Big questions as big guns go into battle
Leading All-Ireland football contenders Dublin, Mayo, Tyrone and Monaghan have already made impressive starts to their provincial campaigns but what of the other top fancies for the Sam Maguire Cup? Martin Breheny checks out Kerry, Cork and Donegal as they prepare to make their championship entry tomorrow.
The last we saw of Kerry and Donegal, they were being tossed around Croke Park like juniors who had wandered into the wrong venue.
And Cork were last sighted being flushed down the Division 1 plughole.
Unflattering images all round, but that's what happens when teams fail to get everything right against Dublin (as in the case of Kerry and Donegal) or when they concede an average of 1-16 in seven League games.
That was Cork's fate in this year's League and while they were a touch unlucky to be relegated on scoring difference after finishing on six points with Donegal, Mayo and Monaghan, they had to accept their fate.
It wasn't the League closure that Kerry, Cork or Donegal wanted but they have all moved on and as the second, fifth and sixth favourites respectively for All-Ireland glory, there's big interest in their seasonal reappearance tomorrow.
BLUES ON THEIR MINDS
Eamonn Fitzmaurice could never admit it but his thoughts over recent weeks cannot have been solely focused on tomorrow's Munster semi-final, or even the likely annual clash with Cork in the final.
They won't even have stopped at the All-Ireland quarter-final, for which Kerry are likely to qualify as Munster champions. That would leave them playing the Leinster runners-up or a Round 4 qualifier in the last eight, an assignment that's well within their capabilities.
No, the really big date on Fitzmaurice's calendar is August 28 when, if all goes as expected for Kerry and Dublin, they will clash in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Now Fitzmaurice can't spend the next few months planning solely for Dublin but he knows that if Kerry are to win the All-Ireland title, they will almost certainly have to figure out a way of curbing what has been by far the most consistent team in the country over a five-year stretch.
The reality for Kerry is that they have lost the knack of dealing with Dublin. Unbeaten by the Blues in the Championship between 1977 and 2011 - during which Kerry won eight and drew one of nine clashes - the balance has swung dramatically.
Championship defeats by Dublin in 2011, 2013 and 2015 have been accompanied by a similar power shift in the League, where it's 6-2 to the Dubs, with one draw, in their last nine games.
This year's League final was, from a Kerry perspective, the most disturbing of all as Dublin swept to an 11-point win.
Kerry optimists argue that Aidan O'Mahony's dismissal after 50 minutes was a defining moment as Dublin's lead was a mere two points at that stage.
However, the balance of play had been very much in Dublin's direction. Frankly, it looked like a horse race where the jockey is sitting calmly in the saddle as the fences are negotiated comfortably, while the opposition are flat out, trying to keep with the pace.
Continuing to do well - and even winning - is quite common for a team who has a man sent off, provided of course they are good enough to mask the manpower problem.
Kerry weren't. In fact, they didn't come close, losing the last 20 minutes by 2-5 to 0-2.
Here's the big test facing Fitzmaurice this summer: the personnel and the structure deployed against Dublin in recent seasons have failed, so how does he correct it?
Obviously, he can't go with a brand new team but if Dublin are the benchmark, then some changes have to be made. Otherwise, Kerry have no chance of dislodging Jim Gavin's crew.
Conversely, if Fitzmaurice makes too many changes, Kerry might not even win Munster, let alone an All-Ireland quarter-final so the debate on how to beat Dublin becomes irrelevant.
Presumably, Fitzmaurice will work off the middle ground, attempting to freshen up the team while also fine-tuning a system which would leave Kerry better equipped to take on Dublin.
Kerry certainly need more pace in defence and also have to work out a way of getting more ball to Colm Cooper, preferably as close to the opposition goal as possible.
It's pointless having him further out the field, which has been happening more and more in recent seasons.
All opposition love to see that because however accurate his passing, or astute his game-reading may be, he won't do as much damage away from goal.
Overall, it's an awkward situation for Fitzmaurice. Winning Munster titles with routine ease isn't enough for him, his players or the Kerry public.
It's why he has had to think both shorter and longer-term since the League final. All of his conclusions won't become apparent tomorrow but some clues should emerge as to how he is going to approach the bigger tests ahead.
