Tuesday 20 March 2018

Colm O'Rourke: I dreamed of great scores. Do young boys now dream of being a sweeper?

Donegal can see off Monaghan but it will be an attritional affair

‘The latest to draw the short straw at full-back for Mayo is Donal Vaughan, but it would surprise me if he actually plays there’
‘The latest to draw the short straw at full-back for Mayo is Donal Vaughan, but it would surprise me if he actually plays there’
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

When I was a boy I dreamed of playing for Meath in Croke Park in a big game. The mind always drifted to getting a great score, playing on a brilliant team, winning a big match and the absolute joy it would bring. Luckily for me, most of that happened.

What does a young boy dream of now? Playing as a sweeper? Dropping back to cover space? Limiting the opposition to a low score and not getting beaten by much?

I always got satisfaction from just playing. Everything did not depend on the result. I played in a couple of losing All-Ireland finals, one as captain, five Leinster finals and six losing club championship finals. None of that was much fun but my whole existence did not depend on the result. Players now talk of results, not the actual game. Training is hard work, a match is a job to do. I always thought that is what you were supposed to do during the day and football was something close to free expression.

There seems little joy in actually playing and everything is so calibrated that individualism has been switched off. As I watched Westmeath play last Sunday, I wondered how much satisfaction any player got from that game. Nobody wanted to see them annihilated but when the match had gone in the second half they were still afraid to play with abandon.

Keeping the score down is one thing but if a county does not get to a Leinster final too often it is better to have something to talk about in years to come. And if Westmeath came out in the last quarter and had a right go and in the process got a bigger hiding, would anyone think less of them?

Read more: Martin Breheny: Numbers stack up for Dubs in bunched field

Anyway, the joyless final in Ulster takes place today between Donegal and Monaghan, the result being the only thing. The most energy will go in stopping the other team playing - and both are very good at that.

These are two really good teams, with the emphasis on 'teams'. They are very well managed too and both are getting close to maximum return from their resources. This is especially true of Monaghan, whose recent record in Ulster is outstanding despite their limited numbers.

Donegal, of course, have taken the final step with these players and have shown enough evidence so far that another tilt in September is in range. Last year must rankle because in some respects the best organised team of the modern era were hoisted on their own petard. In other words, they were shot down with their own system and, as Dan Maskell used to say in tennis, some unforced errors too.

County teams are generally like a great horse that breaks down - they never come back - but there are exceptions and the display that Donegal gave in overwhelming Armagh gave cause for a rethink. But Armagh's subsequent limp showing against Galway perhaps indicates Donegal were not taking on anything like a decent side.

Still, they have enough very good players to live with anyone, the McGees, Lacey, Gallagher, McGlynn, Murphy, McBrearty. One of the fallouts from discussing their defeat of Dublin last year has been the focus on Dublin, which fails to give enough credit to exactly how well Donegal played for long periods of the game. That must gall them a bit. After all, Donegal went out and won the game from a very difficult position, most commentary seems to focus on Dublin losing it.

Monaghan are a hungry lot. Most of their older players could not hang around for this long without the sort of hunger that comes from small farmers who rear cattle, chickens and mushrooms and do a bit of cross-border trading. They are the country's leading entrepreneurs but nothing comes easy and that is reflected in their football.

Today the guarantee is that Monaghan will give everything for the cause and even if they were on a huge financial bonus, the level of effort could not increase.

Drew Wylie is a significant loss, however, as he could handle either Murphy, Gallagher or McBrearty whenever they appeared at full-forward. Now Monaghan will hope to hang on until the last quarter and the fifth cavalry will come on in some combination of Finlay, Clerkin, Lennon and a couple of others. If the game is in the balance at this stage they could tilt it Monaghan's way.

It is likely though that Donegal will have more firepower in a low-scoring, attritional affair which, strangely, has attracted the crowds rather than turning them off football. There is no accounting for taste. It looks like Donegal, and the margin of victory either way is unlikely to be more than a couple of points.

Read more: Lack of belief never a black-and-white issue

There was a time when a Connacht final was a guarantee of free-flowing football. Not any more as the plague has blown west and Sligo will do their best to frustrate Mayo by having plenty of men behind the ball early on. Quite right and proper too as in a straight shoot-out they could be beaten easily. Sligo got it right against Roscommon, they were defensive at times but had the pace to break quickly and always tried to get the ball in fast to Kelly, Hughes and Marren in the full-forward line. They will try to do it again today as well, as Mayo attempt to solve their Achilles heel in the full-back position.

The latest to draw the short straw - if you are to go by team selection - is Donal Vaughan, but it would surprise me if he actually plays there. He seems far more suited to an outfield post where he breaks forward at pace. Sooner or later, though, some Mayo player is going to have to bite, and swallow, the bullet and defend like a pure dog and forget about playing football. It must be something in the water down there but there is no such thing as even a half-dirty player and they are so obvious when trying to play a hard man role.

The odds are heavily stacked against Sligo. They will have trouble winning kick-outs as they are a lot smaller than Mayo and must use more short kick-outs even when it is risky to do so. It would be better for Sligo too if there was a bit of rain and a slippy surface as Mayo with tall players might look like young foals on their first day out.

Yet all of that is whistling past the graveyard for Sligo. Mayo are a hardened and hardy team and are contenders for a bigger cup than today's. They have ruled Connacht with a velvet hand in a velvet glove and are going for their first five-in-a-row. That in itself is a great achievement - all they need is the iron fist. Mayo's season begins in another couple of weeks. Sligo will be flexible, spirited and will play good football. They will also need to score a few goals, but Mayo operate at a completely different level and should win comfortably.

Read more: Karl Lacey: Full-time training has improved my game, but financially it can't go on much longer

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