And so there were 10.
With the provincial targets met or missed, the essential goal for every county footballer’s summer journey is upon us –the August Bank Holiday Weekend . . . the business end of the championship.
Unlike the friends and families of the players who may be heading to Galway for the races or slipping into holiday mode for the long weekend; for the counties and players with big ambitions, it’s time to get down to business.
Slip up now and you’ll be joining the holiday set and looking wistfully to 2015; succeed and an elusive place in an All-Ireland final appears on the horizon.
While I still have that uneasy feeling, a knot in my stomach, knowing the white jersey is back in Croke Park tomorrow, I must admit I’m really looking forward to the weekend’s action.
Tomorrow evening sees the final battles for the right to contest a quarter-final with the previous two All-Ireland winners; it might be daunting task but it’s one that every player in Croke Park will relish.
However, first things first. It’s been a difficult fortnight for the Meath lads with all the controversy following the Leinster final and they’ll be trying hard to put that out of their minds. In particular they’ll be trying to get the defeat out of their system.
It’s always difficult for beaten provincial finalists in the final round of qualifiers even allowing for the extra week. You’re always coming up against a team with momentum and no matter what way you dress it up, losing a Leinster final is a set-back to your season’s goals.
Tomorrow is no different. Armagh have impressed to date and I can certainly see the influence of my old mentor and ally Kieran McGeeney on their set-up. They’re organised, physically primed for battle and you can sense their confidence and ambition.
And I suspect that Armagh will edge this first contest. Meath have had a very positive season up until the provincial final but it’s hard to convey just how sapping a set-back like that can be to your confidence. It would be a significant achievement for them if they can bounce back but I suspect Armagh will be left standing.
I’m still way too close to detach my heart from the second game. It’s a huge task for this young Kildare outfit. Very much in a period of transition they are coming up against a battle-hardened and well-organised outfit in Malachy O’Rourke’s team.
The one thing that I will say is that Croke Park rewards team with pace and movement; exploit the space intelligently and you can punish even the solid defensive systems.
It’s essential to win primary possession and this is an area where Jason Ryan’s men will have to improve. The kick-out strategy is vital so that Kildare can hit their forwards quickly or run at the opposition with ample support.
In the latter stages of the Leinster semi-final, they looked really dangerous when they ran at the Meath with constant support on the ball carrier’s shoulder. When it looked like they were in big trouble against Kildare they rallied impressively and kicked seven points on the trot with Eamonn O’Callaghan and Eoghan O’Flaherty leading the charge.
Monaghan will try to bully Kildare physically and will try to negate their movement but while not overly brimming with confidence I’m very hopeful that Kildare can stake a claim in their future tomorrow by reaching the last eight.
The big guns start to roll into town on Sunday and while the quarter-finals usually house one major surprise, I’m going with form this time.
Watching Galway in action last Saturday you could sense the birth of a new talented outfit – they were irrepressible for good stretches of the game. However, they left sufficient doubt, particularly in the closing stages against Tipp, to suggest that a rejuvenated Kerry under the impressive Eamonn Fitzmaurice will reach the last four.
Kerry transitions aren’t really like other counties; they were a breaking ball away from beating Dublin last year and yet the latter squad is spoken about as being practically unbeatable.
I was hugely impressed with their performance against Cork, particularly the manner in which Declan O’Sullivan performed – he’s playing as well as ever. Their workrate suggests a very happy and progressive camp and, like Dublin, they are now finishing with their strongest team. Galway may have a bright future but Sunday will be a learning curve along the way.
With a real chance for redemption after their nightmare Munster final, I expect Cork to really put up a serious test for Mayo. They have adopted a much more defensive set-up since and if they had one more game before Sunday’s clash then they could have a very realistic chance given the talent they still have at their disposal.
However, Mayo’s mission remains the same and they are so battle-hardened and confident in their ability that you’d expect they’ll break down Cork’s resistance. Cork struggled in midfield against Kerry and while they have changed their set-up, they will struggle to counter Mayo’s power.
Most pundits get bitten in one quarter-final but for me Sunday will go with form.
GPA Players lunch on September 20th a gilt edged opportunity for former gladiators to gather
SPENDING my first championship summer as a retired county player one positive experience is getting the rare chance to meet other former county footballers.
There’s always a nice sense of a shared past when you get to meet up socially and discuss the current action and I’ve really enjoyed running into players at games around the country.
However, an ideal occasion for former players to gather will take place in Croke Park on the eve of the All-Ireland football final when the annual GPA Former Players lunch takes place.
The lunch is run by the GPA’s Former Players Group who staged their inaugural event last year with great success. I spoke to a few former colleagues who attended and the one thing they stressed about it was that it was run by players for players so the atmosphere in the room was really outstanding.
Tables of 10 cost €1000 with proceeds going to the very worthy GPA Benevolent Fund to help players who may have fallen on hard times.
Players are asked to seek a sponsor for their group table but if they wish to attend individually just contact the GPA for details.
GPA Formers Players Lunch takes place in the Hogan Mezz on Saturday September 20 at 3.30pm. Any queries should be directed to Seán Potts in the GPA on 0863971859 or firstname.lastname@example.org