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Friday 19 July 2019

The pressure of five-in-a-row is crippling everyone bar the cruising holders in blue

PLAN A: Tyrone’s Mickey Harte struggled to get past Donegal’s tactics. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
PLAN A: Tyrone’s Mickey Harte struggled to get past Donegal’s tactics. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

With the football championship approaching its midpoint, one thing is now clear.

The overbearing weight of expectation that is five-in-a-row is having a crippling effect . . . not on Dublin, but on most of the likely pretenders meant to be leading the peloton in pursuit of our runaway leader.

Recent weeks have seen the provincial demise of Monaghan, Mayo, Tyrone and Galway. Surprises like these happen, albeit rarely at this rate of attrition.

But that's not the only reason to now question their capacity for All-Ireland resurrection. All four have produced a level of performance that, frankly, wouldn't keep the ball kicked out to Dublin.

And, all the while, our history-chasing holders march serenely on through the killing fields of Leinster. Louth and Kildare were dispatched with minimal fuss by a margin of 41 points; most observers reckon it will be a minor miracle if Meath can keep them to single digits in Sunday's provincial final.

MISSING MAYO STAR: Matthew Ruane. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
MISSING MAYO STAR: Matthew Ruane. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

In truth, the challenge to Dublin was never going to materialise in May or June. And maybe not even in the 'Super 8s', where one flat performance would not prove fatal. But now you must wonder who will even be standing at the last eight.

Tyrone, Monaghan and Galway, all semi-finalists last year, have crash landed.

Monaghan's form has seriously regressed from the inaugural Super 8s and even from their thrilling league opener against Dublin. Even if they survive a gruelling back door detour that gets tougher each week (Armagh up next) you would have to question their ultimate prospects.

Soul searching

Yet, for Tyrone and Galway, the soul-searching post-mortems and tactical rethinks loom even larger. Both teams were a mess over the past two weekends.

Mickey Harte's new 'Plan A' of kick-passing to Cathal McShane and Mattie Donnelly inside was dismantled by Donegal, who then set about exposing the unguarded underbelly of his central defensive corridor.

Galway, when it mattered on Sunday, were even worse. For all their latent attacking potential, they resemble a team trapped in a tactical straitjacket, incapable of changing gears when faced by opponents who hit them with some old-fashioned championship 'madness'.

Even as they cruised past a limited Sligo last month, there was no hint that Galway had moved on from last year. Going for the jugular is just not their way; not when it's far safer to recycle sideways and backwards.

But their implosion against a resurgent Roscommon wasn't all down to strategic dogma either. Perhaps the biggest worry is that they were so passive, so devoid of energy to match the frenzy of opponents refusing to take a backward step.

This has happened twice now in Pearse Stadium. For the Rossies on Sunday read the Farney Army last August.

Mayo's earlier Connacht exit - to everyone's new favourite underdog - was different to Galway's and yet quintessentially Mayo. A game they should have won, squandered on the twin altars of defensive hara-kiri and epic squandermania.

For all their familiar failings, Mayo have been the team previously best equipped to go toe-to-toe with the Dubs - and a team supposedly reborn based on the evidence of spring.

Yet here they are, for the fourth year running, facing that familiar scenic odyssey of discovery - or destruction. And without Matthew Ruane, their standout league discovery, who broke his collarbone on Friday night.

Mayo's massed ranks will point the sat-navs for Newry on Saturday, knowing that anything might happen because, well, it usually does.

Of all the putative challengers, only Donegal have played with the tactical smarts, collective will and individual brilliance to suggest they might have a chance against the Dubs.

Peerless

Looking at Eoghan Bán Gallagher, Ryan McHugh, a fit-again Paddy McBrearty and the peerless Michael Murphy against Tyrone, you were struck that they'd walk onto any county team - maybe even Dublin's.

Moreover, Donegal's depth of talent doesn't remotely end with that quartet. Don't forget, either, that they're the only county to outfox Jim Gavin in summer combat. They won't lack for belief, we suspect . . .

And Kerry? The jury is still squabbling pending more concrete evidence that goes beyond one bravura February display against under-cooked Dubs. Maybe we'll know a bit more after Saturday's Munster final against Cork; or maybe not.

What's beyond dispute is that we're still awaiting that statement performance to suggest Kerry will be ready in 2019. It wasn't there in the league final against Mayo - or against Clare, who were buried in an avalanche of points 12 months ago but refused to bend the knee at the start of this month.

Bookies' odds aren't always the best arbiter but it's instructive to note how the market leaders have altered. Since pre-championship, Dublin have shortened from 8/11 to 1/2 and Donegal from 22/1 to 10/1.

The rest have lengthened - marginally in Kerry's 5/1 case, more radically with Mayo (now 12/1), Tyrone (20/1), Galway (25/1) and Monaghan (66/1).

The pressure of five-in-a-row? It's a killer.

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