By Kieran Rooney
IT'S around this time that teams really begin to find out about themselves. Sligo and Monaghan have more, quite a bit more, to do if they are to remain as serious contenders in this year's All-Ireland Football Championship.
Both went into last Sunday's Connacht and Ulster Football Championship finals with growing reputations. Both lost. Sligo, only just (0-14 to 0-13) to rank outsiders Roscommon, while Monaghan were trounced 1-14 to 0-7 by Tyrone.
For Roscommon and Tyrone there is direct entry into the All-Ireland quarter-finals, plus the glory of winning their provincial crowns. For Sligo and Monaghan they must come through round four of the qualifiers next weekend in order to move into the last eight.
The latest round of the qualifying draw, made following last weekend's games, will provide some intriguing contests. It reads: Sligo vs. Down; Monaghan v. Kildare; Cork vs. Limerick and Dublin vs. Louth.
Sligo will probably be reasonably pleased as Down have not shown themselves to be world beaters. Monaghan only have to look to Kildare's 2-17 to 1-9 demolition of Derry to recognize that they face a rapidly improving outfit.
The meetings of Dublin and Louth and Cork and Limerick in the past might have seemed very straightforward. Not any more. Louth's effort in so nearly winning the Leinster crown showed that they are quite capable of providing the Dubs with a real test.
The same can be said of Limerick after they so nearly got the better of Kerry in the Munster decider. Furthermore, they have run Cork close in the last two seasons.
Much will be revealed next weekend but, as things stand, Kerry and Tyrone are once again the two teams to beat. Not that long ago people were talking about the probable demise of Tyrone but they have got better as the season progressed.
If Tyrone were somewhat underrated, then Roscommon were completely written off. "We didn't get a write up at all," insisted their manager Fergal O'Donnell. "This [the Connacht final] was our All-Ireland, all we wanted to do was to play in Croke Park in August. We are in bonus territory now."
Indeed they are. Remember, in last year's Connacht semi-final, also in Castlebar, they went under by 20 points to Mayo. They then provided the doubters with further ammunition by losing six out of their seven league games to go down to Division Four.
Hardly the sort of form designed to put the fear of God into Sligo. After their impressive Championship successes over Mayo and Galway, Sligo were made 2/7 favorites to win on Sunday.
But favoritism brings its own sort of pressure. What's more, Roscommon have some very good young players coming through, most especially Donal Shine.
Shine, a key figure in the Roscommon side that won an All-Ireland minor title, was comfortably the Man of the Match. The 21-year-old finished with 0-10 out of a total of 0-14.
Seven came from frees with three from play. Fittingly, Shine was to get the winning point late in the game after Sligo had managed a second half rally to draw level.
For all of their disappointment, Sligo could have few complaints. Manager Kevin Walsh took it on the chin, explaining: "We only have ourselves to blame. Importantly though, we're still in the competition and we'll just have to pick ourselves up and get on with it."
So will Monaghan. Their Ulster decider with Tyrone was expected to be tight, but for some reason, Monaghan were unable to deliver.
Maybe the fact that they hadn't won an Ulster title for over 22 years put too much pressure on them. Either way, they produced, in the words of their manager Seamus McEnaney, their "worst performance in six years."
"There is no hiding place, that was totally unacceptable." McEnaney continued. "We don't intent to walk away from Championship on that note."
Typically, Tyrone boss Mickey Harte was very even handed in his comments. He said: "We are not going to swing from the rooftops and claim we are the finished product but we are a decent product that can get better."
As for the match itself, it was only really a contest for the opening 19 minutes, Monaghan, in fact led by 0-4 to 0-3 but they then fell apart, amazingly failing to score for another 40 minutes, wasting two great goal chances.
Their opponents in next weekend's qualifiers Kildare showed how it should be done when beating Derry in the third round of the qualifiers. They produced some superb football in the second half to completely overrun their rivals.
