Rossies supply fresh colour
Eight teams are left in the football hat, but the summer slog has taken its usual toll, writes Dermot Crowe
IT may have escaped wider notice that, two years after his county almost won a first ever Ulster title, Malachy O'Rourke has decided to resign as Fermanagh manager.
A Fermanagh manager hoisted on his own petard is minor news in the heavy traffic of an advancing championship. We prefer to hear about who's doing well for themselves.
Fermanagh were up to recently a fashionable news item but next year their footballers, All-Ireland semi-finalists in 2004, face life in Division 4 of the league. They'll need good care. "I enjoyed every minute of it even though I had bad days," says O'Rourke, himself a former Fermanagh player. "We worked very hard but felt it was time to let someone else with fresh ideas in."
Considering the progress made in his first year, going painfully close to winning an Ulster title, he departs with plenty of regret. Their failure to build on 2008 he would partly attribute to a protracted hangover suffered by the near-miss; they looked poised to make history, only to be denied by Armagh after a replay. Apart from that, they had little luck with injuries and some key players were unavailable; enough to torpedo a small county with limited resources.
But if O'Rourke went out with the minimum of fuss, so did Mick O'Dwyer, a man who arrived in Wicklow in a storm of publicity. Nothing loses news value like a defeated championship team and even the exit of a legendary figure like O'Dwyer had limited priority. With the race for Sam now reduced to four provincial winners and the four final-round qualifiers, the rest, the great majority, are left abandoned. So, managers go quietly; almost all of them ending in failure.
With the obvious exception of Louth, Wicklow had probably the most frustrating championship of all the banished football souls. They passed up a wonderful chance of reaching the provincial semi-final when falling to Westmeath, knowing that Meath and Dublin were on the other side of the draw. Then, inexplicably, they imploded against Cavan who were trailing with 13 men when the comeback started. Last year's qualifier run, and the Leinster win over Kildare the summer before that, are already taking the form of distant recollections.
How will they manage without Micko? Will they revert back to old habits and lose the ground they've gained or can they take on the next difficult climb by themselves? They have an ambitious centre of excellence in the pipeline but the next set of flesh and blood appointments will be crucial and a big responsibility rests on the county administrators to chart their course effectively and make prudent choices. Fermanagh and Wicklow, after all, have a lot in common -- neither has a senior provincial title, the only two counties left bearing that cross.
O'Rourke saw Monaghan at first hand in the Ulster semi-final, where they doled out an emphatic beating to his team, and later he watched them capitulate in the provincial final. Hoping for a first title since 1988, the Farneymen fell well short. "We gave them far too much time and space and maybe they went in without really being tested," he says. "But you would have to admire Tyrone; they looked really good and Tyrone are playing the type of football that is very hard to contain. I know at one stage Sean Cavanagh hit one score off his right hand side and on his left he had two members of the backline up in support. It is very hard to contain that and Tyrone have it off to a tee."
Inexorably, Mickey Harte (pictured right) has steered Tyrone to the quarter-finals, along with the last decade's other masters, Kerry. Meath are there too but with an unfortunate stigma attached. And the fourth presence is an unlikely gatecrasher that goes by the name of Roscommon.
On Wednesday next, while Roscommon players are taking their daily intake of water and counting down the hours to their next visit to Croke Park, Mayo will be in the boardroom drawing up a fresh plan for world domination. The committee men want to carry out a major review and get to the nub of the plague that has caused Mayo endless misery for nigh on 60 years. All this while the Rossies are kings of their province; you would have thought it should be the other way round. Last Sunday, Roscommon won the Connacht title playing an honest and pure brand of football; they had 'one of those days' when they needed it most.
Roscommon's success, even allowing for the imperfections and the generous luck of the draw, is a blast of romance and fresh colour. They've been something of a laughing stock since winning their previous Connacht title in 2001, their bad reputation earned on the back of some lurid stories of late-night derring-do and incredible pranks, while the county board headed for financial rack and ruin.
In 2006, they won the All-Ireland minor title -- they had to defeat Kerry in a replay to achieve it -- and some good lads from that team, including Donie Shine, are now maturing into senior players at the highest level. Eight of those minors finished the game against Sligo. Aside from the positive way they play football, they appear an honest and likeable bunch of lads -- characteristics evident in their manager Fergal O'Donnell and, indeed, Shine, who looks a worthy young ambassador to lead his team into Croke Park. Nude pool already seems so passé.
The quarter-final draw takes place tonight with all of yesterday's winners hoping for the 100/1 outsiders, Roscommon. Even if they take a big beating, they have already achieved more than their wildest dreams would have allowed when leaving Castlebar last year after being humiliated by Mayo, the county that is now grappling with an existentialist crisis. How swiftly fortunes can swing.
Kerry, the champions and favourites to retain their title, will feel at their most vulnerable next weekend, with suspension ruling out Tomás ó Sé and Paul Galvin, two driving forces and salient influences. Their absence, following the retirements of Diarmuid Murphy and Darragh ó Sé, and the departures of Tommy Walsh and Tadhg Kennelly, leaves Kerry a little exposed if the draw is unkind. Pádraig Reidy is expected to miss out due to injury.
They have not had the level of improvement in some of the fringe players they'd have wished for but Kerry remain formidable and their first three forwards, Cooper, O'Sullivan and Donaghy, are as good as has ever played the game. Barry John Keane is pressing for a starting place, having made decisive contributions off the bench. If they get over the quarter-final hurdle, the return of ó Sé and Galvin will offer Kerry a huge impetus within sight of the finishing line.
And then there's Meath. How they will cope with the events of two weeks ago can't be measured with any assurance. Even though they've profited from a siege mentality in the past, this latest GUBU experience might prove too much of a drain. But first, there's the momentary theatre and short-lived suspense of tonight's draw.