The few weeks between the end of the NFL campaign and the start of the championship is being filled, it would appear, by a discrete challenge match campaign. I remember back in the Eighties – when the county team was only starting to rouse itself and become, once again, a real force in the Gaelic football world – that we seemed to be the the kings of the early summer challenge match. Particularly vivid memories are the filleting of Dublin in, I think, Westport on Whit weekend in 1985 and Meath (All-Ireland champions later that year) being taken to the cleaners in a match in 1987. Ah yes, if there was a Sam Maguire handed out for challenge matches, we’d have more than three of them.
This year’s challenge match campaign is now in full swing. Following last weekend’s home match against Clare, the lads are taking themselves off to Kildare to play the Lilywhites this coming Sunday. The ever-reliable Mayo News carries a match report from Sean Rice on the Clare game and also has some news about how the squad is doing.
As you’ll see from the match report, the lineup in Parke was, as expected, a very experimental one. Morven got a runout in goal and seems to have done okay too. However, with the surprising news since that Kenneth O’Malley is now fully recovered from his thumb injury and back in contention for a place on the team to play Galway, this could well be Morv’s only appearance for a while.
Paddy Navin, flanked by Aidan Higgins and Liam O’Malley, put in a strong performance at full-back. In his Mayo News column, Sean Rice muses about what’s going on in relation to this position. He thinks that Johnno is losing faith in Kilcullen but he feels, as I do too, that the Ballagh man should start against Galway. Why else would Johnno have persevered with him and the rest of the backline if he didn’t intend to field them all in the championship? However, Kilcullen’s early departure against Donegal and the fact that Liam O’Malley and now Paddy Navin have been given a runout in the no.3 jersey show that this spot is still very much up for grabs.
In the half-backs, BJP (who, in my view, will definitely start in this position against Galway) played alongside Sean Ryder and Andy Moran. Ryder has been in the squad right through the NFL campaign but I don’t think he came on in any of the games. He played well by all accounts and initiated the move that led to the only goal of the game. Andy got a point from left-half back – a star man, he is, wherever he plays.
Midfield was a case of something old (James Nallen) and something new (Aidan Campbell), the latter scoring three points from play. Neither of them will start against Galway in that position (Campbell might start but, if he does, it’ll be in the half-forwards while Nallen is certain to be on the bench) but they both provide valuable options around the middle.
All of the forwards scored, which is perhaps not all that surprising given the plodding nature of the opposition but it’s still a good sign. Barry Regan, Kevin O’Neill and Killer comprised the half-forwards, with Mark Ronaldson, Austie and Michael Conroy in the full-forward line. The most noteworthy name there is, obviously, that of the Louisburgh man who, it would appear, is being given yet another chance to prove himself. His 1-3 return would suggest that it’s a chance he grabbed with both hands but Austie’s problem has always been his inability to perform consistently. In view of the observations made after the Donegal game (I could be vain and quote myself but Kevin McStay did a far better job in making this point) about the paucity of good finishers on the team, Austie could still earn a place for himself on the first fifteen. But only if he remembers what he’s there to do – make himself available for the ball, catch it (don’t drop the frigging thing!), turn and knock it over the bar. Again. And again. and again. And none of this smartass stuff either, like soloing with the right and kicking with the left. Keep it simple. A scoring Austie and a fully fit Marty Mac – a man who also knows how to kick a point – could help to edge upwards our points from play tally.
The other point of note in the forwards was that Trevor made an appearance as a second half sub and scored a point into the bargain. Trev’s the man for Galway, I’d reckon: he’s well able to get under their skin and his presence would gee up Conor too. Things are starting to look up on the injury front, though this report shows that we have a number of new niggling concerns in this area too. Please, please, please: can we stop those bloody club league games now or at least allow the squad members to sit them out?
Onto this coming weekend’s challenge match, which, as mentioned, is against Kildare on Sunday at the St Lawrence’s GAA club, apparently located somewhere between Athy and Kilcullen. Throw-in is at 3pm. I recently saw Kildare play on successive Sundays – against Laois and Donegal in the league – and while they’ll present a far better challenge than Clare did, they’re a limited enough outfit. How BJP copes with their star performer Johnny Doyle is likely to be of significant interest. I think we can expect plenty of experimentation in this one too as more options ahead of the showdown with Galway are explored.