independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Hope may spring eternal, but the list of also-rans is growing

James Horan has one last shot at getting more out of himself and some of his troops

Like most things in life, the quality and outcome of the 2013 football season depends on your personal perspective. Very good for some, awful for others.

If you are from Dublin then everything in the garden is rosy. The Dubs were involved in the best game I have seen -- against Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final -- and if the final was no classic then so what? Ask any of the Kerry players and they will say they did not see much value in being involved in a brilliant match. Players want to win, the quality is irrelevant.

Cork's hurlers would have the same view. But the winners take the spoils and write the history. So it appeared like a great year. If Kerry and Kilkenny were the winners in a similar season, the shine would not be so bright.

Anyway, like a duck, there was a lot going on beneath the surface, which cannot be glossed over by a few good games in summer.

The provincial championships have descended into farce, with the honourable exception of Ulster. Yet some people say the new proposals, where first-round losers get a shot at another title, should not get a trial. What planet are they on? Some of these counties don't have a snowball's chance in hell of winning a provincial title and if they get an extra game in another province then what's the problem? And if a first-round loser in Ulster and Connacht won the Connacht title then it would be fantastic.

All that would show is that the Connacht championship, like both Leinster and Munster, is uncompetitive. What do hammerings from Kerry, Dublin and Mayo do for football? How do they make for a great year? These get airbrushed out when we hear that last year was a brilliant one for football. Include me out of the group who are doing the sweeping under the carpet. The number of teams who have a realistic chance of winning the All-Ireland is shrinking and club players are now complete cannon fodder for the great god of county football.

Dublin start this year in pole position on the grid and a good bit in front of everyone, even if they only crawled across the line in September. They are the best team, have the best panel and some of the best young talent waiting in the wings. It looks like they have the foundation to be around with most of this team for quite a while.

To the neutral viewer, they were also very easy on the eye and turned back the clock a bit in terms of their style. Most neutrals were happy to see two teams in the final whose fundamental philosophies of football were based more on attack than some sort of computerised defensive system.

In many ways the art of defence has been demonised in recent years. It is harder to get young lads to volunteer to play there. Getting a hand in or pushing a forward away from goal has little appeal. It doesn't get the same reaction as scoring a great point or sticking one in the net. Defence now is three men on one and traditional man-on-man combat is scarce.

Dublin had the speed to both attack and defend in numbers without it appearing suffocating. Paul Flynn did a lot of work in his own half of the field as a half-forward, but still scored some mighty points. So Dublin had a much more fluid system than most counties but they had the players with the speed and fitness to implement it.

What also appealed to me about Dublin winning was the humility of their players and especially their management team. Jim Gavin never attempted at any stage to make out that he had suddenly invented a new way to play the game. Quiet, modest and serious, he came across as a man manager who put the building bricks in place so players could get the best out of themselves. He was the manager of the year. He has set himself a fair act to follow.

It is common practice to pander to the also-rans by saying there is a pack snapping at the Dubs' heels. That is not the case. There are a few who, on a good day, can topple a champion, but winning an All-Ireland is about producing three or four performances. It does not sound like much but after the skirmishes in the provinces the big games come at quarter-final stage. Then the weak and vulnerable are found out.

That may seem a bit hard on Mayo. They are always able to beat most of the good sides every year, but never them all. The final was characterised by simple mistakes when Dublin did not play well. Yet the bitter reality was that they were not good enough. There is no hiding from that. The debate about taking a long time with frees in the last few minutes is a smokescreen in many ways. Dublin should have won easier.

The road back, though, is not so long. Connacht is hardly a minefield and so Mayo should be planning for August, but they cannot hope to repeat the same silly errors and expect a different outcome. They are a bit like Denis the Menace saying that if Cowboy Joe had a motorbike he would cut the bad guys off at the pass. There is no 'if' in football and you can only work with what you have.

James Horan has one last shot at getting more out of himself and some of his troops. Every last detail has to be better: selection, substitutions and demands on playing personnel if they are to be winners. Otherwise he and Mayo will resemble Sisyphus who the gods decreed should ceaselessly roll a rock up a mountain only for it to roll back down again. They thought, with good reason, that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour. Anyone who has been involved with a club all their lives who have never won anything could also identify with Sisyphus.

After those two teams it is a case of form an disorderly queue. Things are changing. Kerry look mortally wounded by losing so many great players over the last few years, while all of Cork seems to have decided to leave at once. The rest dream on but as Kipling said, "If you can dream and not make dreams your master". Hard not to as a player as the posse try to catch up. The leading chasers are Kerry and Tyrone, even if Kerry could be looking at a lean spell. It is a time for new teams; Donegal may change the system but are short of class players. Maybe a year for Kildare, Armagh, Derry, Monaghan, even Meath. The race is on already in nice gyms and muddy fields in every county. Hope springs eternal.

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