Now that the league campaign is over and we’re facing into a protracted, 10-week football-less lacuna before the lads take the field at McHale Park on the 22nd of June in the Connacht semi-final, it’s time, I suppose, to set down some thoughts about how the league has gone, what we’ve learned and what’s of greatest concern ahead of the Championship.
We were never going to be competitors in this year’s league, given the urgent need to try out new (and some not-so-new) players in virtually every position. That’s something we’ve certainly done – fielding 31 players (including subs introduced) over the course of the seven games – and in the process the team has evolved considerably since the opening league game against Derry and enormously since the start of last year’s championship. We’ve had our transition, in other words, now we need to take all those learnings and find ourselves the best championship fifteen we can come up with.
While the league has been helpful in trying out players, I think we need to recognise that we’re still a bit (though not as far as you’d first expect) away from having anything resembling a settled team. We do, however, have some of the spine settled, something we failed utterly to sort out all last year. In particular, midfield is at last looking strong, with Ronan getting better all the time and Tom Parsons – our real find over the course of the league – looking ever more like a really top-class midfielder. (Or, to use a Jamie Redknapp-ism, he has the makings of “a top, top, player”).
Trevor Howley has made the centre-back position his own and, although Padraig Joyce and Brian McGuigan gave him a bit of a run-around in the last two matches, he’s certain to start there in the Summer. I’d say that rookie full-back Kieran Conroy is also likely to hold onto the no.3 jersey, as he’s done reasonably well in the position and, despite his inexperience, he looks the best option we have there.
Alan Dillon is also likely to play centre-forward though, to my mind, there have to be serious questions about his ability to do so, given his alarming slump in form over the league where his scoring rate plummeted to just 11 points, with most of them from frees. I know we’ve probably seen the last of Super Mac but there are still good arguments for handing the no.11 jersey back to Crossmolina legend if he really is fit and ready for battle once again this Summer.
Austie’s had a great league and has, in the process, altered his standing from bit player to certain starter at full-forward. His 21 points were mostly from play and the majority of them were booming signature ones, the kind that really lift the crowd and the team. All we need from him now is to keep up the good work.
If you add in the other players who are more or less certain to start against Sligo, i.e. David Clarke, Keith Higgins, David Heaney, Conor Mortimor (top scorer again in this year’s NFL with a return of 1-31) and Andy Moran, that means that ten of the starting fifteen places are spoken for, (eleven if you add in, as Johnno’s likely to do, Dillon at centre-forward). As a result, you could argue that the half-back, midfield and full-forward lines are all nailed down, leaving only the full-back and half-forward lines to sort out.
In terms of the half-forwards, Peadar Gardiner will have recovered by June and the likes of Aidan Kilcoyne, Aidan Campbell, Trevor Mortimor, Pat Harte, Barry Moran, Seamus O’Shea and James Gill will also be in the running. The problem is that we don’t seem to have any real stand-out players coming through, the kind of guys who have the capability to light up the Summer and be on everyone’s lips as a potential All-Star come the backend. Could Aidan Campbell be that kind of player? It would be nice to think that he might.
One of the real positives of the league campaign was our ability to get scores from all over the place, with 19 of those 31 players getting on the scoresheet and where, in aggregate terms, we had the highest points-for tally in the entire Division (we didn’t rely on goals for that either, as we kicked 92 in addition to our 5 goals). With scores capable of coming from most of the team – Tom Parsons return of 1-4 from midfield was particularly gratifying to see – the job of closing us down becomes all the more difficult, especially when we’re winning a lot of primary ball around the middle (which I think we’ll do with our present midfield).
But this still leaves our overly-welcoming approach in the full-back line, where the problems haven’t been properly boxed off, a fact well known to all our major opponents. (Our points-against tally of 10-77 in this year’s league was only beaten by bottom county, Laois). I think that, in time, the current trio of Cunniffe, Conroy and Boyle might function okay but they don’t give out a sense of calm about them and all of them are, to some degree, being asked to play out of position. I think we have to switch Keith Higgins back into the corner and maybe try BJ (assuming he recovers full fitness in time) in the other corner but, of course, the essential problem is that we don’t have a suite of good options from which to choose. It follows that this inherent weakness in our full-back line could well, despite the unquestionable improvements in other areas, prove our undoing this year, just as it did last year.
Don’t get me wrong: I think we have a good chance of winning Connacht this year (and for those who might be inclined to cock up their noses at another Nestor Cup, bear in mind that it’s only as Connacht champions that we’re any kind of serious proposition nationally), not least because of the draw, the fact that the final will (if it’s Mayo/Galway) be in McHale Park and that Galway won’t have Joe Bergin in their ranks. In order to do this, however, we need to plug those gaps at the back while augmenting the threat we pose at the other end. We have made some progress over the course of the league but we need to make a hell of a lot more now over the course of these ghostly quiet ten weeks that lie ahead before the real action of the year gets underway.