Tuesday 24 April 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: If it ain't broke, don't fix it

Eamonn Sweeney

It's not long coming around again, is it? Hard to believe it's a full 12 months ago since we set out on the great magical mystery tour of the Irish sporting summer, our very own equivalent of a Scandinavian crime thriller replete with twists, red herrings and revelations, cliffhangers, heroes, villains and even the odd act of gruesome violence.

Last year's championship victory for Dublin was oddly similar to that of Cork 12 months previously. In both cases a team which had mixed the good with the bad throughout the campaign stumbled through a couple of key fixtures and came from behind to win the final by a point.

But what a difference in the way the respective victories were treated by the media. Cork 2010 were disparaged as usurpers who'd somehow won the Sam Maguire by accident and weren't real champions at all. Dublin 2011, on the other hand, were hailed as having won a final for the ages on one of the great days in the history of the game.

In reality, both teams have a great deal in common. They proved you don't have to be flawless to win an All-Ireland football title at the moment. Hard work, character, a couple of outstanding players, big performances when it matters and a bit of nerve in tight finishes are sufficient.

It wasn't always thus. When Kerry and Tyrone divided seven crowns between them in the years from 2003 to 2009 every championship campaign began with only two probable winners. Armagh and Cork might poke the nose in but really it was a two-horse race. Those Kerry and Tyrone sides were two of the greatest to have played the game, so strong in all areas that the flaws of their rivals were eventually exposed without mercy. In that era the football championship was no more competitive than the hurling championship is now.

Now we've entered an age of chaos similar to that which pertained between 1992 and 1998 when there were seven different champions. No team looks absolutely convincing, there's something wrong with even the best of them, which means this championship looks wide open. At least half a dozen teams are entitled to think of themselves as serious contenders.

Having said that, the credentials of the previous two champions look slightly more impressive than that of their challengers. Dublin rode their luck at times last year but they'll be encouraged by the fact that they have room for improvement. Bernard Brogan didn't have a vintage year while the suspicion remains that there is a really big consistent championship campaign in Diarmuid Connolly.

Kevin McMenamon will surely have kicked on from his match-winning cameos in both the semi-final and final last year. In the league and the Sigerson Cup, Eoghan O'Gara suggested that he's become the kind of more rounded player who can take the weight off the Brogans in attack. Then there's the intriguing wild card which is Ciarán Kilkenny. Potentially Dublin could be a far more potent attacking force this year.

Which means that as Dublin won the championship largely on the back of some magnificent defending by players who are relative newcomers to inter-county football and probably have their best years ahead of them, Pat Gilroy looks to be in a very good position.

The one problem he may have is that you can't coach hunger. And Dublin's hunger to end a 16-year wait for the All-Ireland was a huge contributor to their success. It might even have been what got them over the line against Kerry. And there were signs in the league that the bugbear of Dublin teams, our old friend swagger, may be back in town. No team benefits from getting into losing habits and some of Dublin's performances were way below the level you'd have expected. There's also the fact that since Cork won a second title on the trot in 1990 only Kerry (2006 and 2007) have put back to back All-Irelands together. History is against the Dubs. Yet if you put a gun to my head I'd back them.

Or would I? Because there's a compelling case to be made for Cork too. Their loss to Mayo last year can be put down as something of an aberration, and also a warning to Dublin as to what can happen when reigning champions have lost their hunger. Cork have used the league very well with Aidan Walsh at full-forward giving them an extra dimension. Colm O'Neill has been terrific and hopefully Conor Counihan, who's shown a surprising lack of faith in the Ballyclough man in the past, will take a different tack this time around. Even when Daniel Goulding returns, there should be a place for both him and O'Neill in the full-forward line with Donncha O'Connor being moved further out the field.

Counihan has been able to play Walsh on the edge of the square because of the fine form of Pearse O'Neill at midfield in the league. O'Neill has all the attributes to be a great midfielder but at centre half-forward he's a frustrating figure who drifts in and out of the game and often merely takes up a slot which could be filled by a scoring forward. At midfield with Alan O'Connor, who enjoyed his best season last year, he could be one of the big players of the summer.

Cork's weak link may be their defence. Graham Canty surprised many people by having a wonderful league while in the final against Mayo the return to form of Ray Carey and storming performance of Eoin Cadogan seemed to suggest the Rebels had solved their corner-back difficulties. Perhaps. But Kerry will still feel they can once more run the legs off Canty and Co on the hard grounds of summer. Cork might well be praying for rain on June 10 in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

The retirement of Tom O'Sullivan was a reminder that time is marching on for the magnificent old guard who've backboned the Kingdom for the last decade. In last year's final, when the heat came on it was the veterans who responded best, something which may have been inspirational for the county's supporters but worrying for Jack O'Connor. Kerry's main problem is that their weakness at underage level is starting to take a toll on the senior team. From time to time a young corner-forward comes in and scores a point and everyone makes purring noises about 'the conveyor belt' but the fact is that Kerry haven't produced a significant young player since Tommy Walsh. And this places an ever-increasing burden on players with a huge amount of miles on the clock.

