Tomás Ó Sé: Brilliant defence no longer enough to topple big guns
This league will be especially interesting for the strategies employed by Tyrone and Donegal as everyone chases Dubs
My uncle, Páidí, was inclined to place the National League somewhere between taxes and cold showers in terms of inconvenience.
He had little time for it. Even though Kerry won the league in only his second year as manager (1997), he just considered it a winter imposition best met with a weary shrug and a sprint for the hills as soon as business had been tended to.
During my time playing with the Kingdom, it wasn't until Jack O'Connor took over from Páidí that I remember any serious emphasis being put on having a serious crack off things in February, March and April.
Until then, we'd just get through the league, tipping along with our focus on using it largely as a training investment for the bigger stuff coming down the tracks.
It meant we found ourselves in some strange towns, playing games that barely forced us to get a serious sweat up.
And Ballyragget is one of the coldest places I remember.
We pitched up there in February of '99 for a Division 2A league game against Kilkenny that probably has the status today of some kind of historical novelty.
But that year, we were in the same division as the likes of Wicklow, Antrim, Limerick and London too, courtesy of a relegation embarrassment the previous season that was entirely of our own making.
And I have a vivid memory of warming up that day in Ballyragget, the wind howling, rain tipping down, and most of us looking at one another as if suspecting the Kerry bus had taken a wrong turn.
Barked I turned to Denis O'Dwyer at one stage. "What the f**k are we doing here?" I barked.
He looked at me, pointed over at Páidí and barked back, "Ask that yoke over there!"
We won the game by 20-odd points, duly gained promotion, then bowed out meekly enough at the quarter-final stage to Meath.
To us, that had been the height of our ambition. We had no interest in getting any further. None.
Kerry were expected to win the All-Ireland every year and, accordingly, the championship was the only show in town.
This was old-school Páidí. We prepared for summer, period.
Jack changed that, announcing at one of his first team-meetings: "We start taking the league seriously from now on!"
We'd win three of them under Jack, then go another eight seasons before Kerry won their 20th crown last year.
That win puts us eight league titles ahead of the next best, Dublin, on 12.
What would the score be I wonder if we'd ever really gone for broke?
Now the smart money this time seems to be on another Dublin-Kerry final on April 1, but I suspect we might get some dramatic twists and turns along the way.
Put it this way, I've seldom looked forward to a National League more. I think the top three divisions particularly are all set up to be unbelievably competitive.
This, I will admit, is the flip-side of last week's argument in which I was giving out about the squeeze inter-county is putting on the game at club and colleges level.
That argument still stands, the National League is simply the first beneficiary of that imbalance.
Seems to me the last few leagues gave teams a very clear picture of where they stood going into championship, which - let's be honest - wasn't always the case.
Everybody's goes 110pc in the league today and it's making for a compelling competition.
I thought Michael Murphy made a very interesting comment last week, suggesting that Donegal would have to change the way they played if they hoped to win another All-Ireland. I agree with him totally.
Put it this way, Jim McGuinness was a hugely radical, tactically inventive manager, a brilliant man whose achievement with that group was unbelievable. He brought something to the game that had never been seen before.
But Dublin figured it out and that system now has been blown out of the water. It's effectively obsolete.
Everybody saw what the Dubs did to Tyrone last August. It was absolutely clinical and it announced to the Donegals and Tyrones of this world that just to defend brilliantly will no longer be enough.
So Murphy was spot on last week. To beat the Dubs today, to beat the Kerrys and the Mayos, you're going to have to able to mix up your game, to run at them, to kick the ball long at times.
And that long kicking is absolutely crucial.
So many inter-county players simply don't have that skill anymore.
They've become slaves to this game of short, lateral handpassing, of moving up the field like an army passing rations across a river.
Dublin are still a small bit ahead of everyone in my opinion, but Mayo and Kerry are capable of breaking down any defensive unit now too. That's not by accident. The top teams stay the top teams because they constantly adapt.
Now, in fairness to Tyrone, I think they simply didn't perform against Dublin last year. But my point is that, even if they had, the Dubs would still have picked them off.
I suspect Mickey Harte knows now that, if they stick to last year's game-plan, they haven't a hope in hell of getting Sam.
And changing isn't exactly going to be as simple as flicking a switch. It has to be about investing greater trust in players and that doesn't happen overnight. My information is that the Tyrone players want that, they want to play a more open, more direct brand of football.
And that's where good management comes in. If Tyrone want to make that change, they've got to use this league to do it.
Imagine them trying that against the Dubs in Omagh on February 3? How fascinating would that be?
So this is going to be one of the most intriguing sub-plots to this league. Will the supposedly ultra-defensive teams change things up now?
One factor that really excites me about Kerry this year is the certainty that we're going to see an injection of youth.
There was huge disappointment in the county with how our championship ended last year but, that said, it's also clear as day we're not that far off Mayo.
And the dogs in the street can see that Mayo aren't far off Dublin.
So Kerry are contenders this year. But certain things need to happen for them too.
