Championship wait makes playoff vital
FOR what it's worth the Football League is divided into three neat parcels as far as the timing of fixtures go, and on Sunday the counties enter the third phase.
The first two rounds in early February are halted by a three-week break for the Club Championships, the Third-Level competitions and the Interprovincial Championships, all of which greatly hamper the inter-county manager's work with his players. After that three-week break the league resumes with two more matches, before a weekend off, and then the last two rounds on consecutive weekends. That's where we are at now.
At this stage every county team manager has a different agenda. Some have already steered their team into promotion spots and will use the last two games to consolidate the progress and try out a few new players. Others are hovvering desperately close to the relegation trap-door and must call on all their reserves to escape the drop. Most are somewhere in between that, possibly one good result away from a league play-off place or one bad result away from relegation problems.
While Divisions 2, 3 and 4 are a little more clearcut in that the top two teams are promoted and play again for the divisional title, Division 1 is a little less straight-forward in that the top four finishing teams go into semi-finals before the league final is contested. Nevertheless, while there is still so much to play for with all eight teams in the top flight, those managers will now also be starting to think ahead to the Championship and all that entails.
This weekend summer time comes into play, so the evenings are getting brighter for longer and training begins to ratchet up another gear. For four of the Division 1 teams there are only two competitive games left before they are involved in their provincial championship, and in some cases that means a potential non-competitive break of up to 11 weeks in the case of Kerry, Cork and Sligo, none of which are in Championship action until the weekend of June 21/22.
Sligo will have that 11-week break because they won't be reaching the Division 3 final, while Cork won't have quite that long to wait as they will contest the Division 1 semi-finals. Kerry's place in the league play-offs is far from guaranteed so, yes, Eamonn Fitzmaurice's team could have 11 weeks to wait between their final league match against Cork on April 6 and a Munster semi-final on June 22.
That leaves Kerry with potentially just two games for the management to see their players in a competitive light and start to formulate ideas about a Championship starting team. That is hardly ideal.
As it stands now, Kerry's Championship panel is already taking shape. With Killian Young and Kieran Donaghy the last remaining players to come back from long-term injury breaks, it means the management will have seen every player in their squad playing in come capacity since the start of the year. Every player, that is, who will genuinely be considered for a 26-man match day squad.
The exception, of course, is Declan O'Sullivan who is still on an extended break from football and who won't play any part in the next two matches in the league. Whether O'Sullivan is to make a contribution to the team should Kerry reach a semi-final or league final remains to be seen, but one would imagine that the management would be keen for the Dromid man to play some few competitive minutes before an inevitable return for the Championship.
At this stage in his career the management – and, we assume, the player – has decided to manage and limit his workload for the greater good, and should O'Sullivan return with his 'A' game and produce some of his best football for what could be a maximum run of five Championship matches all the way to an All-Ireland title then it will be a great season's work for all involved.
Others, though, surely need to play much more competitive football before the management could be totally confident in their ability to go into an All-Ireland quarter-final or semi-final and hold their own. We are thinking of players such as Paul Murphy, Mark Griffin, Jack Sherwood, Daithi Casey, Paul Geaney, Stephen O'Brien and Conor Cox among others.
As an example, Sherwood's lack of competitive football leading up to his All-Ireland semi-final cameo against Dublin certainly and understandably seemed to come against him, so the management will need to ensure that whatever players are called upon from the All-Ireland quarter-finals (or round 4 qualifier) onwards are game hardened and ready to slot into the team, even as late substitutes.
With that in mind it would seem hugely important that Kerry win their remaining two league matches and earn themselves at least one more match before their long hiatus between league and championship kicks in.
The squad's training camp in Portugal in mid-April will provide a measure of intensive training that will help off-set that gap a little, but the timing of the trip – which is obviously being worked around a bank holiday weekend to faciliate work commitments – will come between a possible league semi-final and final, which wouldn't be altogether ideal.
Still, it should surely suit Kerry, and other counties, to be playing competitive league football towards the end of April, rather than finishing up at the start of the month, when for many teams championship action won't get underway until some time in June.