Yet how well they responded last year. Eoin Brosnan at centre half-back and Bryan Sheehan at midfield looked like stopgap choices but both players were terrific all year. This is what you get from great footballers. They also benefited from the deepening of Darran O'Sullivan's talent, the flying machine of yore revealing himself as an all-round attacker so good that his failure to get the Footballer of the Year award was an absolute travesty. I thought Kerry would be enjoying a last hurrah in 2011 but there's no reason they can't win it this year. Their season may rest on the result of their Munster semi-final meeting with Cork. They've never found Páirc Uí Chaoimh a particularly happy hunting ground and won't look forward to pushing the ageing bones round the rubber chicken circuit of the qualifiers. Oh, and if the Rebels do give Kerry the run-around defensively, expect Tom O'Sullivan to rise imperiously from his grave like a Rathmore Nosferatu.

Mayo look the best bet outside the big three and resemble the last two champions in that they're a team who were knocking on the door last year, enjoyed a good league campaign and seem to be improving all the time. The league final trouncing by Cork raised all the old questions about their big-match temperament but surely last year's championship quarter-final win and this year's league semi-final win against a very keen Kerry team were more significant.

There is a hard edge to this Mayo team which hasn't been there in a few years, they have a good manager in James Horan, two of the game's best defenders in Keith Higgins and Donal Vaughan and plenty of guys who, despite the stereotype, know what it's like to win big games in Croke Park. Just not the biggest one of all. The draw has handed them a stroll to the Connacht final. I like the look of them.

And of Donegal. The contumely rained upon their heads after last year's semi-final tended to obscure the fact that if Michael Murphy had been fully fit and Karl Lacey hadn't gone off injured they'd have beaten Dublin. Claims they'd have won that game if they'd adopted a more attacking approach missed the point that they wouldn't have been in that position in the first place without Jim McGuinness's system.

There are suggestions that McGuinness has seen the error of his ways and that we'll see a more attacking Donegal this time round. I'm not so sure. The manager is, after all, the survivor of lots of attacking Donegal teams who won nothing. Donegal have perhaps the best defence in the country and the self-belief engendered by a long overdue provincial title and in their league shutdown of Cork in Ballybofey, they suggested there's no reason they won't be just as difficult to beat in this year's championship. Murphy's continuing injury struggles could, however, be their Achilles heel once more.

Kildare, like Cork in 2010 and Dublin in 2011, are a team on the up and up. Had they not been dogged by desperate refereeing decisions in the last two championships they might have been in the final already, and the way they pulled away from Tyrone in the last ten minutes of their league final suggested this is a confident team which feels its time has come. The knock against Kildare is that for all their fitness and organisation and character they lack real quality players. But Emmet Bolton, John Doyle, Eamon Callaghan and James Kavanagh have played enough good football in big games to deserve more respect than that. Take Kerry out of the equation and no team is exactly brimming with game-breakers. Kildare's big game could be a Leinster final showdown with Dublin, if the likes of Wexford or Meath don't provide a shock. If they lose that, it will be hard to see them bouncing back after so much football played with no reward in terms of trophies. But against a Dublin team who won't be in quite the same make-or-break situation on the day they'll have every chance.

Paddy Power have Tyrone as fifth favourites at 10/1, compared to Mayo's 14/1 and Donegal's 20/1, but this has more to with past glories than current reality. In recent seasons they've been talked up as 'ominous' till the pressure came on and the team failed to respond. They still seem like a side in transition.

Down are a more intriguing proposition. They have most of the team which came within a point of winning it all two years ago, they got to the league semi-finals after beating Dublin when the Dubs were going well and Mayo in Castlebar and they have what looks like a straightforward run to the provincial decider with Donegal, Tyrone, Armagh and Derry in the other half of the draw. Once there they'll probably be facing opposition wearied by the exigencies of a hard Ulster campaign and we all know what happens when a winning Down team gets into Croke Park. They won't win it but a bet at 33/1 on the Mournemen has its attractions in terms of each-way and laying off.

Elsewhere, there is a notion that Galway, with an excellent new manager and some very exciting young players, might go deep into the championship, but they're short of big-match experience and may even have their work cut out getting a win in Hyde Park today. Expect Derry, Wexford and Limerick to do their usual canny thing in the qualifiers and the winners of today's Longford-Laois match to be buoyed sufficiently by the result to prove tricky opposition for the remainder of the summer. I have hopes of Sligo springing a couple of ambushes, beginning in the Connacht semi-final, but that's probably just me.

And expect the championship to get under way with the traditional suggestions by managers that referees have lost the run of themselves and are destroying the game as we know it. The first square ball row will be fun for about the first dozen articles. Brace yourself too for Twitter to provide a few bits of drummed-up controversy as players unwisely take to the keyboard late on the Sunday night after a game.

I pick the Dubs by a nose over Cork but should Kerry or Mayo nail it I wouldn't be surprised. And if I was a Kildare or Donegal fan, I wouldn't book that foreign holiday for the end of September just yet.

Perhaps I'm a parochial old sod but right now I'm a lot more excited about what's going to be happening in Cork, Clones, Castlebar and Croker than about the impending events in Kiev, Kharkiv, Warsaw and Wroclaw. Because by the time it's all over, and we've had enough to keep the conversations, the debates and the arguments going through the dark months of winter, it will be clear yet again that for all the talk of task forces and reports to find out what's wrong with Gaelic football, it's not a bad game at all.

If everything in Ireland worked as well as the football championship, we'd be alright.

backpage@independent.ie

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport