Gaelic football quarter final previews: Mayo v Donegal & Monaghan v Tyrone

Aidan O'Shea on the run when the sides met in 2013
Aidan O'Shea on the run when the sides met in 2013

We are still waiting for the 2015 Gaelic football championship to catch fire.

True, Westmeath's win over Meath was exciting and there were some close games in Ulster and in the Munster final but we have yet to see two genuine heavyweights face off.

That all changes on Saturday.

Two of the 'Big Four' (Mayo and Donegal) face each other while a team who are surely the fifth best in the country (Monaghan) face the most serious Tyrone team since 2008.

We can't wait.

Monaghan v Tyrone, Croke Park, 4.0 Live on Sky, Saturday, August 8.

Humphrey’s Bogart’s famous line from Casablanca ‘of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine’ springs to mind when looking ahead to this match.

Tyrone is the one team Monaghan did not want to face at this stage of the All-Ireland series. Historically they are Monaghan’s bogey side, particularly so during the Mickey Harte era.

Tyrone has specialised in deflating the Farney County’s ambitions since the turn of the century - this is the seventh’s time that Harte had led Tyrone into a championship clash with Monaghan and he has lost just once.

Three of those clashes have been in high profile contests. Tyrone beat Monaghan in the 2007 and 2010 Ulster final and again, most controversially, in the 2013 All-Ireland quarter final –best remembered for Sean Cavanagh’s cynical pull down on Conor McManus (below).

Significantly Monaghan did beat Tyrone in last year’s Ulster championship and comfortably accounted for them in Omagh in their last competitive meeting in the first round of the League last January. So perhaps the Farney County has finally cast aside their psychological hang-up about Tyrone.

Malachy O’Rourke’s charges are on the cusp of their most significant achievement since they introduction of the back door system in football in 2001. They last contested an All-Ireland semi-final in 1988.

Even though they bowed out to Dublin at this stage of last year’s semi-final they did break new territory by defeat Kildare after extra time in the final round of the qualifiers: it was their first championship win in Croke Park since beating Kildare in the 1930 All-Ireland semi-final.

Depending on how the two quarter finals involving Tyrone and Donegal pan out there it could be argued that it has benefitted Mickey Harte’s side to lose to Donegal in the preliminary round of the Ulster series.

It enabled them to regroup and rebuild momentum against weaker sides. After comfortable wins over Limerick, Meath, Tipperary and Sligo they have got their mojo back. Monaghan though are the most accomplished side they have faced since they lost to Donegal last May.

Meanwhile, Donegal expended huge energy during the remainder of the Ulster series and still failed to win it and now face a potentially far more difficult quarter final assignment than Tyrone!

Mickey Harte has constructed the most intricate defensive system seen in this year’s championship. Monaghan’s key forward Conor McManus can expect to be double or triple marked as Tyrone deploy a minimum of two sweepers while midfielder Colm Cavanagh sprints back into defence every time the opposition attacks.

Monaghan’s defensive formation, which is based around Malachy O’Rourke’s ability to get his match-ups spot on, has also proved its worth this summer – they haven’t conceded a goal so far in the championship. Tyrone will press up on Monaghan kick-outs so Rory Beggan’s ability to find his colleagues with his restarts will be crucial.

This will be a tactical, low scoring encounter – Monaghan has only scored one goal in the championship so far.

With the exception of the Ulster final where they failed to score in the last quarter, Monaghan’s ability to up the ante at the business end of the game with the introduction of experienced players such as Dick Clerkin and the influence Dessie Mone and Karl O’Connell – who has been the find of the season for Monaghan – being game changers.

Tyrone has potential match winners in Sean Cavanagh, Mattie Donnelly, Peter Harte and Darren McCurry while the return of Cathal McCarron strengthens their defence.

They won’t fear Monaghan in the slightest. But the newly crowned Ulster champions ought to be street wise enough to eliminate their Ulster rivals.

Verdict: Monaghan.

Donegal v Mayo, Croke Park, 6.0. Live on Sky, Saturday, August 8

Before we get too carried away about the prospect of this being the game of the season we ought to remember that in their last championship clash in the 2013 All-Ireland quarter final Mayo (main pic) won by 16 points!

Mayo are bidding for their fifth consecutive win at the quarter final stage of the championship but Donegal’s 2013 collapse is the only quarter final defeat they have endured since 2011.

At face value this is a defining game, not just in the 2015 All-Ireland series but in the life span of these two teams.

Mayo, in particular, cannot afford to lose. Having contested back-to-back All-Ireland finals in 2012 and 2013, their trajectory dipped last summer after their controversial loss to Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final replay.

An exit at the quarter final stage would raise more doubts about whether this group of players will ever deliver the Sam Maguire. At least Donegal have experienced the joy of winning an All-Ireland but a quarter final exit after last year’s All-Ireland final defeat would rekindle the debate about the future of the team.

Against that, this pair - together with Dublin and Kerry - looked to be so far ahead of the chasing posse with the possible exception of Monaghan that it might be premature to write off the team that loses.

Many theories have been proffered to explain why this Mayo team hasn’t won an All-Ireland title. Everything from so-called curses to bad refereeing has been offered as excuses. The reality is far more basic, though more painful for Mayo fans to accept.

Mayo hasn’t won an All-Ireland title due to their inability to prevent the opposition from scoring goals – many of them decidedly soft – in the key matches. In their two All-Ireland final appearances against Donegal and Dublin respectively Mayo conceded four goals while Kerry put three past them in last year’s semi-final replay.

Aidan O’Shea’s move to the edge of the square gives the Mayo attack a new focus and his dual with Neil McGee (above) – who so far is struggling to reproduce his best from – will be significant. But it’s what happens at the other end of the field which will probably decide the outcome.

Kevin Keane was ruthlessly exposed by Michael Murphy in 2012; Ger Cafferkey fared better against him in 2013 but suffered a meltdown against Kieran Donaghy in last year’s semi-final.

Donal Vaughan is listed to play at full back but certainly won’t play there so Tom Cunniffe may fill the pivotal position. Of course, there is no guarantee that Murphy will be deployed at full forward – at least for the entire game.

Donegal have stubbornly refused to post their most lethal weapon where he is likely to inflict most damage on the opposition. Still, after his performance against Galway in the final quarter last Saturday night, Rory Gallagher will surely be tempted do what his predecessor Jim McGuinness did in the 2012 final and isolate Murphy up front in the early stages and attempt to kill off Mayo in the first quarter.

Apart from their travails at full back it is Mayo’s stubborn refusal to deploy a sweeper which has exposed their defence in the really big games. Ironically, during James Horan’s first season Kevin McLoughlin was used as a sweeper. But possibly due to the influence of coach Donie Buckley they now trust the defenders to do their job without any outside help.

In the final quarter against Galway Donegal’s appeared to have got their mojo back. Colm McFadden is reborn while Odran MacNiallias gave a Man of the Match performance in the middle third. But their defence is creaking badly and it remains to be seen whether Karl Lacey and Eamon McGee will be match fit.

There is at least a suspicion that last weekend’s performance was the final sting from a dying wasp. Even though Mayo go in undercooked, they won’t lack motivation and O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor can shred the Donegal defence in what is likely to be a high-scoring encounter.

Verdict: Mayo.