Yesterday evening's draw for the All-Ireland football quarter-finals threw out a few interesting matches. I don't know what it is with these draws but, up until now, they have had a habit of producing all the wrong kinds of pairings so, on that basis, yesterday evening I was fully expecting to see the likes of Tyrone v Derry and Dublin v Meath. Thankfully, it didn't happen: instead we got four cross-provincial matches, with two Ulster/Leinster clashes (Tyrone v Meath and Derry v Dublin), an Ulster/Munster pairing (Monaghan v Kerry) and a Connacht/Munster one (Sligo v Cork).
That last one is likely to be the curtain-raiser in next Saturday's double-header at Croker, where Tyrone and Meath are also on the bill. De Dubs get their own day out for the match with Derry the following Saturday, which means that Kerry and Monaghan will get the chance to fill Croker on their own the day after. Well, the Monaghan crowd will, along with the fifty or so punters that'll show up from the Kingdom.
It's an intriguing quarter-final draw. The strength of the four teams coming through the qualifiers, and the way they've been paired, means that all four provincial champions are vulnerable. It's unlikely that they'll all lose but I'd be surprised if at least two of them don't come crashing down.
Sligo are, obviously, the most likely lads to lose. Beating Galway was, as the cliché goes, their All-Ireland and the month they've had to savour that historic win won't have done anything to aid their preparations for next Saturday at Croke Park. Sligo have beaten New York, Roscommon and Galway this Summer but Cork will be a big step up for them and, much as I'd like to see them do it, it's difficult to go for anything but a decisive Cork win in this one. Since the new structure was introduced in 2001, Mayo are the only Connacht champions to have progressed past the quarter-finals (Galway's All-Ireland win in '01 was, of course, via the back door) and I don't expect to see Sligo altering that record.
Tyrone and Meath should be a fascinating encounter and it is, arguably, the tie of the round. Tyrone seem to be building a head of steam again and, if the likes of Stephen O'Neill and Brian Dooher are available, you'd have to fancy them as genuine All-Ireland contenders. However, Meath will will really put it up to them and will, after their qualifier travels, relish being back again playing in front of what's likely to be a full house at Croker. Meath are a better side now than they were when they faced the Dubs back in June and, while they're probably a bit too raw to go all the way this year, if they get a good start on Saturday Tyrone could have their work cut out to get past them.
Derry will also put it up to the Dubs the following weekend, as the counties face off in the championship for the first time since the All-Ireland semi-final back in 1994 when the Oak Leaf lads won by a point on their way to their first All-Ireland title. The hype machine will make de Dubs huge favourites to win but Derry will present them with tougher opposition than anything they've faced to date and previous years have shown that the first half-decent side to get their hands on the Dubs (that was us last year) has a great chance of beating them. That said, the Dubs have had the benefit this year of two hard games against Meath and they do look a better side than twelve months ago. They'll need to be at the top of their game, with Derry - following wins over Armagh, ourselves and Laois - now on a roll and all de pressure and de media attention on de Dubs. It all might prove too much for them, the poor dears.
Monaghan are on something of a roll too and, while there's never really a good time to face Kerry, a quarter-final meeting is probably as good a time as any. The Farneymen have made great strides this year and their demolition of Derry in the Ulster semi-final now looks even more impressive, given the latter's good form since then in the qualifiers. Monaghan almost caught Tyrone in the Ulster final and then walloped the bejaysus out of Donegal on Saturday night (League, howarya? None of the four NFL semi-finalists, ourselves included, made it into the hat for the All-Ireland quarter-finals, which has to be a record of some sorts) so they'll come to Croker with their confidence high and their recent form impressive. Kerry, meanwhile, have been indolent since their fortunate Munster final win over Cork but, Kerry being Kerry, you can expect the cute hoors to move up a gear or two when they get to Croker. Kerry should prevail in this first championship meeting between the counties since 1985 (when it took two matches to separate them, in the same year that we also took the Dubs to a replay) but, before they do, they'll know they've been in a contest.
Semi-final lineup? Cork v Meath and Derry v Kerry. You heard it here first!