Thursday 8 December 2016

Colm O'Rourke: Dublin's march towards Sam will be a contest, not a coronation

Published 15/05/2016 | 18:28

The American group Green Day had a hit in 2005 with ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’. Summer has come and passed, the innocent can never last, wake me up when September ends.

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There will be many innocents abroad in this year’s Championship, starting today, and there are certainly quite a few who look on it with a degree of trepidation and could do without this pretence of competition — they won’t mind September coming and getting back to club football.

One team being well ahead is not a dramatic shift in power all of a sudden. Since I started going to football matches the contenders for the All-Ireland were always scarce. If you look back to the 1970s it was totally dominated by Dublin and Kerry, Kerry in the early ’80s and later Meath and Cork. The ’90s reflected a greater democracy but more recently the old firm have taken a grip again. So even at times when the winners were not by any means certain, the real contenders were always counted on one hand. In the last 50 years there were never more than five or six counties with a chance in any given year. The more things change the more they stay the same.

The great constants have always been Kerry. Like the North Star they always guided the traveller home. Turf cut, the pig salted and hung for the winter, hay made and Sam. All of that has now changed. The Healy-Raes have sorted out climate change and the turf cutters will be back on the hills but the pigs are not being hung in the loft anymore and the prospects of winning back the canister are not looking bright. The league final defeat to Dublin has punctured Kerry’s confidence and big decisions have to be made. The main one is to find pace.

All thoughts turn to August but Eamonn Fitzmaurice and his selectors will soon have to pick a team which will play in the knock-out stages. There will be the usual skirmishes in between but Fitzmaurice has to make a call on Marc ó Sé and Aidan O’Mahony in the next couple of weeks. At this stage if ó Sé is going to play he should probably be put out to centre-back and build around him because he won’t last at corner-back. There are lots of other big decisions too.

In some ways Kerry were better in the past when they did not get to the league final. Anyway nobody should shed too many tears for the Kingdom — the country is full of players who would love to be in their predicament.

All eyes, though, turn to Dublin. They make winning look easy and are unlikely to be stretched in Leinster. While they obviously enjoy winning, they seem to have a very pragmatic attitude to it and the next game is the only one that counts. Absence of ego, a healthy attitude to the game itself and a collection of fantastic athletes who are very skilful are among their chief assets. Then there are the factors that cannot be so easily explained, like character, will to win, proper pride and individual responsibility. The Dubs have all these but even if there are only a small number of contenders, it will be a contest not a coronation.

Remember Mayo had them on the ropes last year, Kerry got within three points and there was the Donegal ambush. No team is unbeatable and nothing lasts forever. The Roman army dominated the civilised and uncivilised world for over 500 years. Then they grew fat on what they had pillaged, drank too much cheap wine from the plundered territories and lay down with too many women. Eventually the Barbarian Odoacer overthrew the Roman Emperor Romulus Augustus in 476 and that was the end of that.

Perhaps Dublin will fall asunder by the same vices but I would not hold my breath on that one. Rather than waiting for the Dubs to be led astray by the spoils of war it would be better for everyone to plan on beating them in a one-off contest. After all, David took down Goliath. The act itself was of great importance but even more so is the story behind it. That tells of bravery, confidence and how one man can inspire a whole army. Every team needs a David this year if they are to take on Dublin.

Naturally I hope that it will be Meath who will supply the sling shot and even though they have been unable to beat a team of any significance in some years, and had to win their last match to survive in the second tier of the Allianz League, there is some hope that a warrior or better still a squadron of warriors will appear this year and put panic into the Philistines. No Meath team ever before has put in as much preparation for the championship so the expectation is that there will be a significant improvement in performances.

“Round up the usual suspects” was a famous line from Casablanca. This happens when the chief of police Captain Renault sees Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) shooting the Nazi Major Strasser. Renault saves Blaine by telling the investigating police to round up the usual suspects. In the case of football these are Mayo, Tyrone, Kerry and I find it hard to think of a few more.

Mayo, for all their trials and tribulations, have won the All-Ireland under 21 and are still a pretty formidable outfit and I cannot see either Roscommon or Galway beating them in Connacht. Kerry should win Munster. The real provincial championship is of course Ulster. Tyrone New — without the side shows — are the best team here but would not carry any of my money to win it. Yet they have the system to frustrate Dublin if they meet under the Hill in August or September.

However, it is hard to get excited about the competition in general even if there will be the occasional magical game. There is a basic unfairness in the system and you don’t have to be a Lenin or Trotsky to figure out that the rich have to be tackled to help the poor.

I am lucky to be dealing with young people every day and they teach adults about fairness. You can be hard on them so long as it is fair. If you asked any young person to look at the All-Ireland Championship the immediate comment would be, ‘it is not fair’. So do something about it.

That is for another day, for now the race is on. There will be drama, debate, harsh words, controversy and some great games. Some counties will spend fortunes for no return — and I mean no return. Students will wrestle with their conscience about whether they should go to America after a first-round defeat. Those with a more mature conscience will fly off, leaving some to claim they have no loyalty. That is not how loyalty is measured. That is called living.

When it is all over we will probably have Dublin. At least they play lovely football. Wake me up when September ends.

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