Thursday 30 March 2017

The time for talking is over

Eamonn Sweeney

Fifteen questions for championship 2010:

1. Are Cork Dublin or are they Mayo?

One reason for Cork's favouritism is the old cliché that 'you have to lose one to win one'. Think of a previous Rebel side, losers in the 1987 and 1988 finals, coming through at the third attempt in 1989. Or Dublin, whose run in the three campaigns before their 1995 triumph was identical to Cork's heading into this season -- final losers, semi-final losers, final losers again.

There is some evidence that big match experience coupled with the resolve forged by final-stage disappointment can eventually help a team over the last hurdle. Then again, Galway lost the 1971, 1973 and 1974 finals and Mayo the 1996, 1997, 2004 and 2006 finals. If you're not good enough, it will never be your day. The Championship has no sentiment.

2. Will Kerry miss their big three?

There has never been a team so good that it could absorb the loss of the likes of Tommy Walsh, Tadhg Kennelly and Darragh ó Sé without some drop in efficiency.

ó Sé might have been a declining force but Micheál Quirke remains unproven at the top level. And Kennelly and Walsh were Kerry's two best forwards in the final two games last year. Walsh's ability to score off balance with men hanging off him after fielding an impossible ball with one big paw made him unmarkable. Kieran Donaghy is as good a replacement as you could contrive but Kerry won't have the same attacking heft this year. And even warriors like Tom O'Sullivan, Mike McCarthy and Tommy Griffin can't go on forever. Can they?

3. Do we need a change?

Of course we do. Kerry and Tyrone have now shared seven All-Irelands since 2003, immensely gratifying if you're from one of those counties but grindingly predictable if you're from anywhere else.

From 1993 to 1999, by comparison, we had five different winners. There's so much talk about the non-competitive nature of the hurling championship, people overlook the fact that its football equivalent is only nominally democratic. The game needs Cork to step up or, better again, some team to come from nowhere as Meath did in 1996 and Galway did two years later.

4. Doth Ulster protest too much?

It sure doth. Statements over the past week by Derry manager Damien Cassidy and Mickey Harte about Ulster being a ferocious cockpit of top-class competition had only one thing wrong with them. They were a load of nonsense.

For all the talk about the competitive nature of the Ulster championship, it's 1998 since anyone other than Armagh or Tyrone won it. Harte assured us last week that the great thing about the Ulster championship is that every team believes it can win it. In which case, there's a lot of delusion up there. Cavan? Fermanagh? Or for that matter, Derry? The Ulster championship may not be as dirty as it's painted by outsiders but it's nowhere near as good as it's portrayed by the likes of Harte and Cassidy.

5. Is Joe Kernan like Ian Paisley?

In that, to rework an old joke, he loses power when he crosses the border. We'll have a good clue by the end of this season. Kernan has some very decent material to work with in Galway, with players from the 2002 and 2005 All-Ireland under 21 and 2007 All-Ireland minor title winning teams. Two years ago, Galway's performance against Kerry in a classic quarter-final marked them as the team of the future. Since then, they've produced a string of awful performances in the championship.

Kernan's team-up with the Tribesmen is the most intriguing managerial challenge of the year. Whether it will be a masterstroke like the appointment of John O'Mahony in 1998, or a high-profile disaster like the grafting of Ger Loughnane on to the Galway hurlers a couple of years back, time will tell. Perhaps the sheer novelty of the appointment means that Kernan's best chance to achieve something comes this year.

6. Will the media get things spectacularly wrong?

Undoubtedly. In the run-up to last year's quarter-final there was general agreement that Pat Gilroy had located some quality within Dublin which Paul Caffrey had been unable to find. It was also held that Kerry's thumping by Cork in the Munster final followed by their scare against Sligo showed a great team limping to the end of its days.

Hindsight can't change the fact that this was how it looked to almost everyone at the time. Expect similar red herrings and false leads to be followed up with gusto this time. If we all knew what was going to happen, there wouldn't be much point playing the matches, would there?

7. Will we all miss the Mark?

Perhaps not immediately but a couple of montages of players punished for their high fielding by being pummelled and robbed of the ball as they come back down to earth will remind us that the attempt to reward one of the game's finest skills should have been persisted with.

8. Any shocks in the pipeline?

In the aftermath of Sligo's tremendous performance in the Division 3 league final and Mayo's abject surrender in the Division 1 match, there was much chat about the prospect of a shock in Markievicz Park on June 5. Sligo certainly have the attacking firepower to trouble any team and have hardly put a foot wrong since going so close against Kerry last year, so 11/4 might look like great value.

There are a couple of things you should bear in mind though. One, Mayo's backs were exposed in the league final by their lack of physical power but they do have the kind of mobility which will enable them to cope well with Sligo's speedsters. And two, there is an enviable weight of tradition on Mayo's side.

I like Antrim at 10/3 against Tyrone myself. Liam Bradley's men froze at the start of the Ulster final last year but didn't look outclassed after that. They have the St Galls club final victory to spur them on and will also be aware that Tyrone sometimes take their time to get going. Both potential upsets, if not likely.

9. Can we trust the Dubs?

The article about how this year's Leinster final victory proves that everything is different for Dublin now has been written a few times in recent years. It would be a brave man who'd write it this year after the colossal wallopings suffered by the metropolitans in the 2008 and 2009 quarter-finals.