John Doyle, Dermot Earley and Emmet Bolton all put in big performances, while Eamonn Callaghan showed his accuracy by contributing 1-4 from play. Doyle, responsible for 0-8, six of which came from frees, commented: "We knew that a performance like this was in us but we won't be getting carried away."
Nor, I suspect, will any of the other third round qualifiers. Dublin's 0-14 to 0-11 Croke Park success over Armagh was a definite improvement, and it could well be that the play-offs suit them.
But manager Pat Gilroy quickly put things into perspective, stressing: "We're no world-beaters and we know that. We know we have to work hard and be honest.
"I suppose the lads felt that their character has been questioned quite a bit. Nobody likes that. We needed a good workmanlike performance, and I think we delivered that."
But a continuing worry for the Dubs is that they rely too much on Bernard Brogan. He contributed 0-9, four from frees, to yet again prove just how important he is to this Dublin side.
Dowan at Wexford Park, Cork were comfortable, if unspectacular 0-12 to 0-5 winners over Wexford. Cork weren't at their best but it was hard to produce decent football in awful conditions of wind and rain.
As their manager Conor Counihan put it: "We conceded five points over 70 minutes. That is a positive. We need to score more."
So do Down after their 1-12 to 1-10 victory over Offaly in Tullamore. Offaly, to be fair, produced their best football of the year to lead by 1-6 to 0-6 at half-time.
The decisive moment came when Down's Aidan Carr scored a goal just after the restart. Offaly never gave up but Down were just about worth their two point success.
For more on the qualifiers see Sean Creedon's column on Page 26.
in Munster replay
NO doubt about the game of the weekend, it was the Munster hurling final replay between Waterford and Cork played on Saturday night in Thurles. Once again, these two great rivals fought out a dramatic contest, with Waterford finally emerging victorious by 1-16 to 1-13 after extra-time.
It took a Dan Shanahan goal in the 83rd minute to divide the sides. Even then, it wasn't over, Cork's Cathal Naughton unleasing a shot which Tony Browne locked with his helmet after diving full length.
It was that sort of game. Cork are sure to feel bitterly disappointed, particularly as they seemed to have the first game in the bag, but at least they have the consolation of an All-Ireland quarter-final draw against outsiders Antrim.
The other quarter-final, also to be played next weekend, will see Galway take on Tipperary. But back to that Munster final replay.
Waterford simply won't go away. Ben O'Connor put Cork two points clear when he lobbed a 45 minute free into the net but Waterford, inspired by Tony Browne and Michael "Brick" Walsh, responded to level matters by full-time.
Time for Waterford manager Davy Fitzgerald to do his bit. "I was very calm. I asked them if they were tired, they said they weren't. I looked them in the eye and told them they would win."
By this stage 'Dan the Man' Shanahan had been brought on as a substitute. When his chance came, seven minutes from time, he delivered sending a low shot into the corner of the Cork net past Donal Og Cusack. Next stop an All-Ireland semi-final.
While the two qualifying games failed to provide the drama of the Munster decider, they did produce an upset with Antrim getting the better of Dublin by 1-17 to 0-19 at Croke Park. Dublin must still be wondering how they let a 0-18 to 1-9 second half advantage slip.
The answer is that Antrim raised the game while Dublin switched off, scoring just once in the last 23 minutes. It must have been hard to take for Dublin manager Anthony Daly, especially as his team had comfortably seen off Clare the previous weekend, and the Leinster Under 21 title had been won in midweek.
Now Daly must decide whether he should stick with the job. "There's been a bit of progress but that's a big setback." he admitted. "I'll have to see what the future holds."
No such worries for Antrim boss Dinny Cahill who made some very astute changes in the final quarter. They will now be rank outsiders against Cork, but an All-Ireland quarter-final is a major step forward for them.
The remaining qualifying game saw Tipperary comfortably defeat Offaly 0-21 to 1-12 at Portlaoise. Tipp were always in control, Shane Dooley scoring a late consolation goal for Offaly.
There's no doubt that Tipperary are getting better but the real test will come against Galway next Sunday.