And then there were four. Mayo and Dublin join Tipperary and Kerry in this year’s All-Ireland football semi-finals. No money won for predicting three of them, and no money gambled on the fourth.
Semi-finals often provide the best example of what a sport can offer. It should come as no surprise when you reminisce on your favourite sport and realise many Championship finals have paled in comparison to the two games that preceded it.
Already this summer, the Euro 2016 final between France and Portugal has faded into memory as other less important matches still fill our thoughts — the exploits of Wales springs to mind, as well as a fresher, freer French team.
But don’t get me started on the ridiculous scheduling of the latter rounds in France. No doubt tv money dictated that.
However, this year might be very different. I sense a classic All-Ireland football final is coming, and in my opinion, it is well overdue.
Mayo, under Stephen Rochford, have shown an incredible resolve to trust their ability to build throughout the summer in order to peak on the third Sunday in September — and not a day sooner.
Dublin, too, appear to be flexing their muscles, one at a time, one round at a time, leaving enough in the tank to peak and repeat, and finally merit talk as a potential team of the decade.
Tipperary have been the stars of the summer, no doubting that, but as the summer moves into Autumn, seasoned campaigners will come to the fore and take their rightful place under the Hogan Stand on finals day.
Kerry, of course, will not go down without a fight, as the tag of winning a ‘soft’ All- Ireland in 2014 after Donegal over-cooked their preparation, will never satisfy the most successful county to ever play the game.
The freedom and privacy players and coaches enjoy in the lead up to the penultimate fixture of a competition is the last semblance of normality the winners will experience that season.
The circus that evolves before a final is nowhere to be seen in the penultimate round.
A good management team will have sprinkled the season up to that point with a consistent message about how they conduct themselves as a unit, regardless of the match that lies ahead.
That message, one presumes, will be very different from the four managers in charge of their respective counties.
Tipperary’s Liam Kearns is clearly the master at being the underdog upsetting the odds and his message to date has been spot on.
Yet how he convinces his free-scoring forwards that players like Leeroy Keegan, Colm Boyle and Keith Higgins are mere mortals is an altogether different task.
Stephen Rochford, on the other hand, is known for his ability to keep expectations under wraps long before he became a senior inter-county manager. He has expertly deflected attention from Mayo, which is some achievement when you consider they are now in their sixth semi-final in a row!
In Eamonn Fitzmaurice, Kerry have the atypical inscrutable man in the media.
The message from last year was he could not leave the job following the manner of the loss to Dublin. Noble and all as that may be, the players at his disposal are the most road-weary left in the championship, while also being the least tested.
With star players like Colm Cooper and James O’Donoghue far from their spell-binding peaks of yesteryear. However, a Kerry team spoken of as underdogs will not be short of motivation.
Which leaves us with Top Gun’s Iceman, Jim Gavin. His tenure with Dublin is simply incredible.
I, for one, do not buy into the Dublin financial juggernaut nonsense in the media.
They are a tightly knit, expertly coached team led from the top down.
World sport is littered with underachieving, misfiring teams of superstars – last year’s Premier League stands as a stark reminder of how much more important it is to have a band of brothers over a group of mercenaries. And Jim Gavin’s message will to be that of the simple mantra of ‘one game at a time’.
Entrusting his players to play as they train, with the freedom to read the game as it unfolds, all the while adhering to a rock-solid structure.
Players instincts become sharper as a season unfolds and so the demeanour of the manager must be bullet-proof as the intensity of competition exponentially rises from quarter-final to semi-final. His vocabulary must ooze certainty and positivity.
Words like process, routine, pattern, organised; not to mention words like ready, fresh, sharp, and excited, must fill the air that the players breathe.
The time spent before the semi-final should be a balanced mix of continuing to fine-tune the game plan and hot-housing certain players for inevitable match-ups that are quickly coming into focus.
There should be no surprises at this stage of the season about any particular player’s performance.
Individual notes and highlight reels should be readily available to all players.
Not to spook them about the opposition but to train their eye on the areas of their game waiting to be exploited either for the first time of the season or as others have exposed previously.
All four remaining teams will be quietly confident in the information their respective video analysts have provided them with to overcome the opposition.
In addition, each will pride themselves on unveiling something different from their previous outing to steal a march on their opponents on course to that all-important finals day.
The pressure of winning a semi-final is nothing compared to that of competing in a final.
But first things first. Don’t expect anything to be given away in the coming weeks from the four managers.
Fitzmaurice and Gavin may be the two with real-life experience at this stage of the championship. But Rochford and Kearns are shrewd men as well, ready for the big time. Expect some fireworks, but nothing extravagant.
The sleeping giant of this year’s championship will keep us guessing for one more round before waking with a thunderous roar – or so I hope.
The author is a skill acquisition specialist across sport with extensive experience in football and hurling at the inter-county level.
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