Monday 23 April 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Kerry won't fall for that blue hype

‘Kerry always seemed to be struggling last year yet they came within four points of retaining their All-Ireland title’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘Kerry always seemed to be struggling last year yet they came within four points of retaining their All-Ireland title’ Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

I regret to inform you that this week's column has been cancelled. It was to have been a preview of the All-Ireland football championship but it has come to my attention that said championship is a foregone conclusion. So instead we'll get ahead of the posse and look back at Dublin's victorious 2016 campaign while also considering their prospects for three in a row in 2017. And ten in a row in 2024 while we're at it.

Actually I don't agree with the notion that the Dubs have this year's championship wrapped up. In fact, I don't even think they're going to win it. This is going to be another one of those years when Kerry come through on the rails.

The consensus is that Dublin comprehensively proved their superiority over the Kingdom when sticking that 11-point beating on them in the Allianz League final. But that contradicts the evidence of the game, which was finely balanced before Aidan O'Mahony foolishly got himself sent off with 20 minutes left. When the sides were 15 against 15 there was little to choose between them.

Even after O'Mahony departed the scene Kerry were still just four points down with four minutes left when Brendan Kealy gifted Paul Flynn a goal. From then on we were in garbage time and Eric Lowndes' injury-time goal was merely an irrelevant piece of ornamentation.

The purveyors of hindsight have peddled the line that O'Mahony's sending off made little difference to the result as the Dubs were always in control. But if you listen back to the commentary on the game that wasn't how it looked at the time.

For 50 minutes Kerry had happily gone toe to toe with the Dubs despite being without the scarcely negligible quartet of James O'Donoghue, Anthony Maher, Paul Geaney and Johnny Buckley. Throughout the league they looked very different from the side who never really got going last year, hobbling past Cork in Munster and scraping past a young Tyrone side in the All-Ireland semi-final. Kerry always seemed to be struggling last year yet they came within four points of retaining their All-Ireland title. No other county could have done that.

This time around they seem in better shape. Darran O'Sullivan looks close to top form and is a huge addition when you consider the impact he made in the All-Ireland final when far from peak condition. Colm Cooper seemed an attenuated shadow of himself when coming back from injury last year; this year he might not quite be the Gooch of old but he will be a threat to any defence. Stephen O'Brien continues to improve, Alan Fitzgerald looks an interesting addition and Peter Crowley, a leader in 2014 yet strangely underpowered in 2015, was outstanding in the league.

The Kingdom do have problems. Their full-back line looks threadbare, though it's worth remembering that Kerry held Dublin to 0-12 in last year's final despite Brian Fenton's dominance at midfield giving Bernard Brogan and Co an abundance of good possession. And they could do with David Moran returning to the imperious form he showed in the two games against Mayo in 2014. Yet I think they have enough to turn over Dublin, not least because the teams are seeded to meet in the semi-final which, as Mayo found in 2012 and Donegal in 2014, is when Dublin are at their most vulnerable, the leisurely romp across the dismal flatlands of Leinster leaving them ill-prepared for a really serious challenge.

All the 'sure we know there's no beating Dublin this year' stuff emanating from the Land of Yerra should be treated with extreme caution.

Those canny souls in the bookies are certainly doing so: they have Dublin at 11/10 and Kerry at 3/1, which indicates a certain scepticism about the foregone conclusion theory. Kilkenny at 7/4 to second favourite Tipperary's 4/1 are hotter fancies yet few people are calling the hurling championship a walkover.

Having said that, Kerry will have to be exceptionally good to beat Dublin in August because the champions are an exceptionally good team. It must be somewhat frustrating for Jim Gavin that the better his side become the less credit they receive, every new triumph being greeted with a chorus of whines about demographic and financial advantage and unfair innuendos about gamesmanship and foul play.

