Monday 21 January 2019

Alan Brogan: Eight things we've learned from the football championship so far

Provincial contests have air of shadow-boxing ahead of bigger tests later in the summer

Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor is destined to become the top scorer in championship history and continues to defy his critics. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor is destined to become the top scorer in championship history and continues to defy his critics. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Alan Brogan

The new format in the hurling championship has been a huge success, with high-quality games every week in Munster and Leinster. The provincial football championships and qualifiers have not got the same acclaim, but they have thrown up lots of talking points, both good and bad. Here's what we have learned so far:

1 Carlow and Longford gave hope to the little guys

Carlow and Longford reaching the semi-finals was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise predictable Leinster Championship. Longford were never going to trouble Dublin, but I suspect Carlow will see this as a missed opportunity to reach a provincial final. In the game against Laois they stuck rigidly to the defensive game-plan Turlough O'Brien has devised. My gut tells me that if they had gone after that game and shown a bit more endeavour up front, there may have been a big prize of a Leinster final appearance for them.

Despite this, the country took note of both their successes and it can only give hope to teams all over the country looking to make a breakthrough. It's important both keep the curve moving upwards over the next 12 months.

2 Kerry's young guns show real promise

The arrival of David Clifford onto the Kerry senior panel was much talked about. There is no doubt that David is destined for great things. He acquitted him well throughout the Allianz League without setting the world alight. But having watched him and discussed it with Marc Ó Sé, I think this young man, like many of the great Kerry corner-forwards before him, is made for Croke Park. Something tells me he is going to explode onto the scene come the Super 8.

Kerry's David Clifford
Kerry's David Clifford

However, it's Seán O'Shea at number 11 who has really got caught my attention. With a good eye for a score, Kerry may have found the answer to fill the hole left by Declan O'Sullivan. Add these two to Paul Geaney, James O'Donoghue and Stephen O'Brien, and the Kingdom have a forward line to trouble anybody.

3 Tyrone flatter to deceive again

Over the last number of years, it looked like Mickey Harte was rebuilding a team to really challenge for top honours again, with the likes of Peter Harte, Colm Cavanagh and Mattie Donnelly. I had fancied them to make a breakthrough back to an All-Ireland final but now it looks further away than ever.

Strangely, Seán Cavanagh has come out in public against the game-plan adopted by Tyrone. It hasn't gone down well in Tyrone but it's hard to disagree with Seán's observations. To beat a top team, they need a more fluid game-plan; last year against Dublin it was frustratingly predictable how they set up. There is no shame in losing to Monaghan, but it looks a long way back for Tyrone through the qualifiers.

The return from injury of Jack McCaffrey gives Dublin yet another dangerous attacking weapon. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
The return from injury of Jack McCaffrey gives Dublin yet another dangerous attacking weapon. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

4 The Provincial championships - a dour affair!

I used to love Leinster final day when I was playing, but it's hard to get even slightly excited about it this year. Even Cork v Kerry in Munster doesn't float my boat, nor Roscommon against Galway. It feels like the football championship is waiting for the Super 8 to really kick off - the provincial championships are only a stepping stone for all counties now. The real prize is a place in the Super 8. The provincial football championships have their place in history, but would be better served now as stand-alone competitions. Fermanagh are the last chance to prove me wrong.

But part of me thinks the horse has bolted and if the Super 8 format takes off we may well see provincial championships moved aside in the not too distant future.

5 Are bad injuries a sign of increased physicality in our games?

Two bad injuries in recent weeks to Tom Parsons and Stephen Attride got me thinking about how the physicality of our game has increased in recent years. Maybe neither was a direct result of a physical confrontation, but there is no question that the gym-based increase in players' size and strength has led to harder hits. I wouldn't for a second take the physicality out of the game, but it's difficult to see how a lighter, smaller footballer can survive.

Similarly, the day of the big full-forward is gone because they can't do the work expected around the field. For example, the likes of Vinny Murphy would struggle to make a modern-day inter-county team, but what a shame if we could not see the skill he had because he couldn't do the donkey work chasing an attacking full-back up the field.

One way around this would be an interchange system for subs like they have in Australian rules. That way, different styles of player could be tried throughout a game.

6 Cillian O'Connor will become all-time top scorer

Cillian O'Connor has moved into the spot of second highest championship scorer of all time. At 26 years old and only 42 points behind the Gooch, there's no doubt he will reach number one before his career is over, barring some strange happening.

But for some reason every year his status as a marquee forward is questioned. I have had doubts myself at certain stages and maybe he needs to land a big free or score to win Mayo an All-Ireland to really take his place amongst the greats. But his scoring record suggest otherwise - it's phenomenal - and despite public opinion he has delivered good returns in All-Ireland finals. He may have his knockers, but his record speaks for itself.

7 Galway look ready to dine at the top table again

Galway were unbeaten in the group stage of the league and put in a very good showing in the final against Dublin, and they continued that form in the Connacht Championship, disposing of Mayo and then Sligo. In Damien Comer, they have perhaps the most exciting forward in the game. He gave Dublin a torrid time in the league final.

Kevin Walsh has built a team over the last couple of years with a nice blend of youth and experience. Shane Walsh is learning and growing into the footballer he promised to be in the early years and Seán Armstrong has matured into a real leader. They have an edge about them we haven't seen in a Galway team since 2001. They won't win an All-Ireland this year and they may not be the most attractive to watch, but if they get the confidence flowing they could be a real threat in the latter stages.

8 Dublin returning to strength with Cian O'Sullivan and Jack McCaffrey

Dublin won't have Diarmuid Connolly and we are not sure yet if my brother Bernard will make it back in time from a torn cruciate ligament to play a part this summer, but the return of Jack McCaffrey and Cian O'Sullivan will be a welcome boost for Jim Gavin going into a Leinster final.

Cian's ability to cover that space in front of the full-back is matched only maybe by Colm Cavanagh. It's not until the latter rounds when Dublin are really tested at the back that we generally see how important Cian is to Dublin's overall structure in defence. He is one of Jim's most trusted lieutenants and will be one of the first names on his team sheet if fit.

Longford was Jack's first competitive game since the All-Ireland final last year. Defensively, Jack is maybe a little suspect, but his attacking prowess is a weapon Dublin can utilise that no other team can match. Jack is one of the few players in the country who can turn a game on its head in seconds with his blistering solo runs from deep.

If these two guys rediscover their true form going into the Super 8, it seriously bolsters Dublin's chance of four in a row.

* * * * *

I'd like to wish Paul Flynn the best of luck in his new role as the CEO of the Gaelic Players Association. With many challenges imminent, Paul has the work ethic, smarts and respect of fellow players to really succeed in the role. There's no doubt he has always been a players' man and won't be afraid to fight for what he believes in.

At the same time, he will be very aware of the importance of continuing to build on the existing relationships the GPA has with the GAA and other stakeholders. His experience having sat on the National Executive Committee for several years will stand to him. He never shirked a challenge as a player and I don't think he will shirk it as leader of the players' organisation. Not a man to rest on his laurels, I'm looking forward to seeing him stamp his own ideas on the role.

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