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Joe Kernan: Expect both Ulster sides to reach last four

The All Ireland Football Championship can often be fraught with uncertainty, tarnished by controversy and burdened with impossibly high expectations.

Yet there is one constant underlying theme which prevails year on year and this is that the majority of those sides which make it into the last eight will generally have shown a marked improvement in each game they have played up to this juncture.

It is certainly no different this year and I for one am particularly delighted that two Ulster counties are now in with a very real chance of making it into the last four.

If Munster kingpins and current All Ireland champions Kerry form a gigantic barrier to Down’s further progress, then a reinvigorated Dublin will fancy their chances of ending their recent dismal sequence of Championship results against Ulster champions Tyrone.

But it’s not just these four teams who have acquired a more pronounced spring in their step as the Championship has unfurled.

Surprise packet Roscommon have shown what faith, pride and a frenetic work-rate can achieve while Kildare, under the canny management of Kieran McGeeney, have laid down a marker that they will be formidable foes from here on in.

And Meath, left red-faced rather than flushed with success after the forgettable Leinster final debacle, feel they have a big point to make in the wake of that ignominious controversy.

The only team against which a question mark hovers is, strangely enough, Cork who, having been firmly labelled as champions-in-waiting almost since the start of the year, now find themselves venturing forth into quarter-final action this weekend having survived by the skin of their teeth against a gallant Limerick outfit in a tough, tense qualifier.

Cork’s status, seemingly impregnable earlier on, is already under serious threat although the fact that they have drawn the perceived ‘soft’ option of Roscommon in Sunday’s third quarter-final perhaps renders their anticipated renaissance a more straightforward exercise.

There is nothing, of course, straightforward about Saturday’s two compelling contests. While Kerry v Down carries a certain gloss, Dublin v Tyrone will be right at the cutting edge of Championship fare.

You could hardly ask for two more alluring ties at this stage of the season, the current Ulster heavyweights getting the chance to flex their muscles against two sides that are invariably among the short-odds candidates to lift the ‘big one’.

The fact that Kerry will now be missing those two renowned dogs of war Tómas O Sé and Paul Galvin because of suspension, as well as the already absent Tommy Walsh, Tadgh Kennelly, Diarmuid Murphy, Dara O Sé and Mike McCarthy, will provide Down with an extra spur to offer an optimum performance especially now that Martin Clarke, Daniel Hughes and Dan Gordon are scaling new heights.

The grapevine would suggest that Rules aces Walsh and Kennelly might be parachuted in from Australia should Kerry advance beyond Saturday — but that could be a story for another day although Down obviously hope not!

And if Dublin’s new-found belief has had its origins in clinical rather than spectacular qualifier victories over Tipperary, Armagh and Louth, then the fact that manager Pat Gilroy has suddenly acquired fresh selection options because of the course these particular games have taken will help solidify his side for their joust with a streetwise Tyrone outfit that normally thrives when Croke Park is transformed into a fiery cauldron.

Dublin’s memories of their 2005 (2-18 to 1-14) and 2008 |(3-14 to 1-8) defeats by Mickey Harte’s side at the business end of the Championship are all too vivid to allow the slightest frisson of complacency to invade their mindset for Saturday’s confrontation.

They may have exuded energy, industry and a subtle scoring acumen lately against what was in essence rather moderate opposition but the Dubs must still touch their forelock to Tyrone when it comes to experience, cohesion and sheer physicality.

The general consensus is that Saturday’s twin version of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object is coming at just the right time — two games that the GAA, anxious to confirm what it sees as its ongoing appeal, has already predicted will bring the combined total of football and hurling Championship match attendances to past the one million mark.

But what could prove an even more telling insertion in the record books would be a lavish Ulster double.

Belfast Telegraph