Four great pretenders
Dermot Crowe runs the rule over the main challengers to Kerry's three-in-a-row hopes
WHEN Kerry look beyond the gates of the Kingdom, what potential invader alarms them? Is there is any team, respectful noises apart, that truly unsettles them? Hardly. Tyrone and Armagh rattled Kerry, of course, in recent times; they pricked them and made them angry and now we are all paying the price. It was like they got a good shaking. A glass of cold water thrown on their face.
Kerry lose matches but they never lose belief in themselves or sight of the next year's offer of salvation. That's the way it is and that is how it will continue.
Yet, with the leagues wound down and the championship starting in a week's time, this has the makings of a special year for the green and gold, with three-in-a-row firmly in their sights. It is natural that they look at what is in their way. Cork (barring a small sensation) most immediately. As they were last September. That match proved a defilement of the holy tradition of Cork-Kerry games; a freak, a calamity. Cork were a mess and out of the horror they may find something to lift them when Kerry's hands are next clambering for their throats on a hot summer's day on the fresh-cut grass.
Kerry can, of course, lose to Cork, as they've done, and recover stronger than before. Their vulnerability in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final against Monaghan is what the challengers will cling to. And while Pat O'Shea has a point saying that people have overlooked how good Monaghan were, the long gap between a Munster final and the final eight hardly did Kerry any favours.
It is there that they may be at their weakest. Even in the win over Dublin it took a while for Kerry to assert themselves and as the match went on they grew and grew as all great teams do. Dublin remain billed as second favourites, like previous years, marginally ahead of Tyrone, with Cork trailing in behind them. After that, you find Derry, the league champions, whose lengthier odds are attributable to the likely jaded effects of a tour through Ulster. It is Kerry's to lose. Derry have still plenty to prove. So have Cork. Dublin may be starting to plateau and Tyrone are uncertain how they will react given the loss of Stephen O'Neill and the endless strife filling the boots of Peter Canavan.
In the betting, Armagh have shown the greatest slippage. They were 5/1 to win the All-Ireland in 2006; this year the price is 20/1. Kerry are on offer at a conservative 5/4.
Three years after his retirement, Peter Canavan still casts a pall over Tyrone. Seán Cavanagh was relocated to full-forward in the final league game against Mayo, betraying an ongoing restlessness among the selectors over their attacking formation. Whereas other teams in Ulster have proven attacking warheads (Clarke, McDonnell and McConville at Armagh; Coulter at Down; Bradley in Derry), Tyrone are no longer blessed with an outstanding forward since the retirement of Canavan and, more stupendously, Stephen O'Neill.
O'Neill is back playing some football for his club and while still a good way short of the standard of fitness required for an Ulster championship match, there are those who say a half-fit O'Neill would still play a useful role. In 2006, their scoring totals plummeted: 0-5 v Derry in Omagh two years ago, 0-6 v Laois in Portlaoise. Last year, they squeezed past Fermanagh in the first round and failed to find the finishing edge needed in the latter stages against Meath when they went out in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
Owen Mulligan was never going to replace Canavan -- who could? -- but neither was he going to fill the same kind of leadership role. Mulligan is a more peripheral figure by nature, not a natural-born leader, despite the creativity and boldness shown when scoring his wonderful goal against Dublin in 2005. O'Neill had the knack of scoring points from ridiculous angles and not making it look like any great drama; that arrogance and menace is missing from the attack. Ray Mulgrew continues to carry promise and confuse expectations. The good news is obviously that Brian McGuigan is back playing, and Brian Dooher too. But how much will they have lost in sharpness?
Having regained Ulster last year, Tyrone saw another bit of their aura stripped away by Meath in the quarter-finals. If the same aura isn't there, what about the same hunger? The frightening appetite displayed when beating Kerry in the 2005 final has not been replicated. An Ulster title looks within their compass, with Down to start with and Armagh likely in the semi-finals. But after that they need all their big players injury free and hitting form.
Approaching the 1995 championship, Dublin, it could be argued, were in a similar situation to where they find themselves now. In some respects, it was a good deal worse; in some respects, a good deal better. They had a team tormented by repeated failure to deliver on its potential, but the potential was undeniable. There is not the same immutable conviction that the current ambassadors have underachieved.
All-Ireland final defeats in 1992 and 1994, and a jarring semi-final surrender to Derry boxed in between, left Dublin, embarking on the third year of Pat O'Neill's management, in the last of the last-chance saloons. They staggered over the line in the final against Tyrone. In the end, it all worked out. If the same fate befalls Paul Caffrey's squad it will be a bigger surprise. Dublin have been a contender but last year was probably their optimum time to strike and win an All-Ireland.
They have nothing left to prove in Leinster. How much room is there for improvement in year four? There is a real chance of stasis or regression. Their shortcomings outside of Leinster have been revealing and the upheaval wrought by the acrimonious spring campaign doesn't augur well either.
