Wednesday 22 November 2017

Last year's models to strut their stuff one more time

Backs have not done much marking of late but that will change, writes Colm O'Rourke

Mark Lynch, Derry
Mark Lynch, Derry
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

The Allianz Football League semi-finals take place in Croke Park today, even if there is not much enthusiasm for these games. The decision to bring back semi-finals was another silly GAA move.

There is no need for these teams to have an extra day out at this time of year when players could be released to their clubs. The counties involved today will see plenty of action over the summer and it would have made more sense to have semi-finals in the third and fourth divisions as it would involve teams that will not get much championship football. And someone said that the meek shall inherit the earth? Not on the GAA's watch.

Three of these sides will almost certainly be back in Croke Park for the All-Ireland quarter-finals. The only doubt in my mind surrounds Derry. They normally play their best football at this time of year but it seems a variety of circumstances combine later in the summer to put a spanner in their championship works.

Chief among these is that attention turns more towards clubs so the Derry history of the last 20 years is one of great league campaigns followed by championship flops.

Last Sunday they fought a phoney war with Mayo. Either a case of keeping their powder dry or giving everyone on the panel a run. Like most counties they found that the appearance of strength in depth is only a mirage.

Apart from Dublin and maybe Cork, every county finds the well runs dry after about 20 players. Derry seem to have found a place for Mark Lynch and he is soloing less and contributing more. With Fergal Doherty back this is a team that is beginning to show signs of going places, but caution is urged. History points to summer being a wicked season.

Mayo need to win more and if they could get to the final and beat Dublin it would be a double bonus. All their eggs are in September's basket and the question remains: can they win close matches in Croke Park? The last game against Dublin will hardly have increased confidence but there was a difference between performance and result. It might seem to be clutching at straws but Mayo were better in that game than the result suggested.

Ultimately, they will sink or swim on the basis of a forward line that contains Keith Higgins, Cillian O'Connor and Alan Freeman. It is, strangely enough, a more or less new forward line. Higgins' role last year was like the little Dutch boy who ran around putting his finger in the holes in the dyke. This year he must be able to play in the forwards or there will be more weeping and gnashing of teeth in Mayo and every city across the civilised world.

O'Connor offers a goal threat and a bit more, while Freeman was treated harshly last year but might be all the stronger for it. All of this attacking power is needed according to the latest statistics issued by the CCCC which indicate more scores, fewer cards and I presume more excitement in this league compared to all others.

As always, I like to take the minority view. Maybe it is just as much that backs don't mark their men like they used to – that the reduction in cards is because the players are not throwing themselves into tackles they way they should and that men's and ladies' football are no different anymore.

Both are non-contact sports with the main difference being that the ladies pick the ball off the ground. Maybe the men should do the same. So if the conclusion drawn from the statistics is that football is now a better game, then count me out. There is nothing essentially wrong with a match which finishes 0-10 to 0-8.

The best game of the two today should be Cork and Dublin. Cork have embraced the changes and play all-out attack, run up big scores and are easy to watch. Nobody has yet said, "Welcome to the big bad world" but somebody will have to tell them that it won't last. From now on there will be teams who will attempt to frustrate them with packed defences and specific man-marking jobs. The scores will dry up a little and Cork will have to win a bit uglier.

Yet it is hard to see any defence keeping this Cork attack completely quiet if Daniel Goulding, Mark Collins, Donncha O'Connor and Brian Hurley line up. Hurley looks a real threat to all defences and if Colm O'Neill keeps fit and healthy, there is a fair balance between right- and left-footed players, free-takers and goalscorers. Not many teams are blessed with these combinations. They gave Kerry a right hiding in Tralee and even if it was only a league match there was a message delivered loud and very clear both to

Kerry and the rest of the country.

Eventually, it all comes back to Dublin, as it does most of the time at the moment and will for a few years to come. The Dubs will want to get serious now and championship preparations start from today. The best way to do that is a win. A league campaign which went well early on has run out of steam lately.

Perhaps Jim Gavin knows his championship team already and wants under 21s like Jack McCaffrey, Shane Carthy, Cormac Costello and Paul Mannion to get league action rather than throw them into the big summer games, but it is surprising given the panel Dublin have that they have been relying on the underage players.

Ciarán Kilkenny played a lot of football with the seniors before his injury so it is either a case of the panel not being as strong as some think or the under 21s are not being given much leeway. Just another example of players being caught by loyalty to different teams when there is at least some competition between them.

Anyway, Dublin can muster a formidable force whenever all are available. Last Sunday they struck early against Tyrone and hung on in the last quarter. They were even accused of cynicism by some in Tyrone. Perish the thought but the accusers must have broken a lot of windows in the glasshouse. Seems like a repeat of the All-Ireland final is on the cards for the league final.

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