It’s the time of year for championship previews and I suppose I ought to add my tuppence worth to all that’s been written over the past few weeks, both in the mainstream media and elsewhere, including by the redoubtable Spailpín and by the contributions of those here in the guest slot on the site over the last few weeks.
Following the lead taken by An Spailpín and JPM in looking at national challengers, I find it difficult to see beyond Cork and Kerry in drawing up a list of credible challengers for Sam this year. Cork’s recent record is now a very impressive one. A run comprising NFL-Championship-NFL was last achieved by us way back in 1936/7 and nobody, not even Kerry, has managed to complete a league and championship double in successive seasons. Having to endure Cork lording over them in the championship for twelve months is bad enough for the Kerrymen to stomach but the prospect of the Donkey Ayters achieving a footballing record that they themselves, with their lorry-load of All-Irelands, have been unable to do would surely be bordering on the unbearable for the Kingdom faithful.
But, of course, that very prospect is a two-edged one for the Leesiders. Kerry don’t ever have to try too hard to conjure up all kinds of imagined ‘hurt’ that invariably can only be put to rights by yet another march up the steps of the Hogan Stand in late September and so it’s easy to imagine that their failure to make it past the quarters last year combined with their desire to put their uppity neighbours back in their box will be all the incentive they’ll need to come back fighting in 2011. As a result, we can, I reckon, expect further fireworks between the big two in Munster but, unlike last year, these clashes are likely to be just a warm-up for the real showdown between the counties later in the summer at Croke Park.
Cork’s ability to take out Kerry in the All-Ireland series will, ultimately, go a long way towards deciding how history will judge them in the pantheon of championship winners. Last year they lost to Kerry in Munster but then proceeded to go on and annex Sam without having to meet or beat a single county that had appeared in (or, still less, had won) an All-Ireland final in the previous fifteen years. I know, I know – you can only beat what’s put in front of you but those who would elevate Cork to the status of supermen need to bear in mind that they still have to prove that they can really do it when it really matters against a team that really knows how to win in similar circumstances. A team like Kerry, for example.
That’s not to say that the Kingdom don’t have their own problems either, what with all those creaking joints and their lack of a quality midfield pairing. But Jack O’Connor has used the league wisely and while he’ll now have to hand championship starts to a number of newcomers, there’s still a core unit of experienced old hands on board and, in their forward line in particular, Kerry still have at their disposal some of the best talent in the game. They’ll be hard stopped, I reckon.
Of the others, I still fancy Dublin to go close. The league final defeat may have been painful and while losing such a high-profile game in the manner they did may not have been part of Pat Gilroy’s master plan, I somehow doubt that he was crying buckets over the result either. The Dublin faithful aren’t, from my discussions with some of them, all that put out either, not least given that the football defeat was so quickly overshadowed by that uplifting breakthrough NHL final win their county achieved just seven days later.
The footballers’ defeat did, for sure, add further grist to the mill about Dublin being unable to win matches that really count but, for my money, that particular argument is slightly overcooked. The worst performance Dublin put in during last year’s championship was the scalding that Meath gave them in Leinster but they then went on to secure ballsy wins over Armagh and, in particular, Tyrone and they ended up just a kick of the ball behind Cork in the semi-final.
Losing another narrow match to Cork won’t have helped them psychologically but there were (mainly Brogan-related) reasons as to why this happened and Pat Gilroy surely learned more about his panel in defeat than he would have had they won. Plus the hype machine has been dialled right back down, which can only be of benefit to them as they’ll now go into the championship with all manner of doubts being expressed about them instead of being hailed as the champions-in-waiting. Dublin have, for sure, plenty to prove this summer but I’m still sticking by my claim that they’ll go very close dish ear.
Looking at the Northern challengers, most focus will inevitably be concentrated on Tyrone and Down. What happened in 2008 showed that you write off Mickey Harte’s charges at your peril and despite all that mileage on the clock and the emotional rollercoaster that they seem to forever be careering about the place on, Tyrone remain one of the few counties with the real potential to burst from the pack and sweep all before them in any given year. I’m not sure they’ll do that this year but I wouldn’t be overly shocked if they did manage to either.
Down need to push on after last year and while they have a number of talented players in key positions, the impression I got from their league campaign was that they only seemed to be able to play in fits and starts. This inability to keep plugging away for the full seventy minutes was arguably why Cork got the better of them last September and unless James McCartan can address this failing, there’s a good chance that the Mournemen’s upwards trajectory won’t be maintained this summer.
