All four provincial champs lose quarter finals

By Kieran Rooney

NOT everyone is going to agree but last weekend's All-Ireland Senior Football Championship quarter-finals had everything.

Perhaps Kerry, Tyrone, Meath and Roscommon think a bit differently. All four provincial champions were defeated as Down, Dublin, Kildare and Cork made it through to the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

There's long been a feeling that it is better to go through the qualifying route than win your provincial crown, just as Kerry did it last year. More games, more time to find out just what is your best team, and, most importantly, time to gain some real momentum.

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The provincial champions, on the other hand, have no second chance. It's a situation which still has the Tyrone manager Mickey Harte fuming.

But that's a debate for another day, the situation is as it is. Kerry would have had few complaints last season when they put behind some erratic early championship form to go on and win the All-Ireland title.

Now others are following a similar route. Dublin, Kildare and Down, in particular, have all improved hugely through the qualifying route before nailing upset victories in last weekend's quarter-finals.

Less so Cork because they were confidently expected to beat Roscommon. It's hard to know where to start but probably the best place is last Saturday's opening quarter-finals, a day which saw the two favorites to win the competition, Kerry and Tyrone, crash out.

There are many who will argue that their exit is good for the competition. Kerry and Tyrone have, after all, dominated the All-Ireland in more recent times and now at least we are going to see a different name on the trophy.

Not that Kerry and Tyrone are likely to agree. Kerry manager Jack O'Connor feels that the suspended Paul Galvin and Tomas O Se have been unfairly targeted by the media while Tyrone boss Harte believes the current system, whereby the provincial champions can exit the competition completely at the quarter-final stage, to be totally unfair.

What's undeniable, however, is that Down and Dublin deserved their victories. Astonishingly, Down had six points to spare over Kerry, winning 1-16 to 1-10, while the Dubs upset Tyrone by 1-15 to 0-13.

Both contests had more than their share of excitement, especially the Tyrone-Dublin game. Massive credit must go to the Dublin manager Pat Gilroy.

Remember he had to withstand a huge amount of criticism earlier in the campaign. Dublin were a complete mess in the Leinster semi-final, conceding five goals against Meath but Gilroy has gradually reorganized his team.

Most importantly, they are exactly that, a team. Anyone who wasn't going to buy into the team ethic was shown the door, as Gilroy set about getting his players to work their socks off.

"There's nothing scientific about it." stressed captain David Henry. "We've just worked for each other. That's the key."

Fair enough, but you also have to have talent, and you key players to put their hands up when it matters. In Bernard Brogan Dublin had the the best player on the pitch against Tyrone. He finished with nine points, four of which came from play.

Yet, Tyrone had their chances, they just hit far too many wides. The Ulster champions led 0-8 to 0-7 at half-time and were level 0-13 each after 64 minutes.

At this stage, most people in the 62,749 crowd would have though that the odds favoured Tyrone because of their greater experience. But it was the Dubs who grabbed the decisive goal through Eoghan O'Gara.

As so often happens there was a bit of good fortune, the ball falling to O'Gara after a shot from substitute Paul Flynn came back off the posts. But O'Gara took the opportunity like a born finisher, decisively thumping his effort past Pascal O'Connell for his third goal in three matches.

That was the hammer blow. Dublin came up with the game's final two points and memories of that quarter-final humilation at the hands of Kerry last season and this year's trouncing by Meath were forgotten.

The question is how good are the Dubs? If they are going to make it back into an All-Ireland final they now going to have to beat the new favourites to lift the title, Cork in the August 22 semi-final.

Only the game against Cork, sure to be a fantastic occasion, will tell. But, for the moment, Dublin's supporters are entitled to feel pretty good about themselves, few amongst them could have envisaged the transformation in their team.

Gilroy has looked at and learned from the likes of Tyrone. What was needed was a blanket defence when required and the ability to counter attack quickly.

