Saturday 21 September 2019

Rigid status quo will spoil Super summer

Dublin's Con O'Callaghan will surely be even better in his second season which is a pretty frightening prospect for the nation’s defences.. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Dublin's Con O'Callaghan will surely be even better in his second season which is a pretty frightening prospect for the nation’s defences.. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

This year's football championship is like the hurling championship's dark alter ego. If it's difficult to rein in your enthusiasm for the latter it's hard to whip up much for the former. Hurling may be tasting the joys of democracy after years of Kilkenny dictatorship but in football the iron grip of the metropolitan oligarchs seems set to grow tighter.

Dublin's dominance in recent years has been neither predictable nor unchallenged. They've won three All-Irelands in a row but they've won them by a total of five points, with a replay thrown in. In the Kerry four in a row which the Dubs are bidding to match this year the average final winning margin was almost ten points.

But the worrying thing about this year's championship is that Dublin seem to be getting better at a time when their main rivals aren't. Last year Jim Gavin's team were in a kind of transition. Only nine players from the team which started the drawn 2016 final began the 2017 decider. The big four of Michael Darragh Macauley, Paul Flynn, Diarmuid Connolly and Bernard Brogan became largely peripheral figures. Dublin's best performers were an under 21, Con O'Callaghan, a couple of players finally earning a starting slot after being in and out of the team, Michael Fitzsimons and Paul Mannion, a wing-back newly switched to midfield, James McCarthy, and a wing-back returning from a year's absence, Jack McCaffrey.

This year Dublin look much more settled. O'Callaghan will surely be even better in his second season which is a pretty frightening prospect for the nation's defences. Mannion's superb second-half performance in the All-Ireland final has brought him on a ton. The defence remains the best in the game and Brian Fenton has no peer in midfield. Additional weapons have been added to the armoury. Ciaran Kilkenny has started kicking points again, Macauley looks rejuvenated and Brian Howard looks an interesting addition to the attack.

Speculation that the hoo-hah over Diarmuid Connolly might upset the Dubs seems like the most ludicrous kind of wishful thinking. If finding themselves two points down with six minutes left in last year's All-Ireland final didn't panic the Dubs it's unlikely that the absence of a player who barely appeared in last year's championship will provoke a meltdown.

Dublin will be better this year. Can we say the same about Mayo, the team best equipped to take them on? Not really. Lee Keegan's injury worries seem symbolic of the wear and tear which two successive long qualifier campaigns have inflicted on the Westerners. It's difficult to see Andy Moran reproducing last year's form which made him Mayo's most powerful weapon. A poor league campaign unearthed no significant new options.

Yet Mayo still constitute the champions' most likely nemesis. They have a lot of very good battle-hardened players and they are the only team with the ability to match Dublin for strength and pace. A considerable upside could be provided by giving Aidan O'Shea an extended run at midfield rather than using him as a kind of mobile puncture repair kit.

Expect Mayo to give Galway a rude awakening today and further reduce the list of possible contenders. Galway have improved but, the mighty Damien Comer aside, still look lightweight up front. A defensive system ideally suited to the soggy sods of spring may reveal its limitations as summer wears on. That's something which could also bedevil a Monaghan team which oscillates between overachievement in the league and underachievement in the championship, though watching Conor McManus will remain one of the summer's pleasures.

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Kerry look to have gone backwards since beating Dublin in last year's league final. The chronic weakness of their full-back line so gleefully exposed by Mayo showed no sign of having been cured in a league campaign where they conceded ten goals. Even their best backs, Paul Murphy and Peter Crowley, are better going forward than defending.

The Kingdom will be great fun to watch as wunderkinder David Clifford and Sean O'Shea link up with Paul Geaney and James O'Donoghue in attack but for the moment considerable style seems unaccompanied by the requisite substance.

Who else is there? Tyrone get a namecheck in previews because there's hardly anyone else to mention but they are a long way short of top class. Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly aside, nobody on the current team would have got near the 2005 Tyrone side.

The summer of 2005 now seems like a high point of modern football. The Kerry, Tyrone or Armagh teams from that year could at least have run Dublin of 2018 close. For all the talk about Dublin's unbeatable financial and demographic advantages the real problem is that football currently lacks quality at the elite level and general strength in depth.

The game is in a slump. The once mighty Leinster and Munster championships are in a dire state and the two provinces might well end up with only a team apiece in the Super 8s. At least two of the teams who reach that stage - Roscommon? Armagh?, Tipperary?, Cork?, Kildare? - are likely to suffer heavy beatings exacerbated by a lack of the necessary reserve strength. Most counties would be better off not making the Super 8s at all.

The football championship isn't a whodunnit. It's a whybother.

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