Colm O'Rourke: It's easier for managers to play a patient hand when they've already put their name on the trophy
Good tacticians know the value of allowing players time to develop, writes Colm O'Rourke
It may only be March, but the importance of league form as a pointer to the championship is already evident. The big counties have cleaned their guns and it is no surprise that the teams who look best at this stage are Dublin, Kerry, Tyrone and Mayo.
If you spin the clock forward about five months, it will be quite a shock if at least three of these are not involved in the All- Ireland quarter-finals.
The move of the Allianz League to the calendar year has meant that all the big counties get ready earlier. The cream is already coming to the top. With the exception of Mayo, these counties have been consistently at the business end of things over the last decade.
One of their big advantages is that they can use the league to blood new players while keeping a hard core of experience. No young player can prosper in a team unless there is a leadership structure on and off the field and it probably takes about three years on the panel, getting a bit of game time here and there, before a player is ready to fit into a good team.
Many supporters are unwilling to allow that sort of time so a young player can have his confidence shot through just when he should be really making his mark.
Of course a lot comes down to judgement and good managers get it right most of the time. When Eoghan O'Gara first appeared for Dublin he looked like someone who had deserted from the Russian army, and having watched him play a few times I thought he would be better off taking on one of the Klitschko brothers as he looked cumbersome and lacking in the basic skills. One of his obvious assets from the beginning was that he didn't seem to mind getting battered around and any full-back trying out the hard stuff was likely to come off second best.
When people see him now they wonder where the transformation has come from. He still has the power and pace, but his skills have improved beyond what anyone can have expected. Once, the goals were not half wide enough, a brilliant goal against Tyrone a couple of years ago not withstanding. Now, he is wreaking havoc on teams and is the single most improved player in the country. The game against Laois was not just a one-hit wonder for O'Gara. I saw him in Navan for DCU against Meath, and he was equally outstanding in the Sigerson Cup final.
The economist Keynes said that when he was wrong, he changed his mind and I am certainly doing the same with O'Gara. Maybe Pat Gilroy sent him away to a special training camp in Outer Mongolia to hone his skills, or maybe he just kicked the ball over the bar a thousand times on his own in training. It may not appear scientific enough for some people, but all you need is someone to kick the ball back and skills can be improved in a very simple way.
Obviously, playing with DCU in third-level competition has been no harm at all. Whatever it was has worked and Dublin now have a player who will be more valuable than many of the current forwards because he can win his own ball, score, lay off and batter any back into submission if they want to go that route. Not only that, he will be a real team player. Dublin might be even better this year.
Kerry have added to their armoury too and Barry John Keane has really impressed. Another player who has been around the fringes for a while, he is now making a statement of intent for a starting place in a Kerry forward line which has to have some big-name casualties. Eight or nine men for six places means Kerry training sessions are very competitive and standards are being set early.
Against Dublin and Down, Keane showed off his lovely kicking skills; he is now much stronger and the test for him in the bigger games ahead will be to win his own ball and get the balance right between shooting himself and bringing others into the game.
Another player who has created waves recently has been Peter Harte of Tyrone. Listed as a centre-back, he is scoring goals and his speed in getting from defence to attack is catching everyone out. Having a centre-forward
who doesn't track back is not an option for any team playing Tyrone or Harte will destroy them.
All of these players have benefited from the patience of their managers, though the players themselves probably felt they were ready for a main role long ago. The old Irish proverb says that patience is a virtue and the managers involved staked their judgement on these players making it at some stage down the line.
It doesn't work all the time, but Pat Gilroy, Jack O'Connor and Mickey Harte did not have to worry about being stabbed in the back if they lost a game. It means they could take the long view while many other managers may have patience but cannot afford the luxury of leaving a good player on the bench for a couple of years' apprenticeship.
The three men, backed up by All-Ireland titles, walk a different road. Along the way they probably read St Augustine, who said 'patience is the companion of wisdom'.
Sunday Indo Sport