Players have developed physically and technically over the three years of this regime -- witness the physical expansion in Conal Keaney and growing confidence kicking off his right -- but their forward formation is transient as ever and there are too many players of a generic, athletic type, not enough of the limited edition characters needed to win All-Irelands.
Dublin, to put it crudely, with some exceptions, are not blessed with enough quality footballers and when the surrounding factors are tossed into the mix -- discipline, constant querying in the press, growing paranoia -- it doesn't augur well for the year ahead. They have Croke Park, a willingness to work honestly and an undying ambition but ultimately footballers need to strut their stuff when the occasion demands it. Will Diarmuid Connolly score two or three points consistently and avoid drifting out of games? Can Mossy Quinn restore himself as a prime goal scorer? What version of Mark Vaughan will we see?
Defensively there is also uncertainly about whether to maintain Bryan Cullen as the central pivot. To be pondering over a fundamental issue like this so far down the line isn't encouraging. Exciting. Unpredictable. Potentially devastating and head-wreckingly implosive depending on the mood. Can they hit the ceiling every day? It's a lot to ask.
Winning their first league in eight years, seeking a first Ulster title in 10, and a first All-Ireland in 15: this is where Derry stand as they prepare for the trip to Ballybofey on June 1. They are headed in the right direction but need to stamp their authority early if they are to be deemed realistic All-Ireland contenders. The trouble for our Ulster brethren is that the walls are so thick in the province that there seems no escape to September. To win Ulster, they will need to beat Donegal, then Monaghan probably, and after that it is likely they will meet either Tyrone or Armagh. They have beaten all of the leading sides in the championship in recent years but Donegal stumped them in 2006 after the high of winning over Tyrone in Omagh. Last year their season was almost wrecked by defeat in the Ulster semi-final to Monaghan. As later events would prove, Monaghan were a genuine force, but Derry cannot afford to continue seeking excuses.
As they've done in the past, last year they fell back into the arms of the qualifiers and drew comfort from that. But they had to land big wins too. Armagh were beaten before they took out Mayo and for morale and team-building those scalps were of enormous benefit. If Derry go out to Donegal, they will be capable of working the qualifiers to their advantage -- their record through the back door is unrivalled -- yet there comes a time when a team needs to show a ruthless streak.
Inconsistency has stalked Paddy Crozier like those before him. In 2006, they fell to Longford at Pearse Park. Last year's campaign ground to a halt in Croke Park, but in the first half Derry showed their steel and a direct attacking play that had Dublin in serious trouble. The loss at half-time of Paul Murphy proved a deathblow to their hopes and his replacement, Eoin Bradley, had the misfortune to kick away some good scoring chances late in the game.
Reliance on Paddy Bradley is not as pronounced as before but if he were to get injured watch their price soar. The summer will test Derry's ability to improvise when he is held and their maturity as a team loaded with fresh expectations. They haven't always fared well when saddled with such hope.
Around the middle of the field they have plenty of power and reach and Enda Muldoon is an excellent auxiliary fielder. The arrival of John McCloskey has added confidence to the set-up.
Seán Marty Lockhart and Kevin McCloy make timely returns to the team. An All-Ireland semi-final has to be the bottom line and if they get that far, they could emerge as the biggest threat to Kerry's dominance.
Last year's nightmare All-Ireland final defeat to Kerry paints a grim portrait of the county's health but it was a misleading diagnosis. They patently aren't that bad and the win over Meath in the semi-finals showed the other side of the Cork character. In the final they were undone by conceding three charitable goals. You concede three handy goals to Kerry and, really, you are asking for it.
Breaking with the Billy Morgan era may do them no harm either. The confidence had dropped and the decision to play James Masters in the final backfired so dramatically that it had to taint the management's judgement and status. Cork have had good days, and matched Kerry in the earlier stages of the championship during Morgan's final reign, but when the heat rose they melted too often.
Having cleansed their souls with a strike, they have placed themselves on a high moral plane, the sort that inspired their hurling counterparts in 2003. There can't be many more harsh lessons left to learn. From now on it has to be a simple case of establishing if Cork are good enough with this bunch or if they're not.
That the talent is there is backed up by their recent dominance of the Munster U21 championship, finally rewarded with an All-Ireland. Like Kerry, they will not be drained by the Munster championship and they have a decent record in the qualifiers. Above all, they were so humiliated last year, following on from previous meek surrenders to Kerry in Croke Park, that it behoves every man that pulls on the red jersey to restore dignity to the tradition and to their homeplace. The manner in which they repeatedly lost possession last September, coughed it up so cheaply, and ran heedlessly up blind alleys, defied reason and logic.
In Cork, of course, hurling is king and even in the traditional football heartland many supporters have given up hope, refusing to travel to see them play -- even in the late stage of the All-Ireland series. For many years they turned their backs on the hurlers in droves as well and you can't buy a ticket now. Cork don't win enough All-Irelands -- that's nothing new -- but they do make a drive every now and then. Their shortened league campaign showed promise. This could be the year. It is inconceivable that they will bow again so haplessly. (Odds from Paddy Power)