T he National League kicks off with another whimper next Saturday. All the talk this weekend has been of player burn-out but I wonder have we put the cart before the horse this time. We encounter the same problem year on year at the beginning of February and I would like to have seen that tackled in tandem with the burn-out issue.
To me, there is a simple solution to all of this. Most teams who take the field next weekend will do so with players who, up until a few weeks ago, hadn't kicked a ball in anger in five or six months. If you ask footballers from Clare, Tipperary, Limerick, Carlow, Westmeath, Longford, Mayo, Fermanagh and a dozen other counties about the close season, they will point to the calendar for 2007 and show you the months of August, September, October, November and December.
Even the term 'close season' leaves me cold. What about a 'winter break'? Why not go back to the old days and start the League in October, play two or three rounds and then suspend inter-county activity for 10 weeks or so from the beginning of December? We could then finish the League between mid-February and the end of April, with plenty of Sundays free for club activity thrown in.
In my time, we often didn't have much of a break after the All-Ireland and by Christmas, we would know what we had to do when the League resumed. And I can tell you if there was a danger of us going down, we would up the ante come the spring.
I have noticed in the last few years that the League has tended to fizzle out very quickly -- none more so than last year when we had the high-profile launch with the floodlit game between Dublin and Tyrone which packed Croke Park. After that, though, I'm afraid it was a very tame affair.
There's no doubt in my mind that more could be done to market the competition, but the fact that it's run off on such a compact schedule creates more problems than it solves. The truth is that for most counties, the schedule prevents them from having a right go in the League.
We must remember that a lot of teams operate off a tight panel because the talent to make up the sort of large squads enjoyed by the likes of Kerry, Dublin, Armagh, Tyrone and Galway just isn't there. And because the League runs so close to the Championship the fear is always there: make sure we arrive at the first round with a fully fit squad, no injuries.
To my mind, this is a crying shame because if you think about it, there should, in theory, be more teams capable of winning the League than the All-Ireland.
Over the winter, certain teams should be pinpointing this League to make their mark. Those that come immediately to mind are Mayo, Laois, Roscommon, Derry and Kildare. These have been underachievers in recent years and it's high time they made a statement of intent to their rivals.
After Kerry, Mayo are the best pound for pound team in the country. I don't know what curse was cast all those years ago, but it needs to be broken. Mayo need to find mental toughness and John O'Mahony is the man best equipped to help them find it.
In the coming weeks, Mayo footballers need to ask themselves some hard questions and prove their pedigree is more than myth. If Mayo need mental toughness, then Laois need physical toughness. That they have some classy footballers is not in doubt, but Liam Kearns needs some rough diamonds -- particularly at full-forward -- to stand up and be counted when the going gets tough.
As All-Ireland champions Kerry, meanwhile, have nothing to prove. But that will not stop them in 2008. There's a great hunger about this team and I expect them to again set the benchmark this year.
Last year's League unearthed Killian Young and Pádraig Reidy and we all know the impact they went on to make. I think Kerry need to find another two players and in the sons of two of my former team-mates I think they need look no further. Tommy Walsh, son of Seánie, could be the find of the year, followed closely by Aidan O'Shea, son of Jacko. I fully expect Pat O'Shea to throw them into this League campaign and I expect both to push hard for a place in the Championship 20 (for that's what's needed to win an All-Ireland now).
For now, we can all look forward to the months ahead and hope, like we do every year, that this year's League is better than the one before -- all that is except my neighbours in Cork.
At the moment, they don't have much to look forward to at all. The situation down there has simply gone too far and all sides must pull back now for the good of football in the county.
Common sense must prevail, and at 7.0 next Saturday night in Navan, I hope there are 15 Cork men good and true ready for action. There should be no need for third party intervention -- wash your dirty linen yourselves lads.
While I believe the county board were wrong to seek complete control over choosing selectors -- I would have no problem with that power being given to clubs, like it was in Kerry for many years -- I firmly believe striking is a cowardly act. It was a bad card to play.
In fact, I'm amazed they have the stomach for a strike, especially after the way they performed in Dublin last September. Pull back lads, and get on with the football.
Fógra: I'd like to take this opportunity to wish Liam Mulvihill best wishes in his retirement later this week. He was a marvellous Ard-Stiúrthóir and his achievements are a tribute to his vision and diligence. There's no doubt he will be a tough act to follow but Páraic Duffy has proven himself to be very capable and I'm sure it won't be long before we see his own stamp on the post.