SFC previews: Final berths up for grabs in Leinster, Connacht and Ulster

16 June 2017

Donegal and Tyrone meet in the Ulster SFC semi-final at St Tiernach's Park on Sunday in a repeat of last year's provincial decider at the Clones venue.

Here are our previews for this weekend’s eight football clashes which will see the 2017 qualifiers getting underway on Saturday.

 

Saturday, June 17th

Leinster SFC semi-final

Meath v Kildare, O'Connor Park, 7pm - Sky Sports

The latest instalment of an ancient rivalry will throw in this Saturday, 20 years on from a famous championship trilogy.

Meath scored their highest ever Leinster total (0-27) last time out against a Louth side who were quietly fancied in many quarters, with their in-form captain Graham Reilly landing 0-7 from play.

The sides last met in the 2014 Leinster semi-final when the Royals won by 2-16 to 0-17 but that will have little bearing on tomorrow’s tie; both sets of supporters will feel their sides are on the rise, and with some justification.

Kildare gained promotion to the top flight with a game to spare but ended the campaign with two losses to Galway, one in the final group game (costing tomorrow’s opponents a shot at promotion themselves) and the other in the decider at Croke Park.

But the Lilywhites showed against Laois last time out that manager Cian O’Neill’s re-fitting of the team is almost complete. The county has won three of the last five Leinster minor titles – no mean feat given the presence of the all-conquering Dubs – and the buzz created under Mick O’Dwyer and, more recently, Kieran McGeeney, will take off again should they slay their neighbours and return to the Leinster final for the first time since 2009.

Should they manage that, the dubious prize of a tilt at Dublin likely awaits but that is for another day – for now, victory over Andy McEntee’s side is all O’Neill and his players will be focusing on.

Kildare won the league clash between the sides by 3-17 to 0-16 in early February, with their ace attacker Niall Kelly bagging 2-2 on that occasion. Meath have improved since though.

The Royals’ score difference was the best in the division, despite shipping that heavy opening day loss in Navan, and they have lost just one match in seven (against Down) since, beating Derry and Galway, drawing with Cork and trouncing Fermanagh and Clare in the league before an eye-catching victory against Louth.

Both sides have momentum and no shortage of firepower and both are desperate to atone for a couple of disappointing seasons. A cracker is promised and, two decades after the three-game saga, stalemate could be the order of the day again.

Verdict: Draw

Leinster SFC quarter-final replay

Westmeath v Offaly, TEG Cusack Park, 2pm

John Heslin’s late free in Tullamore ensured that these two sides would have to meet again for the right to play Dublin in the Leinster semi-finals on June 25th.

The 0-10 each draw will see a first championship replay between the counties in 20 years and spectators at TEG Cusack Park will be hoping for a flurry of more scores this time round, although it should be noted that the last seven championship meetings between the two have only managed to produce four goals.

The Lake County are again fancied to emerge despite escaping with a draw last time out, with Offaly boss Pat Flanagan said to be sweating on the fitness of corner-back Brian Darby and midfielder Eoin Carroll, although both Michael Brazil and Ruairi Allen will be available after both were sent off on second yellow cards the last day.

Flanagan’s opposite number Tom Cribbin said he was relieved for his side to have a second chance after last Sunday’s tie and they should have enough to firmly take it in Saturday’s early throw-in.

The losers will line-up against Cavan at home in Round 1B of the qualifiers next weekend.

Verdict: Westmeath

All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers Round 1A

Waterford v Derry, Fraher Field, 3pm

Will the real Derry please stand up? The Oak Leafers possess undoubted quality but their inability to implement a solid defensive plan (they conceded an average of 0-19 per game en route to relegation from Division 2 of the league) has been their undoing.

Based on pedigree and tradition, the visitors would naturally start as hot favourites here but their qualifier record has been very patchy, winning six back door games from 11 in the last five years.

However, the Deise men haven’t won any matches in the qualifiers at all in that time period and finished seventh in Division 4 of the league. Whatever optimism surrounds them is based on home advantage and, of course, their very spirited showing against Cork last time out.

They scared the life out of the Rebels on that occasion and were unlucky not to get at least a draw out of it but the fact remains that, operating from the Allianz League basement, they haven’t won a match since February 10th when they saw off Wicklow in Dungarvan.

Anything less than an away win would be a massive surprise.

Verdict: Derry

Louth v Longford, Gaelic Grounds, 5pm

This Leinster derby is a tight one to call with their previous meeting in this year’s Allianz League campaign finishing 0-11 to 0-10 in Louth’s favour at the Gaelic Grounds.

Colin Kelly’s men went on to claim promotion from Division 3 while Longford consolidated their status and Saturday’s meeting in Drogheda will mark a first championship collision between the two since the Wee County’s four-point victory over the Midlanders in 2010.

However, this weekend the two counties will be battling to keep their season alive and it’s the home side that are slightly fancied after having already ousted Wicklow from Leinster, before falling apart in the closing quarter against Meath earlier in the month.