One obvious thing is that the defence needs to tighten up. In terms of individual talent, I believe Kerry's backs are every bit as good as Mayo's. But they've yet to play as impressively as a unit. In the modern game, your system demands everybody be on the same wavelength. Put simplistically, it should mean you have 15 attacking when you attack, 15 defending when you defend.
That aside, I expect the likes of Tadhg Morley and Jack Barry to be better players for their year of experience at this level. But I think you're going to see others break in now, young bucks like Sean O'Shea, Jason Foley and, of course, David Clifford. People are raving too about the Dr Crokes goalie, Shane Murphy.
And you know something?
If I was Eamonn Fitzmaurice I'd put out Kerry's blueprint for championship straight away and give these lads a go.
Imagine what they'd gain from a full National League campaign in which they won't get a single handy game?
Think about it this way. There's so much expected of young Clifford now after his minor heroics, but I honestly believe we could learn more about his readiness for senior level in this National League than we will in the Munster Championship. Why?
Because the league is harder.
He'll face heavy conditions that will suit the defenders and come out the far end of this league under no illusions about what's facing him here.
That said, you don't see many minors being pitched straight into senior, so people need to be patient with these young lads. In any sane environment, David Clifford shouldn't be feeling any undue pressure here.
All he needs to do for now is listen to the likes of Eamonn, of Mikey Sheehy, to be guided by what they tell him. And, above all, forget the hype.
Eamonn Fitz knows that Kerry's forward line struggled last summer. Take Paul Geaney out of it and we didn't have a regular scorer from play. Young O'Shea and Clifford have the potential to transform that aspect to Kerry's game. But if it doesn't happen this year for them, so be it. They have time on their side.
Dublin, we can be certain, will be competitive every day they go out. They know exactly what they want from every game and it wouldn't surprise me if they got to another final.
The scenario is slightly different for Mayo. I don't think they can afford to put too heavy an emphasis on the league because they're still depending on a relatively small core group to be competitive. They were incredible last year despite taking a long road in the championship and I suspect they won't want to go down that road again.
Above anyone this year, Stephen Rochford needs to be selective with the teams he puts out because it's surely all about championship for Mayo.
They're a phenomenal group that I think can retain Division 1 status in the league without ever putting out a full team. That's because they're never beaten.
My admiration for Mayo has grown massively over the last two years.
I'm sure they'd love to win a league, but they can't really afford to go foot-to-the-floor for one.
That said, to me Division 1 of the league this year will be like our first glimpse of the Super Eights.
And Mayo can't afford to play two Super Eight campaigns in one year. Not when they're leaning so heavily on the same players.
Bearing in mind that they went all the way to September last year, I think it's only right that some of their key men won't be thrown straight back into the maelstrom.
It's a long year and, for Mayo above any team, there's nothing to be gained by going too hard too early. So I wouldn't judge them on anything they do in this league.
The Dubs have set the modern template for others and, maybe, the two key parts of that are (1) a really smart goalkeeper and (2) six or seven very good forwards.
Add in real athleticism, a good balance of young and not-so-young and you'll have a shot at something. But let's be honest, right now it's basically the superpowers that are thriving.
Like it's a big year for Kildare, starting against the Dubs this weekend. They were decent in last year's Leinster final, yet the Dubs still beat them by nine points.
Then, Armagh were too good for them in the qualifiers, so I think a really solid Division 1 campaign would stand to Kildare because, psychologically, they can't really afford any slippage.
They'll know a hell of a lot more about themselves at the end of this league. Personally, I think they've got something about them, but suspect their confidence might be fragile enough.
Galway are in a similar situation. They've got to hold their ground here.
For some teams, the league is simply about that. Survival. Systems and the like can take a back seat when the onus is, above all, on staying up. Look at Tipperary in Division 2.
They've done brilliantly to climb up from Division 4, but now it would be brilliant for them simply to stay up. To consolidate.
Cavan have come down from Division 1 and if they slide again, the danger is the damage to that particular team could be terminal. Likewise Roscommon.
I'll be very interested in Cork too under new management. For them, it would be disastrous to slip down into Division 3.
The kind of game they gave Mayo over 90 minutes last year set a standard they've got to make the norm.
But the reason I get so angry with Cork is they've no consistency. I do appreciate the knives come out very quickly with them. There's no patience shown towards them, but the good teams learn to live with that predicament.
Let me put it is this way, the likes of Luke Connolly, Sean White, Sean Powter and Stephen Cronin are well capable of making Cork hugely competitive in Division 2.
So Cork are good enough to win promotion, but that consistency problem is what makes me hesitate. And hitting the ground running is never easy for new management.
They're also missing their Nemo contingent for now but, whatever else Cork find in 2018, greater consistency has to be the number one priority. Because without that, they'll continue to encounter severe abuse.
It's incredible how often they're written off given the amount of talent at their disposal.
But that's a problem of their own making.
One to which only they can find a solution.
Anyway, I'm really looking forward to things getting under way now.
You compare a Division 1 game this weekend to a National League game when I was starting out and, frankly, it would make the standard we were operating at in February look embarrassing.
That said, will I give out about some of the things I see? Write it down I will. What would an Irish winter be without half the GAA giving out like bears with sore heads.
And I think I'm getting the hang of it!
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