Tuesday 15 October 2019

Pat Spillane: 'Conor Cox has been a revelation - I don't understand why he wasn't given a better chance by Kerry'

Conor Cox of Roscommon celebrates with supporters following his side's victory during the Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship Final match between Galway and Roscommon at Pearse Stadium in Galway. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Conor Cox of Roscommon celebrates with supporters following his side's victory during the Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship Final match between Galway and Roscommon at Pearse Stadium in Galway. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Pat Spillane

THERE is a view that the GAA should scrap the provincial championships in football. I disagree.

The system is far from perfect, but I believe the provincial series should be retained for many reasons. The atmosphere, colour and the rivalry between neighbouring counties can never be replicated in any other system. Furthermore, the minnows have a more realistic chance of achieving a one-off victory over one of the bigger guns in the provincial championships.

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Think back to the joyous celebrations we witnessed last summer after Carlow and Longford knocked out Kildare and Meath respectively in the Leinster series, or the celebratory mood in Fermanagh after they beat Armagh and Monaghan and reached the Ulster final. Last Sunday we witnessed a similar outpouring of emotion from the Roscommon fans, who actually invaded the pitch before the final whistle to congratulate their heroes on pulling off another memorable Connacht final win over Galway in Salthill.

The provincial championships give the smaller counties – who will never win an All-Ireland – a chance to win silverware. Granted it may only happen once in a generation, but it is such an integral part of the GAA’s fabric I would hate to see it replaced. However, it does need to be realigned.

My suggestion is for the provincial championships to be retained as well as the first two rounds of the All-Ireland qualifiers. Then the 16 teams who have been eliminated play in an alternative championship over one or two tiers. By the way, in case anybody thinks I wantthe provincial system to be retained because I was intoxicated by the atmosphere in Salthill, let me deal with that assumption.

Granted, there was great excitement at the end, but overall it was a poor game as both teams set up as a mirror image of each other. They were too cautious and conservative. Once possession was lost they retreated en masse and allowed the opposition carry the ball up the field without anyone being put under pressure. I have to admit, though, I got it wrong about Roscommon.

They are a different animal since Anthony Cunningham took charge. The key is that they now have a workable defensive system – they haven’t conceded a goal in the championship yet. There is no more ‘Mr Nice Guy’ about them, either. They play on the edge and this bunch is mentally tougher than previous Roscommon sides. Their forwards continue to impress. They had 16 attacks in the second-half, got off 11 shots and scored 1-8 from play. Kerry-native Conor Cox has been a revelation and the point he scored from close to the corner flag was one ofthe scores ofthe championship.

I don’t understand why he wasn’t given a better chance by Kerry. Any player who can put the ball over the bar is a valuable commodity. We can talk about systems and tactical plans until we’re blue in the face, but the key to the turnaround in the second half was Roscommon’s attitude. They ran at Galway and gotin their faces, and once they built up momentum there was only going to be one winner. The Super 8s will really test them, though. They had a tough time in the series last year, losing all three games by an average of 13 points.

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They willface the Dubs again in Croke Park ifthe champions retain their Leinster title and although they are certainly more organised defensively and Cox has been a huge addition, I can’t see them making the last four. Mind you, it’s a bit like Last Man Standing when it comes to the contenders to challenge Dublin’s five-in-a-row ambitions. Four of the country’s top six teams – Mayo, Tyrone, Monaghan, and now Galway – have all exited the provincial series in a very tame manner this summer. Galway’s second-half performance was abysmal. They scored two points – one from play – and four oftheir starting forwards were replaced. When the chips were down, there were no leaders on the field for them.

On the sideline Kevin Walsh was like a rabbit caughtin the headlights and I couldn’t understand why he waited until the 68th minute to introduce Martin Farragher. Their biggest problem, however, is that they are stuck in a tactical straitjacket. The system they play is not suited to their strengths In the last 15 minutes when they needed to push forward in order to save the game they remained stuck in their defensive mode. The biggest issue with their counterattacking game is that the ball has to carried through the lines, which essentially precludes any early kicking into the full-forward line.

Their hands were tied to some extent this summer because ofthe absence oftheir target man Damien Comer. Although Antaine Ó Laoi and Ian Burke are talented players they need the ball delivered to them on a plate. Galway now face a battle to make it into the Super 8s. As for winning an All-Ireland in 2019? They haven’t a snowball’s chance in hell.

Read Pat Spillane every week in The Sunday World.

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