Yet it may be unfair to suggest that, in inflicting those humiliations, Tyrone and Kerry exposed Dublin's true worth. After all, the Kildare team Dublin beat in last year's Leinster final subsequently gave a terrific performance against Tyrone. And the Wexford team crushed by Dublin two years ago went on to reach the All-Ireland semi-final and give Tyrone far more trouble than the Leinster champions had done. So there remains something mysterious about Dublin's ability to collapse like a haystack in a hurricane.

It may have a lot to do with the fact that playing Dublin in front of a full house at Croke Park, which can cause inferior opposition to suffer a collective nervous breakdown, can make great teams play their very best football. It is Dublin's misfortune that, though they've only won one All-Ireland in the past 25 years, they are still regarded as a major scalp. So maybe it's not about the Dubs at all.

10. Is it all the referee's fault?

At the end of the day, like, Marty, I'm not blaming the ref. I'm not saying he cost us the game but decisions like that turn matches and I think we would have won it if he got them right. These boys have done 1,456,324 sessions since the start of the year and then to have it taken away by the referee, well, like, I'm not saying anything against him, but I don't know how he can face himself in the mirror or get any sleep come to that. You don't mind decisions going against you but what you want is a bit of consistency. I wouldn't condone what happened at the end of the game with him having to be brought off in a tank surrounded by armed commandos but people are passionate about football so they are and they pay good money to come into these games and naturally feelings are high. But at the end of the day, like, Marty, I'm not blaming the ref. (Continues until following year's championship).

11. Should we pass any heed on the Leinster championship?

The Leinster championship has a bit of an opinion of itself, largely due to the fact that so many games get played in Croke Park and that any game involving Dublin looks like a serious occasion. But in recent years it hasn't been much more competitive than the Munster or Connacht championships. Those provinces might be perceived as two-horse races but Sligo or Limerick would definitely be in the top four in Leinster and perhaps reach the final.

The statistics for Leinster are shocking: no All-Ireland champion since 1999, no All-Ireland finalist since 2001, only three semi-finalists since then. It is, without doubt, the most irrelevant of the provincial championships with regard to the destination of the Sam Maguire. That's why there was such relief when Kieran McGeeney's Kildare contributed so much towards making last year's decider the best since the Lilywhites lost to Laois in 2003.

If Kildare have gone back and Meath have not come on this year, even the most blinkered Dublin fan won't knock much enjoyment out of this backwater competition.

12. Are Tyrone shagged?

In another example of how everything appears obvious in hindsight, Tyrone's defeat by Cork in last year's semi-final was seen as confirmation of a decline which nobody had noticed until the Rebels put the 2008 champions to the sword.

Up to then, their cruise through Ulster and thrilling victory over Kildare had everyone purring about the probability of Mickey Harte's men finally putting two great seasons back to back. One defeat and a poor league later and everyone is writing Tyrone off. Though not as confidently as we wrote them off after they lost that Ulster championship replay to Down two years ago.

13. Who are the dark horses?

Meath. They've reached two of the last three All-Ireland semi-finals, can field an attack full of quality players, Stephen Bray, Brian Farrell, Shane O'Rourke, Joe Sheridan, Cian Ward, a very solid midfield of Nigel Crawford and Mark Ward and a defence which did well under a lot of pressure against Kerry last year. They also have a knack of producing their best football in big games in Croke Park, as Tyrone and Mayo have witnessed in recent seasons.

So why they are at 33/1 for the All-Ireland while peerless underachievers Derry are at 25/1 is one of life's great mysteries. I'm not saying Meath will win the All-Ireland but the 11/4 against them reaching the quarter-final suggests some serious underestimation by the bookies.

And if Kildare are anything like as good as they looked last year, then 40/1 is an astounding price for them. Their stock seems to have dropped after a poor league campaign but McGeeney's men were definitely among the top five or six last year. Only he knows how true a reflection their hit and miss league was of the team's form. There are the annual mutterings about a Down resurgence but if Armagh get through today's preliminary round match, they could be the Ulster team to watch this year.

14. Is there any end to the soul-crushing torment suffered by Mayo people?

In much the same way that one's defence of Israeli foreign policy is usually banjaxed by news footage of refugees fleeing their burning homes in an air raid, suggesting a bright future for Mayo is usually followed by compelling proof that they will always let you down.

So perhaps, despite the fact that they have some outstanding young players and the canniest of managers, it is as well to pass by the men in green and red and suggest that the people of the county will have to find consolation in Enda Kenny's forthcoming anointment as Taoiseach. Okay, they'll have to wait two years. But they've been waiting 59 years for the footballers.

15 Who'll win it?

Cork. They bottled it last year but will be the better for the experience. Daniel Goulding, Colm O'Neill and Paul Kerrigan, a year older and wiser, have the potential to emulate Colm Cooper and Declan O'Sullivan this year, Ciarán Sheehan can be this year's Colm O'Neill, Aidan Walsh will give them new dynamism at midfield, there is ferocious competition for almost every place.

Not too long ago, Anthony Lynch, Graham Canty and Nicholas Murphy had to carry the team; this year Cork were good enough to win the league without them, though they will be welcome returnees. It is the best Rebel side in 20 years and it is on the way up as Kerry and Tyrone are entering a dip. The only cavil is that it may be the Kingdom Cork face in September. In which case, all kind of psychological and historical voodoo comes into play. Only Kerry can stop Cork. And they can do that by making Cork stop themselves. Still, Cork.

Enough talk, let's get it on.

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