Colm O'Rourke: Catching the spring tide
For Mickey Harte, Joe Kernan and Pat Gilroy, the pressure begins early this year, writes Colm O'Rourke
T he league takes off this weekend like a runaway train with action on all fronts. In terms of maximising attendances, the idea of staging most of the matches today is hardly enlightened.
The players, publicans and nightclubs in Derry, Portlaoise and Navan were all happy to have their games last night but, as I wrote last week, attendances on Sundays at this time of year are not nearly what can be mustered for a midweek game. With a couple of matches on tv this afternoon, it might be very appealing to many to just sit at home and watch football, racing and soccer.
This year offered an opportunity for the GAA to experiment, an opportunity that has been lost. Counties close to each other could have started last Thursday or Friday night. For example, Roscommon and Cavan would have attracted a very decent crowd on Thursday. It will be much smaller today with all the counter-attractions -- racing in Leopardstown and Arsenal v Chelsea being just two of them, while Dublin and Kerry on telly will keep many at home.
If the Dubs could have travelled south on Friday, on the promise of safe passage from the natives of course, it would have made for a great atmosphere in Tralee. It would be great for the Dubs to spend a couple of days in the Kingdom. You can learn a lot about pride of place from just being around people. Anyway, football should be about other things apart from just the game itself.
So time for change, yet in the midst of economic carnage it is nice to see a company like Allianz sticking with the league through thick and thin. No fly-by-nights there. While sponsorship is wiped out in many places, Allianz have remained extremely loyal.
For all counties this weekend hope springs eternal and players will launch themselves into this campaign with dreams of glory. With a winner in each division, most have realistic hopes of being in the shake-up in their group. The most satisfied bunch of players this weekend are probably Kilkenny; they have a bye today and so will be one of the unbeaten sides for at least another week.
And today will be the first chance for many spectators to see the new rules in action. It won't take more than about ten minutes for many to make up their minds either and 'that crowd in Croke Park' will get plenty of abuse. Most will take the Mickey Harte view that there is nothing wrong with the game, which of course there isn't if you don't mind very little clean catching, an orgy of handpasses which are mainly throws and few attempts at kicking the ball. These changes could make for minor improvement so I am willing to wait and give them a chance.
The punch pass will cause most annoyance and I have a certain sympathy for players who are presently involved in the Sigerson Cup and who have to play two games under different rules within a few days. Good players adapt but you can be sure that the punch pass will not win many admirers as most punters will decide quickly that it only slows the game up. At this stage, I am starting a campaign to slow the game down. Who ever said faster was better?
Already, casualties of the new fad for speed include the fat corner-back, the donkey at midfield and the dog lazy corner-forward. Soon every player will have to conform to a specific genetic type where you take a sample at birth and decide whether he should even bother togging out.
Some need a good league more than others. Strangely enough, one such team is Tyrone. Mickey Harte faces a Tony Soprano-like dilemma. He has to decide soon to jettison some of his greatest heroes in favour of new blood. Loyalty is the supreme trait but there comes a time when ruthlessness must take over. There is some dirty business to be carried out and it looks like the old warriors won't make it easy. They want to play but while Harte was able to bounce back before with more or less the same team, it is not going to happen this time unless he lets some of the young guard off the leash.
Cork won division two last year and will probably win the main event this time round. They have a lot of demons to exorcise and a good run over the next two months is the best way to do it.
The same can be said of Dublin. The trouble for Pat Gilroy is that he might have looked at 100 new players over the last few months, but could end up with more or less the same team in summer. That is the groundhog day scenario which has been happening for several years now, history just repeating itself.
There will be a right old scrap for points in the second division too as there are plenty of good teams with ambition there. Yet for teams like Meath and Kildare, the only place for them at this stage is to be in division one with all the top teams. Progress means being able to take on all the best teams in spring and summer and the All-Ireland winners are going to come from the top division -- it is always the way.
For many new managers, the league is a chance to build a team without any real pressure -- most will set out with a target of six or seven points and that should be about enough to stay up, with anything else a bonus. For Joe Kernan though, there is only winning; his long-term building is for June, he has no interest in a three-year plan.
In the third and fourth divisions, a good league campaign is almost a necessity for a good championship, even if Wicklow bucked the trend last year. Because when all is said and done the finalists of the first and second divisions are those most likely to be in the shake-up for the All-Ireland. It was just the same when I was playing too.
The only ones who won't worry too much about the league are Kerry. Some of their players have more important things to do this weekend, like attending the Super Bowl. Others had to take in the coursing in Clonmel, but the diversions of February won't last too long there either. Most of the team would be afraid to stay away too long as their place might be gone when they come back. It is without doubt the best position for a manager to be in.
Let the games begin.