In reality Dublin are the most attractive team in football and perhaps the most purely entertaining champions of the past couple of decades. It's hard to find a weakness. They have a wonderful attack, where Ciaran Kilkenny is becoming the heir to Bernard Brogan's mantle as the man who gets the scores when they're really needed, an increasingly powerful midfield and a defence where the likes of Philly McMahon and Jonny Cooper have come on in leaps and bounds in the last year or so.

All the same, that defence has been shorn of Jack McCaffrey and Rory O'Carroll, perhaps their two most consistently impressive performers in recent times. For all the talk of Dublin's strength in depth, no backline could be unaffected by the loss of such key men. And for all the talk of the inevitability of their successes, of their three final wins in the last five years, two were by a point and the other by three points after they'd been forced to a replay in the semi. The margins have been tight.

There are two other teams who can be regarded as legitimate contenders. Mayo are perhaps the one team who can match Dublin for physicality and athleticism. They had them on the ropes at the end of last year's drawn game and might have kicked on to win had most of injury-time not been swallowed up by the Keegan and Connolly pantomime. The cry in the past was that Mayo 'lacked marquee forwards' but with the best young forward in the country, Diarmuid O'Connor, teaming up with Aidan O'Shea and Cillian O'Connor if they get any more marquee they'll be mistaken for Fossett's Circus.

Their problems are at the other end where, as Dublin showed last year in the replay, goals are always a possibility. Mayo can construct whatever defensive system they want but their problems may stem from the fact that Keith Higgins and Lee Keegan aside, none of their defenders are individually good enough when exposed one on one against quality opposition. It remains to be seen how the managerial shenanigans at the end of last term will affect the team, but it may be that Mayo will have to wait for the arrival of Kevin McStay as manager in 2018 before they make the big breakthrough.

Tyrone are being talked up as possible contenders but I'd regard Donegal as more likely to carry the Ulster standard. They were going very well last year until, for the second time in three years, Monaghan screwed up their whole season. They looked decent in the league before deciding to freewheel the last bit. And if they were well beaten in the semi-final by Dublin they didn't seem much more than moderately interested that day. There is still a hard core of quality and competitiveness - the McGees, Lacey, Murphy and McBrearty - at the heart of the team and if they made a semi-final against Mayo Rory Gallagher's men would fancy their chances. Don't write them off.

Tyrone do have the advantage of the easy half of the draw in Ulster but they may need the seasoning which a full term in Division 1 can provide before they become serious All-Ireland contenders. Monaghan will be one of the better teams too and if they get past Donegal in what should be a scrap for the ages will fancy adding another Ulster title.

After that? Fermanagh should have a good run in the qualifiers, as should Roscommon, though their travails against New York showed why they have no chance of challenging Mayo. Easy on the eye the Rossies may be, but the Connacht champions will just run over them.

Kildare should make it to the Leinster final but that championship, with so many games and so little competition for the Dubs, promises to be a disheartening spectacle. Then again it did provide one of the games of the last year in Westmeath's triumph over Meath, and should Offaly build on a good league campaign by scoring their first Leinster Championship win in nine years against Longford today, that will be cause for great celebration in the Faithful county. Championship success means different things in different counties and complaints that only a few teams have a chance of winning the All-Ireland make little sense. It's been ever thus because that's the way it goes in sport. Most of the teams at the forthcoming European Championship soccer finals, both Irelands among them, haven't a hope of winning that either.

There should be a few upsets too. Louth might have a decent shot at getting revenge over Meath for the goal that never was should they get past Carlow. And Tipperary won't be quaking in their boots at the prospect of meeting Cork in the Munster semi-final. The Rebels, woefully short of defenders who can compete at this level, are ripe for upset at some stage.

There's always something no-one saw coming. Last year it was Westmeath beating their neighbours, Sligo turning over Roscommon, Kildare walloping Cork and Fermanagh going all the way to the quarters. The championship only looks predictable when it's over.

Here we go. See you in Killarney for the celebrations in September.

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