Of the others, Kildare have been there or thereabouts over the last two years and you get the impression that this could be a do-or-die year for the squad under Kieran McGeeney. I don’t think they’ll win Leinster and while that shouldn’t necessarily mean they won’t make the last eight, I think they’ve probably plateaued at this stage and so can’t see them pushing on to challenge seriously for Sam.
Meath had a mediocre league and with Banty – the Sam Allardyce of GAA management? – at the helm, it’s far from clear that everyone is pulling in the right direction in the Royal camp. Still, as we discovered to our cost in 2009, even an average Meath team can on occasion produce the goods in Croke Park and while I can’t see them as challengers for the championship itself, the Ball Throwers certainly have enough about them to ask a few questions about other counties who think they are.
And us? What I like about Mayo this year is that we haven’t really got a clue what to expect from the team over the coming months. We could see off Galway with ease on June 26th, go on to clinch what might then (perhaps incorrectly, perhaps not) be seen as a routine Connacht final win over Roscommon or Sligo and thus earn entry the straightforward way to the All-Ireland series. Or we might lose in Castlebar to a Galway side revitalised by the injection of some of that U21 talent and once more find ourselves back in the qualifiers, a rocky road that has invariably proven to be a road to nowhere for us in recent years. Or we might surprise ourselves totally and, like Cork, Kerry, Dublin, Tyrone, Down and others, finally perform well in the qualifiers and arrive at the All-Ireland series as one of the four battle-hardened toughies who have found their way to the party via the scenic route.
Needless to say, I haven’t a clue which of these routes awaits us. If, however, we’ve learned anything at all from the largely disastrous four years we’ve had to endure under Johnno it’s that we have to be ready to accept with equanimity whatever path opens up for us. More to the point, we need to realise that, on the one hand, winning Connacht doesn’t of itself elevate us to the level of potential All-Ireland champions (Meath in 2009 surely cured us there) while, on the other, losing in Connacht cannot any longer be viewed as a kind of death in the family.
As others have pointed out before, the likes of Kerry and Tyrone copped on a long time ago that the only thing that matters prior to the August Bank Holiday weekend is to ensure that you’re one of the eight teams to have qualified for the championship-within-the-championship known as the All-Ireland series. How you’ve managed to do this really doesn’t matter a damn at this stage – the key is to make sure you get to the party.
In the Johnno II era, we only made it to this stage once and then, of course, let ourselves down rather badly when we got there. The obvious goal for James Horan has to be to make sure we’re one of the eight counties in this year’s All-Ireland series. If that’s achieved via winning back the Nestor Cup, that’s great, but if we have battle our way through the other way, that’s okay too … providing we get there.
Much has been made of the fact that this route would involve tough matches against all number of determined counties but is there any reason we can’t be equally tough and determined too? As one who witnessed at first-hand our craven qualifier collapse to Derry in 2007 and the toe-curling embarrassment of our failure against Longford last year, I know we’ve a fair bit of re-invention to do to meld ourselves into a hard-boiled qualifier team but I see no obvious impediment to our doing this.
And it’s not defeatist talk to be thinking about the qualifiers at this stage. Cork and Kerry already know that one of them will have to take this road, as do plenty of others. Mayo v Galway matches take place within a unique kind of ecosystem and just as we often fancy our chances against them, they rarely take the field in a Connacht championship match expecting to lose to us. The odds favour us this time but the odds could be wrong and this year if we do find ourselves in the qualifiers, we simply have to avoid seeing this as a catastrophic setback and instead push ahead with Plan B for reaching the All-Ireland series.
How far will we go this year? At this juncture, it’s impossible to predict. There’s much to like about how the team is coming together but we’d be kidding ourselves to imagine that we’re anyway close to the finished article at this stage. I worry about how the full-back line is shaping up and I’m not so sure we’re heading for the right mix of defence and attack in the half-back line either. But from midfield upwards, things are looking positive, perhaps more so than they’ve done for some time.
What’s clear is that the team is evolving but in some key positions that evolution will of necessity continue as the campaign develops (assuming, of course, that the campaign does develop). Our ability to fill the gaps that still exist with the right kind of players will, I think, ultimately dictate how well we do this year.
Our aim at the outset should, however, be abundantly clear. With the championship now a two-part one, our immediate goal simply has to be to qualify for the All-Ireland series and, if we manage to do this, then James Horan’s first season as Mayo manager will deserve to be seen as a success. How great a success would, however, depend on how we fare out from then on but there really is no point in speculating on that at this stage. If we are to achieve our immediate target – one that Johnno only managed once from four attempts over the course of his Second Coming – we’ve obviously got plenty of serious work to be getting on with between now and August. For now, that’s more than enough for us to be thinking about.