did against Stephen Lucey. If Kerry have used the block of training since the Munster final as well as they usually do, they should hit the ground running.

It’s not like Down don’t have worries of their own. Wins over Longford, Offaly and a demoralised Sligo don’t constitute form coming into a quarter-final and the only solid point of reference is their Ulster semi-final against Tyrone.

For 20 minutes Down were all purpose and slick passing against the breeze but once Tyrone figured them out (as only they can) the game was up. Not scoring from play with the breeze for a full half an hour eventually undid Down and it highlighted their brittle confidence when things are going against them. If Kerry recreate the conditions that saw Down struggle to get their hands on the ball against Tyrone, they should advance.

HAVING come into today’s other quarter-final on the back of two consecutive Ulster titles should have Tyrone playing with confidence. Because I have doubts about the merits of Ulster championship these days, I am slow to attach any value to their campaign. How good are Tyrone? I suspect they are very good and very few teams left in the championship have their ability to think through their route and improvise their way off the ropes.

Dublin aren’t set up to self-destruct as they have famously done at this stage in the last two seasons and their tackling high up the field would cause most players to panic. I can’t see anyone in the Tyrone back six giving the ball away cheaply and with Joe McMahon back to help out, the Dublin tackling is going to have to be ferocious to win back possession.

Only Cork in 2009 have managed to ruffle Tyrone to such an extent that they gave ball away regularly, and because Dublin are unlikely to be able to sustain such an effort for 70 minutes, it’s hard to see anything other than a Tyrone win.

Cork’s travails in the last weekend’s qualifier against Limerick will have steeled them for anything the rest of the season has to throw at them. I don’t buy into the notion that they might be tired after the huge effort required to overcome Limerick. The week’s recovery is where the physical trainers earn their kudos and Aidan O’Connell will have the Cork panel well calibrated by 2pm tomorrow.

Setting the mental clocks at nought is the challenge for Cork this weekend. They should dispose of the Roscommon challenge the very same way they did the last surprise Connacht champion, Sligo, at the quarter-final stage three years ago.

Meath and Kildare is the most difficult one to call. Kildare are building up a head of steam that’s getting harder to ignore and the amount of possession they win around the middle is staggering. Monaghan’s lack of resistance last Saturday leaves them ill-prepared for a battle, however.

Many feel Meath’s preparations will be coloured by the aftermath of the Leinster final but if we know anything about the Royal County it is this: they don’t do romance, sentiment or regret. And they certainly don’t do survivor’s guilt. The motivating force uppermost in the Meath psyche is likely to be a need for atonement for a desperate second half showing against Louth.

Meath don’t have an inferiority complex when playing Kildare. Teams with a proud history like Meath get inspired by the sense of entitlement clashes like these games bring. Kildare have the form but Meath have the pedigree and the conviction. The past may be a foreign country but Meath have made it to two of the last three semi-finals. Again, history matters.

Kerry, Tyrone, Cork and Meath to make the semis. So much for doing things differently!


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