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Joe Kernan: There's now so little between the top teams

There is one constant thread that has ran through the entire All Ireland Football Championship series to date and this is that no team has proven a dominant force for the duration of a game.

I have always been of the belief, both as a player and a manager, that exerting absolute authority in a game is very much the exception rather than the rule in a Championship context and particularly so now that even what are regarded as the weaker teams are much more defence-conscious.

This week there have been assertions on all fronts that Kerry and Tyrone are ‘gone’ — and not just out of the Championship, let it be said — while at the same time it is being suggested that Roscommon flattered to deceive in winning the Connacht title and Meath punched above their weight in claiming the Leinster crown.

But this, to my mind, is over-simplifying things. When you consider that Kerry had a goal disallowed at a crucial stage in their game against Down which would undoubtedly have sustained their vibrant recovery and that Tyrone shot 17 wides against Dublin — something they would not normally do over the course of even two games — it can be clearly seen that there is really only a thin line dividing success and failure.

Similarly, Roscommon were very much in touch against Cork at the half-way stage only to falter over the final quarter when the Leesiders’ experience and forward power proved decisive.

And when Meath went 1-3 to 0-0 up within the opening 10 minutes against Kildare there were fears that Kieran McGeeney’s side might be on the receiving end of a backlash from the Royals in the wake of the criticism they had shipped after that now infamous Leinster final win.

But when Kildare slipped into their stride and James Kavanagh scored what has to be one of the goals of the season they were able to eventually take control.

Yet, despite last weekend’s results, it has become abundantly clear that there is now very little between the top six or eight teams in the country.

Before a ball was kicked in the Championship this year the world and his wife were predicting that Kerry, Cork and Tyrone would be involved when the destination of ‘Sam’ was being decided.

To be fair, Kerry won the Munster title and Tyrone landed the Ulster crown. But if they won their respective domestic battles, then they lost out in the bigger wars.

And even though they have not looked particularly convincing with several of their players still performing at something below-par, Cork are still very much in the frame for what would be their first All Ireland title in 20 years.

They must now face a Dublin side in the semi-finals that were deadlocked at 0-13 each with Tyrone on Saturday with only seven minutes of normal time left for play. Does that suggest a Tyrone side that is ‘gone’? I don’t think so. But Eoghan |O’Gara’s goal transformed the course of the contest and the Dubs emerged as victors.

The pattern of recent matches suggests that the All Ireland semi-finals will be particularly close affairs.

Prior to last weekend most of the pundits, myself included, thought that the experience and staying power of both Tyrone and Kerry would have helped to carry them into the All Ireland semi-finals yet again.

But it was not to be. Instead, Dublin and Down emerged strongly to enhance their claims to succeed the Kingdom as All Ireland champions. Both teams have certainly learned how to lose matches so they will surely now enjoy the warm glow that victory brings.

They may have dominated the Leinster Championship up until this year but the Dubs have not had ‘Sam’ in their possession since 1995 while Down must go back to 1994 for their last All Ireland title and indeed their last Ulster title coup.

No wonder the long-suffering Mourne County fans are already hailing James McCartan as a messiah. Even should Down lose to Kildare in their semi-final, the fact that they have got this far as well as having attained promotion to Division One will be regarded as a substantial achievement.

Kildare have been in the All Ireland quarter-finals in each of the past two years and now that they are through to the last four they have shown that they have the attitude, commitment and skill to go even further.

But Kieran McGeeney, who was my All Ireland winning captain with Armagh in 2002, has been round too many corners to be thinking about the final.

The semi-final will be his total preoccupation and if Dermot Earley is declared fit following the leg injury he sustained in the third minute against Meath then the Lily Whites’ chances of landing the All Ireland will be enhanced.

Belfast Telegraph