Wednesday 24 January 2018

Rebels ready to keep it real

Eamonn Sweeney

W e go into this year's All-Ireland senior football championship in the unusual position of not having a reigning champion. Oh sure, technically Cork are champs but for all the credit they got for winning the 2010 title they might as well not have won it at all. Such was the level of begrudgery directed at the Rebels that their victory almost seemed to be taken as a personal affront to those who'd hoped for some sexier outcome to the season.

Should Dublin come through this year we'll be told it should be two in a row because they should have beaten Cork and won the All-Ireland as well. If Kerry triumph, their eclipse last year will be written off as a freakish occurrence largely brought about by suspensions and injuries. Only if Cork win this year's championship will they get their due for winning last year's. Like the Cork team who won in 1989 and the Down team who won in 1991, they're the rare champions who are viewed as still having something to prove.

It's a bit like those '70s Hall's Pictorial Weekly sketches which described Jack Lynch as The Real Taoiseach. Back then Fianna Fáil had been in power so long that the sight of a Fine Gael man at the helm seemed inauthentic. In the same way, Kerry and Tyrone had dominated football for so long that any new champion was bound to be seen as somehow ersatz. It was Cork's misfortune to have filled this role.

But it was football's great good fortune that in 2010 the vice grip of the big two on the Sam Maguire was finally broken. For the first time since 2002 we had a county other than Kerry or Tyrone winning the championship, for the first time since 2001 we had a final without either of them, for the first time since 2004 and Mayo's run to the final we had a team, Down, coming from nowhere and going all the way to the decider. Nothing against Kerry or Tyrone but this was healthy. In the championship variety is the spice of life.

So, while at first glance there seems to be just four counties with a realistic chance of hoisting Sam in September, last year's topsy-turvy campaign should warn us against believing in apparent certainties. There are counties who will be inspired by Down's run last year to think that they can come in under the radar. And there will be more than one result which makes everyone who didn't see the game wonder if their ears are deceiving them when they hear the scoreline. There always is.

Last year I broke the habit of a lifetime by actually getting a prediction right. I chose Cork. And I'm choosing them again. They looked to be at cruising speed during the league yet that was enough to get them into the final. And their final 20 minutes against Dublin in the decider didn't just display the team's abundance of attacking talent, it also showed an exemplary hunger.

Because with the Dubs eight points up and rampant it would have been easy for Cork to turn their minds to the championship. They were All-Ireland and National League champions already, what would another league title prove? The Rebels didn't see it that way and the biggest thing they have going for them now is their winning habit. Having got out of tight spots against Dublin and Down last year and again in the league final, they've become specialists at doing the right things when the game is close. It's an invaluable attribute.

Cork won last year with a bit left in the tank. Pearse O'Neill, for example, despite his immense athleticism and power was peripheral in a lot of big matches. His league final display showed he has the ability to grab games by the scruff of the neck and that midfield may be the place for him. Paddy Kelly and Donncha O'Connor look to have grown hugely in confidence off the back of the All-Ireland win. Ciarán Sheehan, another extraordinary athlete, was feeling his way last year but though he's still under 21 could be one of the players of this year's championship.

The champions also have terrific strength in depth with several fringe players, Fintan Goold, Eoin Cadogan, Denis O'Sullivan, Nicholas Murphy, Fiachra Lynch, who can come in and change a game. Dublin exposed some defensive flaws in the league final and there's no doubt that Graham Canty and John Miskella look bruised and battered at this stage while Ray Carey struggled in the league. Yet even then Cork have Noel O'Leary, Michael Shields and Paudie Kissane, three players who'd improve any backline. And perhaps the most welcome sight for Conor Counihan in the league final was actually the storming performance by Jamie O'Sullivan which suggested he is primed to make a big impact at inter-county level after a promising but inconsistent debut season last year.

There's no reason Cork can't be as dominant over the next few years as Kerry and Tyrone were over the last few. Yet it's a truism among Cork football people that the Rebels have not always made the best use of their finest teams. Kerry would certainly have won more than one All-Ireland with the Cork 1973 team and probably more than two with the Rebel side of the late '80s and early '90s. And Kerry are always foremost in the Cork football mind.

It's safe to say that the current Kerry side is coming to the end of the road. They are an ageing team and the key players have a lot of miles on the clock. Tomás and Marc ó Sé, Tom O'Sullivan, Colm Cooper and Eoin Brosnan all played in the 2002 All-Ireland final, Declan O'Sullivan came in the year after that. The sight of a half-back line anchored by Aidan O'Mahony, previously judged surplus to requirements, and featuring a relocated Eoin Brosnan on the wing, begs the question: Does this show the resilience of the players involved or indicate that Kerry are short of defensive options?

But then you look again at the players. Cooper, better than ever, Kieran Donaghy, the ó Sé brothers, the unrelated O'Sullivans, the fashion correspondent of the Irish Independent, have few equals as performers on the big championship occasion. When this crew depart, the Kingdom may have to face a period of sustained Cork dominance in Munster at least. Their record at under 21 level of late has been abysmal and there appear to be few outstanding prospects coming through.

