Ciaran Whelan: There is a huge wave of fear coming from Mayo and Kerry need a lot of things to fall their way
In Dublin there is a sense of confidence. In Kerry there is a sense of optimism. In Mayo there is a sense of fear. Close in their slipstream are the other contenders like Monaghan, Donegal, Tyrone and Galway, who realistically will have ambitions for something beyond a provincial title.
As Dublin embark on a bid for a historic three in-a-row over the summer, the usual suspects will be trying to knock them off their perch.
Last year, on the night of the All-Ireland Final, the panel of The Sunday Game were all asked if this Mayo team could win an All-Ireland. The collective response was a definitive negative. When I reflected how close Mayo had come and the opportunity that had presented itself, I felt that maybe it had been a kneejerk reaction. So eight months later, have I changed my view?
The simple answer is no. I sense a huge wave of fear from the county coming into this year’s championships campaign. I do not believe Mayo can perform at a consistent enough level to bring home Sam after years of hurt. Would anyone deny them and some of their players an All-Ireland title?
Certainly not. Mayo had some low moments in this year’s National League and it was more their body language than their football ability that indicated that there was a distinct lack of confidence and leadership within the team. Some players actually downed tools and threw in the towel in the games against Cavan and Dublin.
Successful and driven teams will not accept that level of performance. They will challenge each other. They will set standards and demand that they are met. The players take ownership and if you are rowing against the tide, you are no use to any team.
I have no doubt Mayo have big leaders in the dressing room like Andy Moran, Colm Boyle and Keith Higgins but collectively as a group I question whether there is another big push in them. I could very well be proven wrong. While an element of fear can drive teams on, the mental baggage this team is carrying may prove too heavy to bear.
The constant scrutiny of their team, the public fall-out with their last management team and their failure to deliver in big games has scarred this team. Three years ago Mayo had a team ready to win an All-Ireland. Regrettably, I think they have missed the boat.
Dublin only lost the National League final by the width of a post, despite underperforming on the day. Small margins. Dublin have won four All-Irelands in the last six years and three of those victories were by one point. Also small margins. However, the mental impact of those victories has embedded a culture and set of values that every Dublin player now needs to live up to every time they put on the blue jersey.
Jim Gavin has done a great job in developing that winning mindset in the Dublin dressing room. They are in a good place coming into this year’s championship. However, their main contenders are sniping at their heels, believing the gap is not as big as some would portray.
I have no doubt that Jim Gavin reviews every game in the same manner, whether the outcome is a victory or a loss. But the cold reality is that a defeat will highlight weaknesses and bring more scrutiny. The decision by Gavin to extend his contract by two years is quite significant. If it was his intention to go after this year, he could easily be swayed into sticking with the servants and leaders who have delivered huge success when it mattered most in big games.
With three years ahead, there is fair chance Gavin will freshen up his forward line. I am certainly not writing off Bernard Brogan, Paul Flynn, Eoghan O’Gara, Kevin McManamon and Paddy Andrews, who all have a lot of mileage on the clock. But we all know, when that yard of pace goes or the sharpness to react under pressure, it becomes harder. You cannot buy experience and intelligence and for me Dublin will need that balance in the forward line this summer.
The combination of experience and the unpredictability of young talent like Paul Mannion and Con O’Callaghan could re-ignite the Dublin forward line. For me also, Jack McCaffrey and James McCarthy are hugely important players for Dublin and they need to stay fit. If Dublin play with a bit less conservatism and go more direct with their running game they can increase their scoring average and create history come the third Sunday in September.
The buzzwords in Kerry this spring were optimism and belief. They have only taken off the plasters on the wounds suffered at the hands of the Dubs over the last six years in championship football. The question is, are they really ready to take the ultimate crown as the best team in the country?
I am not so sure. I am surprised with the wave of optimism that has come from the Kingdom on the back of one game in Croke Park in April. Let us not forget Kerry won four of the eight games in the league. For me they need a lot of things to fall into place.
Kerry still do not have the depth in their squad. Dublin can afford to lose a couple of big players to injury and survive the pace but I am not sure the same can be said about this Kerry team. David Moran’s form is crucial in the middle of the park and he must stay injury-free. Outside of Paul Geaney, do any of their forwards currently put the fear of god into teams like their players of the past? Kerry will need James O’Donoghue to regain his confidence and start to terrorise defences as he did in 2014.
Nobody could argue that Kerry weren’t the better team in the recent league final and beating Dublin in headquarters will instill some confidence into their set-up. We know in Dublin that the process line in Kerry is fully operational and their time is coming again.
I am surprised that most of their former players have tipped them for All-Ireland success. Ten years ago the Kerry mafia would be playing down their chances, knowing right well they were the team to beat.
Kerry need to stay under the radar and plot their route to September. After that who knows what could happen but a lot of pieces need to fall into place for Kerry.
BEST OF THE REST
You can never rule out a surprise package coming from the pack but realistically there are only four other contenders who could gain the right momentum at the right time. Ulster remains the only competitive provincial championship with Tyrone, Monaghan and Donegal all contenders. All three will have further ambitions and look to rattle the top three.
Monaghan for me are the team that has impressed most over the last few months. Malachy O’Rourke has done a fantastic job in keeping his players competing at the top level. Granted, they had a catastrophic day at the office against Longford last year in the qualifiers after coming through tough games against Donegal. Monaghan have a nice blend of talent throughout their team. A solid full back line, leaders in their central spine and a couple of top-class forwards in Jack McCarron and Conor McManus.
As for Tyrone, forget about their league form. Yes, we know that Mickey Harte sets out to win every game and he will have been disappointed with their finish to the league. But rest assured, Tyrone will not be easily beaten. They never are.
History shows they can bring the best teams to their level and I know for a fact they would only relish an opportunity to take on the Dubs. Tyrone are grafters but presently their weakness is their reliance on Sean Cavanagh, Mattie Donnelly and Peter Harte. Negate those three and Tyrone can be average. Tyrone will be very dangerous as underdogs and if players the calibre of Niall Sludden continue to emerge as key threats, they of all teams will fear nobody.
Everybody expected Donegal to go through a period of transition but after a good league campaign there is renewed optimism. Many of their players have yet to experience the real heat of Ulster championship football so it is still hard to measure where they are really at. The next few months will provide us with the answers.
Over in the west, Galway will be looking to retain their Connacht title. Winning Division 2 of the league meant Kevin Walsh’s troops continued their upward curve. Galway need to believe in themselves and play a more expansive game with quality they have in their forward line. A good performance in Croke Park will be their priority as history show they have a mental block in headquarters.