Dublin also required a good start. They got it, going 0-6 to 0-2 ahead but somehow you knew that Tyrone would hit back. They did with Owen Mulligan and Martin Penrose producing some excellent scores to give the Ulster side their one point interval advantage.

But Tyrone just couldn't repeat that effort in a tense second half. Dublin had the intensity in those dramatic closing stages, and they also had Bernard Brogan to pick off the scores when needed and O'Gara when a goal opportunity provided itself.

Mickey Harte could have moaned about his side hitting 17 wides, or complained about ill luck when a Penrose shot just before the interval came back off the crossbar. But he gave the Dubs their due, stating that they deserved their victory.

What really upset Harte is that the provincial winners who go out in a quarter-final do not get a second chance. "It's an absolute disgrace that provincial winners are disadvantaged. The system is flawed and nobody will give a solid arguement to say that it isn't" he snapped.

Kerry boss Jack O'Connor had other things on his mind as his side collapsed to a 1-16 to 1-10 defeat at the hands of Down. Like Harte he gave his opponents their due, saying that they deserved their win, but there were a number of elements that really riled him.

The fact that a first half goal was ruled out because of an alleged illegal hand pass was one. Another was the fact that his side was missing key players of the calibre of Galvin and O Se through suspension.

"We weren't fighting with our full army. You are talking about the current player of the year, and the former player of the year. Any team is going to miss them." O'Connor argued.

Unfortunately, the arguement doesn't really stack up. Galvin and O Se were caught and had to pay the penalty. What Kerry had to do was to prove that their panel was good enough to overcome such situations.

They fell well short against a young Down team that exceeded all expectations. Maybe more should have been read into the fact Down put 2-20 on Sligo last time out.

They also have a tremendous record against Kerry, beating them on all four previous All-Ireland meetings. They had nothing to lose, and went straight at Kerry from the kick-off.

Within 51 seconds they were a goal ahead, Mark Poland planting a shot in the Kerry net. By the 11 minute they were 1-3 to 0-0 in front and Kerry knew they were in a real battle.

They did respond with a series of points but the decision of referee Joe McQuillan to then disallowed a goal by Killian Young for a hand pass infringement seemed to knock the stuffing out of the reigning champions. Needness to say, the fact that McQuillan is from Ulster wasn't quite lost on the Kerry camp.

Either way, Down took control. They led by 1-7 to 0-4 at the interval and Kerry's hopes were completely disappear when Donnacha Walsh was sent off for a second yellow car early in the second half.

Martin Clarke and Brendan Coulter were outstanding in attack for Down, contributing seven points between them. If only Colm "Gouch" Cooper had got the same service for Kerry.

Somehow, he managed to score 0-7 for Kerry, five of which came from frees, but his efforts simply were not enough against a such superior Down team. Their astute manager James McCartan now has a semi-final against Kildare to look forward to and a real chance of making the All-Ireland final.

IF Sunday's two All-Ireland Football quarter-finals didn't quite have the drama of the previous day, they were really interesting in their own right.

For one thing, both provincial champions again lost. And, in the case of the first game involving Kildare and Meath, it was yet another cracking encounter with the team coming through qualifiers holding all the answers.

It's hard to believe that Kildare actually conceded 1-22 when losing to Louth in the second round of the Leinster Championship. Since then Kieran McGeeney's team has improved beyond recognition.

They could have let their heads drop but didn't. Manager McGeeney has installed a new belief in the side which quickly sees them deal with any setback.

For instance, they lost a key man in Dermot Early through injury after just four minutes and then fell 1-3 to 0-0 behind. Everything appeared to be in place for Meath.

But somehow Kildare regrouped to score 2-17 to Meath's 0-9 for the remaining 63 minutes. How was it possible? Well, Kildare have shown themselves to be a second half team and they also have a lot of good players.

As for Roscommon, they did as well as could have been expected with Donal Shine again showing his potential to contribute 0-5, before they simply ran out of steam against more experieced and talented opponents.