Ryan Burns and Eoin O’Connor have been doing most of the damage for Louth this season and they have the potential to cause the visitors plenty of problems on Saturday, with Longford having shipped two goals either side of half-time in their first round defeat to Laois.

Denis Connerton’s men will surely have learned a thing or two since then, but the formbook would suggest the home side advancing in this one.

Verdict: Louth

Wicklow v Laois, Aughrim, 5pm

Laois looked to have put their league woes behind them when they fired in four goals in the space of six minutes (either side of half-time) to send Longford out of the Leinster SFC last month, but things again took a turn for the worst for Peter Creedon’s charges.

Kildare’s 1-21 to 1-7 hammering of the O’Moore men sent them crashing into the qualifiers and they must now travel to Aughrim in a bid for a win sorely required to try and repair some of the damage done this season.

While the visitors should get the job done, Johnny Magee and his players will have their own designs on an upset which would hand the Garden County its first championship win over Laois in 31 years.

A decent performance against Louth in their championship opener this summer will offer plenty of encouragement and in Seanie Furlong the underdogs possess a genuine threat up front.

However, Creedon has plenty of options in attack as well and if Paul and Donie Kingston are in similar form to that of the opening day their team should see out a win comfortably.

Verdict: Laois

Sligo v Antrim, Markievicz Park, 5pm

Sligo have shown enough in the last couple of seasons to suggest they have the bones of a very good side, particularly in attack, but they have yet to develop the consistency needed to take it to the next level.

They should be well warned, though, that Antrim are capable of producing high quality performances on any given day, as they showed when they dumped Laois out of the championship two seasons ago.

The Glensmen performed well for long spells against Donegal last time out and, with CJ McGourty back in the fold, did enough to suggest that they would prove tricky in the back door if they embraced the chance.

The Antrim camp has developed a reputation for sporadic disharmony over recent years but, on that front, no news is good news for Frank Fitzsimons and Gearoid Adams’s men. They beat Sligo in the league by 0-11 to 1-7 at Corrigan Park, with the aforementioned McGourty kicking 0-8, and while they are ceding home advantage this time against opponents who have two games under their belt (against New York and Mayo), the Saffrons get a tentative vote to progress.

Verdict: Antrim

 

Sunday, June 18th

Connacht SFC semi-final

Roscommon v Leitrim, Dr Hyde Park, 3.30pm

Roscommon manager Kevin McStay has made no bones about his side’s aim for this season – they hope to reach the All-Ireland quarter-final and see where it takes them then.

In recent years, the middle eight has been the Rossies’ weak link, with the full-back lines and full-forward lines their stand-out sectors. However, they have lost a number of players of late, including Cathal Cregg and Neil Collins among others, and their progress seems to have stalled.

The Rossies are the last of the 33 contenders to make their bow in this championship and have been out of action for three months since picking up a much-needed boost with their first win of the league in the final round against Cavan at Hyde Park.

The championship draw has been kind, certainly compared to the minefield lying in front of counties in other provinces, and if they click, McStay might just achieve his goal.

First, though, they must see off a Leitrim side who were rocked on the eve of championship by long term injuries to talisman Emlyn Mulligan and his attacking colleague Nevin O’Donnell. Brendan Guckian’s troops were quite impressive when spoiling London’s party at the Ruislip re-opening in their opener, with Ronan Kennedy coming off the bench to blast in two excellent goals.

U21s Ryan O’Rourke and Keith Beirne showed well in attack that day but even more will be needed against a Roscommon side who have beaten Leitrim by an average of eight points over their last six championship meetings.

Verdict: Roscommon

Ulster SFC semi-final

Tyrone v Donegal, Clones, 2pm – RTE

Ulster football followers love to boast about their ultra-competitive provincial race but, if truth be told, there are only three heavyweights in the northern province – and now, with the shadow boxing over, two of them will eventually meet.

When Donegal and Tyrone last met in championship, in last year’s Ulster final, the sides delivered a snoozefest full of lateral passing, with massed defences and ponderous build-up play the order of the day. All that saved it was an iconic point from Peter Harte at the death which helped Tyrone become Ulster champions for the first time in six years and suddenly, after several years of Donegal dominance, the narrative had changed.

Donegal boss Rory Gallagher had a long-term vision in mind from the outset and when the county board backed him for a further three years he called up a wave of reinforcements, drilled in the house style and eager for a taste.

When they fell a dozen points down against Kerry in the league opener, the signs looked ominous but Donegal rallied thereafter and impressed throughout the league, drawing with Dublin and Monaghan, hammering Cavan and easily swatting aside the Red Hands as well.

The kids are alright, it seems, and that’s the most fascinating sub-plot to Sunday. How will the wave of youngsters cope against a seasoned, well-regimented Tyrone side? We won’t know until we know.

Mickey Harte has constructed a new team and they’re competitive at worst with anyone but there is a nagging suspicion that they lack the stardust up front to conjure magic on the biggest days. Someone like Darren McCurry or Mark Bradley will need a huge game if they are to see off a Tir Chonaill side that now has pace in abundance.

Verdict: Donegal