Colm O'Rourke: A stockpile of weapons to strike fear into rivals
There was a time when winning the league really mattered. That was when there was only one title and teams from all divisions had a shot at it. Meath won it a couple of times from the second division, and if that style of competition had been retained there would be eight teams involved now.
The quarter-finals would be Dublin v Antrim, Kerry v Kildare, Roscommon v Cavan and Donegal v Tyrone. The competition loses its sheen when the knockout stages come around. Next year there will only be a final in Division 1, as is the story already in the other divisions, so it should be the Dubs and Kerry and the rest can go back to their clubs.
The Allianz Football League is becoming more and more like a mini-championship. The top teams are all in place. Would anyone bet that the All-Ireland winners will come from teams other than those playing in the knockout stages of the top two divisions? If you would, then you don't need to rush into your nearest Paddy Power. You will still get long odds on that right up to June.
As it is, the Dublin bandwagon rolls on. In Navan last Saturday the under 21s won the Leinster Championship for the third year in a row. Dublin were not supposed to have a very good team this year but while Kildare looked the better side for most of the game, Dublin brought it to extra-time and scraped home. Sound familiar for Kildare?
Then, on Sunday, the bus diverted from Roscommon to Carrick-on-Shannon and while some supporters seemed to get a bit upset, the team did what it does best. Veni, vidi, vici. Came, saw, conquered. The usual pattern prevailed as it has everywhere for the last couple of years up and down the country. They beat the locals, Jim Gavin says nice things about the opposition and they head back to town.
Today it is back to familiar terrain. When Donegal came to Croke Park a few weeks back they tried to put up a defensive wall. It was something similar to what Donald Trump is talking about building to keep out all those Mexicans who do all the manual and low-paid work that keeps the American economy going. Good luck with that one. Anyway, as almost always, Dublin found a way around it and patiently played their way out of a tight corner.
It is very hard to see anything different today. After all, when Dublin beat Roscommon last Sunday they did so with, by my reckoning, only four of the team that started last year's All-Ireland final against Kerry. They did throw in Paul Flynn and Ciaran Kilkenny, but what other side could afford to lose, or rest, three-quarters of their team and remain unbeaten in the league?
The quality of personnel is also matched by the quality of people involved. There are not too many players like Rory O'Carroll and Jack McCaffrey around who would have the strength of character to say, by their actions, that there are other things in life than winning All-Irelands. Most would stay on the gravy train as long as possible. Players leave panels all the time as they realise they have no chance of winning anything, but it is unusual for those with the prospect of further All-Irelands to walk away. It is an admirable quality in a man. Of course, some might see it as a lack of loyalty, but they need to get on a plane and see some of the big bad world.
As one player goes off the Dublin scene, it creates an opportunity for others, like the men from last Sunday. How many recognise names like O'Brien, Daly, Savage, O Conghaile, Carthy, Byrne, McHugh? Paul Mannion is back in the corner so there will be some jockeying for position when the likes of Cluxton, MacAuley, Flynn, Brogan, McCarthy, McMahon and Andrews arrive back. You would need to be at training very early to get a kick of the ball. And Eoghan O'Gara is back to add a bit of horsepower to the full-forward line. That's enough to make most other teams depressed.
For the first three games it looked like Donegal had changed tack and were playing a nicer style of football, with the McHughs adding the necessary pace. It has all gone downhill in the last few games and Monaghan came from seven down last Sunday to win by a point. It went against everything Donegal have become renowned for. If that had been three or four years ago the match would have been over and you could have gone down town for a drink. Even a three-point lead in the last 10 minutes for Donegal used to be like seven or eight for others. Now that bit of mystique is gone, and Croke Park against Dublin is not the place to find it. The Dubs will find Donegal awkward opponents but at this stage Donegal have given up on the league and are preparing for the championship. This will be one good reason for not having semi-finals next year. Dublin to win more easily than two weeks ago when they struggled for a long time.
Kerry and Roscommon, though, play a more serious game. Roscommon are on their wanderly wagon and are gathering moss with each roll downhill. Last week there was an honourable defeat to Dublin but Mayo exposed their limitations more. The better ground and extra pace which Croke Park brings should suit Roscommon as they are younger and lighter than more seasoned inter-county teams. That lack of power was really evident against Mayo, and the old Irish saying applies, 'an té nach bhfuil láidir, ní folair dó a bheith glic'. If you're not strong, you had better be smart. Or as Kerry and Dublin have demonstrated in the past it is all the better to have both.
On February 7 Roscommon went to Kerry and beat a team wearing green and gold. It was an enormous boost to their confidence but the sides were beating drums of a different nature. Roscommon needed to survive a few years in the top division, while Kerry were looking for a few new players. Eamonn Fitzmaurice has tried out a battalion of men and has returned to Marc Ó Sé and Aidan O'Mahony in the backs. If I am a selector on the team of the century in 84 years' time I will be pushing for Ó Sé to be automatic. The great one has one more year in him but there needs to be a major improvement in almost all other posts. The Gooch and Donaghy seem to be enjoying life, and that often happens with players near the end of their careers. They want to play every minute and that urgency should be enough to make it a Kerry-Dublin final.
Sunday Indo Sport