Colm O'Rourke: 'Dublin's reality check for Mayo comes with an early days caveat'
Anyone who reads this column regularly probably understands that I am loathe to jump to conclusions on the basis of one or two matches. Turning a county's fortunes around takes time and there are plenty of bumps in the road in attempting to do so. That was never more clear than last week in Croke Park when Mayo came with confidence to take on Dublin. They arrived with their customary support, and with three wins in the bag, but it is only when you quieten the big dog in his own kennel that you should start barking.
This was a reality check for the new look Mayo. A lot of young players got an education on real football. It is all fine beating Cavan, Tyrone and Roscommon but Croke Park is the ultimate test and when your goalkeeper is your best player then you have real problems.
The night was a sort of welcome to big time football for Matthew Ruane, Fionn McDonagh, Ciaran Treacy and Brian Reape. These young men have now had sight of the monster at close range. Mayo better hope that they do not meet Dublin again in the short term or they might put football out of these players' heads.
Hope springs eternal and Mayo suffered a similar drubbing in a league match two years ago in Croke Park too. They recovered and lost the All-Ireland final to a late free from Dean Rock. It would be a brave man who would think that they could travel the same road again. But that is what football is about - unreasonable optimism. Otherwise everyone would just give up and hand all the cups to Dublin. It would save them having to play two of their Super 8 games in Croke Park.
Mayo have no option but to persist with these young lads. Maybe the O'Connors will be back to add a bit of something. Yet the old hands are now two years older. Keith Higgins is a great man, but he is not a man marker and was exposed again in this role. The last line demands a certain type of player, one who is willing to sacrifice his own game completely for the benefit of his team, one who doesn't mind if he never gets the ball so long as he limits the contribution of the forward. That will never change in football.
Will Aidan O'Shea, Andy Moran. Seamus O'Shea, Donie Vaughan, Lee Keegan or Colm Boyle be any better in the summer? Hopefully they will. Perhaps James Horan has decided that the League has done its job and these players will be tuned up for a last hurrah. Hopefully it is not like the charge of the light brigade which was a wipeout. So the future of Mayo's veterans depends on the young blood that is being introduced in this league. They have to lead, not follow. None looked up to that on a Saturday night by the Canal, but again we should not rush to judgement in February.
That same pitch was the centre of a sharp debate at Congress at the weekend - the subject of Dublin playing two of their Super 8 games on their home patch exercised a few delegates more than normal. The Meath team I was on would have been more than happy to play the Dubs in Croke Park five times a year. In fact, we would have much preferred that to Navan so it was not something I was particularly concerned about.
On closer examination, it is clear that Dublin have an unfair advantage which Donegal sought to tackle in their motion. However, the motion was probably badly worded and should have said that a team could not nominate the same ground as their home venue and their neutral venue. It would be up to the CCC then to decide on the neutral venues for all matches.
Back on the fields of dreams, Kerry are keeping up the chase and it would do them no harm to have another day against Dublin in the League final. Tommy Walsh, who looked to have run his course with the Kerry team, still has something to offer. Galway will have a case taken against them under the trade descriptions act, having football and team together in their title is misleading. The failed policy of last year, which drags everyone back into defence to engage in a series of lateral hand-passes, did not work then and will be even less successful this year. Opposing teams can deal with this one-dimensional game plan.
The biggest problem with this style is that kicking the ball into the forward line cannot happen as all the attackers are out in the middle of the field joining in the ring-a-ring-o-rosie hand-passing. The contrast with Dublin on Saturday night was striking. They almost always had three forwards up, so there was an 'out' ball from the half-back line. The old rule about keeping your best scoring forwards close to the goal seems to have been lost in the new era of zonal defending. Of course the Dubs drop everybody back at times too, but they have the athleticism to break forward at pace. Others, like Galway, don't. Perhaps I overestimate the basic ability of the Galway players but to my mind the present tactics do not get the best out of the available talent.
One of today's best games should be in Navan between Kildare and Meath. Kildare have at least been in the top division recently while Meath have spent the last 13 years stuck in a second division prison. The real action in the championship always takes place between Division 1 teams. Even more so now.
So Meath are like the Ancient Mariner who shot the Albatross and was becalmed in the doldrums. "Day after day, day after day, we stuck, nor breath, nor motion, as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean". It is beginning to feel a bit like that for Meath.
The straws in the wind give hope, even if beating Cork away is another reflection of Cork's decline as much as Meath's progress. Yet the natives are getting restless and dreaming of promotion and trips to Killarney, Castlebar, Omagh and the big smoke itself. Trains, planes and automobiles at the ready. It only takes a win today - that is surely achieveable.
LAST week I was critical of the GAA's lack of promotion of the Sigerson Cup on its website. I was also critical of delays in getting up to date scores during League matches.
The GAA has taken exception to some of my comments. The communications department point out that I should have acknowledged that the Sigerson Cup final was streamed live and that there are live blogs and comprehensive reports on League matches at weekends. These are available very quickly after games finish.
While I think we may not be talking about exactly the same thing, I am happy to acknowledge that the GAA communications department makes a major effort to keep supporters up to date with matches, especially on weekends like this when there is a very crowded programme.
Sunday Indo Sport