A FALSE LEGACY
Was the 2010 All-Ireland football Championship the worst for a long time? Probably. Exhibit A in the case against Cork, who won the title via the Qualifiers after losing the Munster semi-final to Kerry.
There's nothing wrong with availing of the second chance to rescue the season but Cork got a series of incredibly lucky breaks in the three Qualifier games, drawn against Cavan and Wexford (both Division 3) and Limerick (Division 4).
Even then, Cork were taken to extra-time by Limerick before winning in Round 4.
Next up in the All-Ireland quarter-final was Roscommon (also Division 3), who had won a dismally bad Connacht Championship, a description borne out by the failure of Galway, Mayo, Leitrim or Sligo to win a single Qualifier game between them.
Dublin, who had lost the Leinster semi-final heavily to Meath, were Cork's semi-final opponents, running them to a point after blowing a five-point second-half lead.
Dublin were in the first season of a major overhaul, yet should have beaten Cork, who had reached two of the previous three All-Ireland finals.
Down, (Division 2) awaited Cork in the final and after leading early on were reeled in and beaten by a point.
The 2010 season remains relevant in assessing Cork's current situation because it set what turned out to be a misleading agenda. The view in Cork was that having finally made the breakthrough after a series of close calls, the squad would expand and develop into a really powerful force.
It didn't. Cork have won only one of the last five Munster Championships and other than Kerry in 2012, they have beaten no significant power in the same period.
Yet, despite the deterioration, the rate of change among the squad was relatively low, certainly until last year. It was as if a view persisted that the many of the class of 2010 would regain their best form and lead a new drive.
That was understandable up to a point, since there's always long-term loyalty to a squad that wins an All-Ireland title.
That brings us back to the questionable quality of the 2010 Championship. Cork, blessed by luck all the way, exploited the opening but would the level of performance have been good enough to win the All-Ireland in any of the five subsequent seasons?
In my view, not a chance. If that is indeed the case, then Cork's inability to quicken with the faster pace in recent years is not surprising.
The criticism that Brian Cuthbert took from some Cork supporters last year was outrageous.
Yes, the performance against Kildare was terrible but the problems go a lot deeper than that, in fact all the way to the conclusion that Cork haven't had as much talent as they seem to think they have.
New manager Peadar Healy (below) is re-building but he needs time. And the supporters need to be patient. Frankly, there's no alternative.
Karl Lacey (opposite) this week described Dublin as being "a lot fitter, a lot stronger, a lot faster than us" in the Allianz League semi-final.
He also said that once Donegal won their first three Division 1 games "one eye started to go on the Ulster Championship and we got into that comfort zone where we took the foot off the pedal a bit.
"I'm not saying we didn't want to win games, I just think we started to up the level in training in the week leading into a game and we started talking about Antrim and Fermanagh (Ulster first-round opponents)."
Donegal lost their last four Division 1 games, before being demolished by Dublin in the semi-final.
Here's the question: why would Dublin be fitter, stronger and faster than Donegal in April?
There was only a week between their respective entry points to the provincial championships, where both were paired with Division 2 opposition so the build-up could have been fairly similar in terms of the timing. So why the difference in conditioning in early April?
Donegal's casual performance against Cork in last year's League semi-final was put down to the final being only three weeks ahead of their Ulster opener against Tyrone. Effectively, Donegal weren't unhappy to have lost.
It was different this year. The gap between the League final and their first Ulster game was seven weeks, surely long enough to prepare properly for the Championship.
Donegal will argue that their antipathy towards the League has worked in recent times, since they are beginning their quest to reach the Ulster final for a sixth successive year, a feat last achieved in the 1960s by Down.
Having been on the road for so long, questions arise as to whether Donegal still have the mental and physical toughness to survive another tough slog. Nobody, including the players, know the answers. Nor will they until the first major test confronts them in Ulster.
They are making all the right sounds and, in fairness, their resilience, especially in Ulster, has been quite remarkable.
There's no reason to believe it won't be there again, in which case they have a decent chance of winning another Ulster title.
That's as far as it goes though. The days of big triumphs in Croke Park are probably behind them for now.
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