Yet it's this now-or-never feeling which may make Kerry particularly dangerous. As with last year they'll take the Munster championship more seriously than before, keen to sow doubts in Cork minds and avoid the back door. They may, however, be unhorsed by a lack of power at midfield, the cruciate ligament injury to David Moran could prove a fatal blow to their ambitions. All the same Cork would love if someone replicated Down's achievement of last year and cleared Kerry out of the way before final day.

If Tomás Quinn had kicked his frees and Dublin had hung on in the league final, chances are they'd be championship favourites by now. Pat Gilroy had enjoyed a charmed media life up to then. Few teams have been praised so much for winning league games and nobody had been so universally lauded for losing an All-Ireland semi-final.

Until that late collapse against Cork the prognosis was that this was a new Dublin and that Gilroy had got everything right. To be fair to them, they probably would have won the league had Bernard Brogan not been injured and they have perhaps the greatest firepower of all the contenders. Diarmuid Connolly looks about to deliver on his vast potential, Quinn likewise if he forgets those fateful frees, Kevin McManamon and Alan Brogan will trouble any defence. And then there's Bernard Brogan whose destruction of the normally excellent Michael Shields in championship and league suggests he is well nigh unmarkable. Brogan is good enough to turn the most ordinary of teams into a championship contender. At the moment there's no-one quite like him in football.

The Dubs will score heavily and be entertaining. Yet their late losses to Cork may be due not so much to psychological flaws as to the lack of really outstanding defenders. There isn't any Dublin defender who ranks among the elite in his position; the full-back line looks ropey and the result is that they're the last team you'd fancy to hold on to a one-point lead with five minutes left. They won't be far away all the same.

For my money, Down are more likely champions than Tyrone, though Paddy Power have the latter at 7/1 and the former at 16/1. For all their flaws, an underwhelming midfield, a full-back in Dan Gordon who is ideally suited to playing Kieran Donaghy and almost nobody else, the Mournemen must surely have gained a great deal from last year's run. Any team with Coulter, Clarke and Hughes in attack has to be respected and the county's great Croke Park tradition shouldn't be underestimated if they return to the quarter-finals. They should win Ulster, thus breaking the Tyrone-Armagh stranglehold which has prevailed since 1999, though they have a tough opener away to the latter.

Tyrone's key men are younger than their old rivals from Kerry yet the side gives a much greater impression of fatigue, perhaps because of the greater demands imposed by their physically intense style of play. In the last two championships they looked impressive until they faced a serious challenge and then crumbled alarmingly. Cavanagh, McGuigan, O'Neill, Dooher, Mulligan, Gormley and McMenamin are all still there and the side has been at its best when written off. Yet I can't see it myself after a poor league campaign from a team who usually used the competition as a springboard towards greater things.

Kildare were exceptionally unlucky last year in the semi-final when they were foiled by a combination of bad refereeing and the woodwork. In the past two years Kieran McGeeney has shown a knack for having them at their best during the business end of the championship and, while they may lack the outstanding individuals of the main contenders, they still seem like the best bet to come with a run from the pack. Meath looked to have come of age when they hammered Dublin last year but were unaccountably awful after that. They have the forwards, Graham Reilly, Shane O'Rourke, Joe Sheridan, Cian Ward, and who knows what might happen if Seamus McEnaney can prove that he really is a managerial genius who worked miracles with average Monaghan players.

Connacht hasn't had a representative in the last four since 2006 and remedying that situation would be progress enough for a province currently in the doldrums. Mayo will be favourites there after a solid league but I suspect Roscommon, who'll surely be boosted by St Brigid's feats in the club championship and their brave showing against Cork last year, won't relinquish their crown without a fight and aren't bad value at sixes.

Elsewhere? Limerick will give Kerry the usual fright in Munster and could claim a few scalps in the qualifiers where Armagh and Monaghan will be dangerous as well. Derry and Galway will both lose to teams they'd been predicted to beat.

And Louth might well find themselves back in a Leinster final thanks to the lopsided draw which lumps Kildare, Meath, Dublin and Laois in the opposite half. Perhaps God is indulging in a bit of restorative justice there. Next Sunday's double-header in Portlaoise with Micko trying to repeat Wicklow's upset of two years ago against Kildare and Division 4 champions Longford taking on Division 2 runners-up Laois is no mean pipe-opener.

For the first few weeks the papers will be full of complaints from managers about the referees' interpretation of the rules but everyone will forget about this kind of guff when the championship really gets going. I expect to see Cork and Kerry duking it out in the final but it wouldn't be totally outlandish to see Kildare and Tyrone there.

And so it begins, a sporting equivalent of one of those engrossing multi-part dramas like The Wire or The Killing which unfold at a leisurely pace and only disclose all their secrets at the dénouement. That's when we look back and realise the full meaning of earlier revelations.

As the starter raises the flag, nobody's dreams have been shattered. There is a guy in Westmeath who thinks they can win Leinster, a guy in Tipp who dreams about them sticking with Kerry for the full 70 minutes instead of just the first 35, a wildly optimistic Leitrim woman recalling 1994, an Antrim follower who thinks that if this happens and then that happens then you'd never know what might happen. Right this second, everyone is on level terms.

So here it comes. The Greatest Show of the Summer.

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