Saturday 16 December 2017

Big If still hangs over Cork

The boys of summer will have their day but Kerry are still the men for autumn, writes Colm O'Rourke

T his is the day when you give hostages to fortune by making predictions which in time may look quite silly. Maybe it is a bit like Denis Thatcher who was once asked why he said so little. His considered reply was that most people thought he was a fool and if he opened his mouth it would only confirm that opinion.

Writing at this stage of the year is tempting fate a little but now that all the excuses have been made, it is time to declare views on all the runners. As the championship moves on, I may do what Keynes once said, "when the facts change, I change my opinion". In other words, I won't be bound by everything that appears in black and white here later in the year.

First off, in the scientific analysis of this year's championship, the best thing to do is ignore at least 25 of the counties as they only make up cannon fodder for the big guns. And no matter what tampering is carried out by adding side doors or parachute jumps, there are only six to eight contenders. In that way, the whole process is fundamentally flawed but if all the turkeys still want Christmas, who am I to spoil the fun?

I'm not expecting riveting action either. Without being an absolute killjoy, I think we will see brilliant athletes but not many great footballers. It has never been any other way for as long as I can remember; in the past the only difference was that most teams were no good and they did not have any athletic prowess either. At least now almost all players are in excellent shape. Thirty years ago, quite a lot of county players would blow a head gasket if they had to do three or four hard runs in a row.

So what we will get is a maze of handpassing, most of it across the pitch with the odd kick. Unfortunately, the best rule not passed at Congress was the one which allowed forwards into the square and created an incentive to kick the ball long. So wake me up after the 23 handpasses which eventually gets the ball to a scoring forward.

In picking winners in football, the experience of the past decade has been to say something nice about as many as possible and then go for Kerry. At worst, you will end up having your team losing in the final. No point then in changing a proven formula.

However, things have moved on from last year and Kerry may not look so formidable. Darragh ó Sé has finally been decommissioned. John de Chastelain has verified that all his boots have been put beyond use and Nike, adidas and Puma have been banned from supplying him with any new gear. Yet Kerry got by with a limited role from the great one last year and Seamus Scanlon will work diligently with whatever new partner comes his way. In many ways, the biggest loss among the ó Sé dynasty would be Tomás, who is consistently brilliant.

If any other county could start off with Kerry's riches up front, they would be very happy indeed. Paul Galvin, Gooch, Declan O'Sullivan and Kieran Donaghy are the best and with Donaghy out for most of last year, it will be a bit like getting a new player. And what a player. There should be a law about Kerry and big full-forwards.

Of course Tommy Walsh and Tadhg Kennelly are huge losses. In most counties, there would have been three days of mourning when they left, but come August it would not be entirely unexpected if one or both happened to holiday in Ireland. Some counties will hope that the ash cloud blows over Kerry for the summer. A century and a half ago, the convicts took six weeks to get to Van Diemen's Land by boat; it is only a day away from home now. Whatever about Kennelly, I will be very surprised if Walsh does not wear a green and gold jersey this summer.

Anyway, no matter who appears in that famous garment, it would be in the best interests of all the ordinary mortals in the football world if Kerry had the whole summer off to enjoy the great weather and party round the clock. The old order needs changing so I hope Tipperary win today and then Carlow or Wicklow beat the Kingdom in the qualifiers. There is only so much one can take of watching a county making football look so easy.

The natural successors are Cork but they have had that role for a while and, as I have written here on many occasions, I will believe it when I see it. There is no questioning their ability, commitment or skill but the ghosts of the past appear every time I see Cork in Croke Park.

It takes a sheer bloody-mindedness to win Sam and it will happen some time soon, but I am keeping my powder dry on that one and certainly won't be betting on Cork. The league campaign was an exercise in maturity and efficiency but the elephant in the room is always Kerry. To have peace of mind, Cork footballers have to beat their neighbours, if not friends, in the semi-final or final. As Kipling says in the poem If, the reward for doing things right is to be told, "then you will be a man, my son". All the Cork panel should have to memorise that poem.

These two sides seem to be a country mile ahead of the chasing pack and I somehow think that Tyrone have run their course. They may have had talented underage sides recently but there is still no one to take the place of Ryan McMenamin, Conor Gormley, Philip Jordan, Enda McGinley and Brian Dooher. The mobility is not there anymore. They were great men for their county but all good things come to an end.

The most obvious successor is Armagh, even if Tyrone and Armagh have carved up the Ulster championship for the past decade. Yet Armagh have a new team with Stevie McDonnell the inspirational leader. If they are to be a serious side, they first have to be able to go to Derry today and win. I expect them to do so because that is what good teams do: they pass no remarks on history or tradition or where the match is but just get on with it.

Down are creative and definitely going the right way. They have worked hard on getting extra bodies back to defend but eventually every back must be able to do his own job and, if you pardon the pun, Down fall down in that regard.

Of course, Ulster is still the most difficult to win but standards have dropped. Maybe it is time for Derry, Donegal and Monaghan to break out of that iron grip and make Ulster truly competitive, as Bob Dylan sang, the times they are a changing but who can fashion them to their own ends?

What about Dublin, with a new team? If that happens, Pat Gilroy will be a magician. This will be his team this year, his personnel, his stamp and with the right sort of personality. If I was a Dublin supporter, I would be very happy with the progress but Gilroy (pictured) will need a few more years and if Dublin County Board are wise, they will give him a three-year extension as it may take that long.

Kildare have had a disappointing league. No matter what anyone says, the first division is the place to be. Meath are similar and should be better than last year, maybe even good enough to break the Dublin stranglehold on Leinster.

Connacht is quite tricky, however. Mayo did their Devon Loch flop again in the league final, while Galway are hardly inspiring. The improving team where the sun sets is Sligo and their win over Antrim in Croke Park was impressive.

Now for the tricky bit. Provincial winners only matter if it is not Kerry, Cork, Armagh, Tyrone, Galway, Mayo or Dublin. Maybe not much left after that but Meath for example would drink a few glasses of wine on the strength of a Leinster win. Anyway, time for the hostages.

Armagh for Ulster, Cork in Munster, Meath in Leinster, Sligo in Connacht. Sticking to the old formula, it looks like new teams in summer but Kerry in autumn.

Sunday Independent

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