Underachievers struggle to generate a rising in the east
Colm O'Rourke says the challengers to Dublin's Leinster SFC crown have a lot of catching up to do
Published 18/05/2008 | 05:00
T he sun is out, the grass is greener and Croke Park is open: it's showtime. The Leinster Championship is back in town.
Not that it will set pulses racing or anything like that as the last few years have been quite uncompetitive. It is a case of Dublin well out in front, a couple more struggling manfully in their slipstream and the rest nowhere.
In fairness, it was not much different when I was playing. In those days, it was a case of getting the early rounds over with and preparing for a war with Dublin in the Leinster final. For nearly 30 years -- from the 1960s to the '90s -- there were three teams in Leinster, Dublin, Meath and Offaly with Longford picking up one title in 1968 and Kildare showing briefly along the way. Now it is a case of one side in Leinster -- Dublin -- and with them unable to make the breakthrough and win the All-Ireland over the last few years, it just shows how far behind the rest are.
Today there are four counties travelling to Croke Park who, for one Sunday morning, can dream of being champions. It is only a dream for most and by evening time reality will have dawned -- if you pardon the contradiction.
Kildare and Meath have aspirations of making the final, though recent form may suggest otherwise, while Carlow are as dangerous as a beached whale. A few years ago they seemed as if they were steering a proper course but it appears from the outside that they are now like a team of horses pulling a plough all wanting to go in opposite directions. With limited resources at the best of times, they need to be more that the sum of their parts, not a lot less.
In the 1990s, Carlow club football was strong and there were plenty of players who would get on any team. Now, though, they have become easy meat for everyone and it is not pleasant to see them reduced to a very minor walk-on act in the big show of the year. Carlow need help. I don't know what the answer is, but a hiding every year in the championship does nothing to promote football in the county. However, it is certainly time for counties like Carlow and about ten others to have a summer league / championship where they won't get bad beatings and have the benefit of playing football in good weather.
Meath, as always, start the year feeling that they have the talent, tradition and will-to-win to trouble everyone. It happened last year for a long time until Cork taught them the time of day. Cork played above themselves on the day and then a lot worse than their true form in the final. Nevertheless, they are still a more developed side than Meath, even if Meath probably believed their own publicity a bit too much.
At present, Meath could hardly be described as being in rude health. With eight players suspended from the great bunfight in Parnell Park and another few suffering the modern scourge of hamstrings and groins, the Royals go into battle without any sign of the fifth cavalry on the horizon. They will hardly be needed, but the five who got two months will be missed on another day.
Having their suspensions confirmed during the week was hardly a surprise, but an outsider hearing of 16 players being in the dock would probably be worried that the Mater Hospital had to look for emergency supplies of blood to cope with the riot. I thought that the blatant unfairness of suspensions to some players on both sides was what should have been appealed -- but that is water under the bridge.
What the Meath management will hope today is that enough second-string players put on displays which makes team selection for the future more than just an exercise in returning to the old hands, as Meath need an injection of four or five players to be a top-six team. Meath to win despite their difficulties.
The match between Kildare and Wicklow looks much more competitive. Kildare are in many ways a sleeping giant of football: they have a big population, very good clubs and a huge interest in the game. Yet they have underachieved when you consider the resources available; they really should be serious contenders in Leinster every year. The management contest today is just as interesting as the battle on the field. It is the latest versus the greatest. Kieran McGeeney versus Mick O'Dwyer. The old man won't go out on a high with an All-Ireland, but the enthusiasm remains. Improvements in Wicklow have been slow, however, and there was disappointment that the league did not go better.
Yet his position is not questioned, unlike McGeeney, who will only have a few years at most to prove his worth. It is the modern fad where instant success is demanded without taking into account anything like talent or commitment, never mind the structure at county board level.
Today McGeeney goes for a very rapid change in personnel and stamps his mark on the team. He has been fortunate in that the U21 side has produced some good prospects for the future and I was particularly impressed with Gary White, a grandson of the famous Boiler, and Alan Smith. Yet John Doyle -- a great player by any standards -- still carries the flag up front. Kildare have only one match-winner where Kerry have four or five or maybe six. Wicklow don't have too many All Stars either but Leighton Glynn, Paul Earls and Carlow recruit Tommy Walsh are no slouches.
Wicklow have never won a championship match in Croke Park, either old or new, and of course there will be speculation about the future of Mick O'Dwyer if the tide does not turn in his favour. However, fishing and walking the dog are still some time away. Anyone who thinks that this Wicklow side will roll over and allow Kildare an afternoon's target practice would be entirely wrong. This may turn out to be a real dogfight, but if Kildare can drag themselves over the line they will improve greatly for the experience.