Johnno and his colleagues appear to be inching ever closer to the kind of team we’re likely to see facing Sligo (or London) at McHale Park on the 22nd of June. The side named for Sunday’s clash with Kildare shows just two changes from the previous one that started against Kerry but, if you compare Sunday’s fifteen against the side that took the field against Derry back at the start of February, it can be seen that something a bit more significant than minor tweaking is being undertaken.
Only eight of Sunday’s team started against Derry (Clarke, Howley, Higgins, Gill, Dillon, C Mort, Austie and Andy), while three more (Cunniffe, Heaney and Parsons) came on as subs that day. What’s most noteworthy, I think, is that the entire full-back line has changed since Derry, as has midfield. While some of the changes have been as a result of injuries (notably to BJP and Peadar Gardiner), the fact that we’ve completely altered these two sectors isn’t a coincidence. Before the Kerry game we’d leaked more scores in the NFL than any other county bar Kilkenny and London and it was fairly obvious that the root cause for this was a failure to win enough primary ball around the middle, coupled with an inability to deal with all that ball raining in on our backline.
While we still struggled around the middle against Kerry, there were definite signs of improvement in that sector, especially after Tom Parsons joined the action. Once the full-back line had been reshuffled, we looked far tighter there too and it should come as no surprise to anyone that Liam O’Malley is the one to make way there. The full-back line we’re now fielding is an extremely inexperienced one but I’ve been banging on about the need to experiment so I can’t really complain now that this is happening. We should find out over the remaining three league games whether or not this is our full-back line for the 22nd of June. The need to continue deploying Trevor in the sweeper role that he played against Kerry should also be become clearer over the next few games.
Elsewhere, the team is looking more settled, with Trevor Howley now firmly established at no.6 and Keith Higgins at 7. Chris Barrett is a bit unlucky to have slipped down the pecking order by virtue of the injury he picked up in the Donegal game but it’s difficult to argue against David Heaney’s inclusion in the starting fifteen and our increased tightness at the back is due in no small part to the current half-back trio.
While Peadar’s injury is unfortunate, it does give us the opportunity to test other options in the forwards. With Trevor deployed further back, Peadar seemed to play too deep the last day and he also cost us two points by conceding two totally unnecessary frees which Bryan Sheehan converted. It is at least arguable, therefore, as to whether or not he’d have been picked to play if he were fit. James Gill has started in every game to date so it’s hardly surprising that Johnno has opted to give him the no.10 jersey but if – as I think will be the case – he plays largely as a third midfielder, then we’re – as we were against Kerry – effectively left with just four out-and-out forwards.
Alan Dillon must have been still injured the last day – he was kicking the ball like a girleen at times – so hopefully a fully fit Dillon will be better able to pull the strings at centre-forward the next day. It was noticeable that in the second half against both Laois and Kerry our primary tactic when we got the ball at midfield was to pump it in high to Mort and Moran, which – as was the case with sending ball like that into Tom Reilly twenty years ago – made no sense at all. When Dillon is on his game, he has the ability to make things happen in the forwards so we have to hope that he will be and that, as a result, we see more intelligent use made of the ball as we move forward.
It’s probably no surprise that the full-forward line is the most settled area of the team, with the three lads having played in all four matches to date (the only others to do so are Howley, Higgins, Gill and Dillon). Austie looks like a man reborn and all we can hope for is that he can keep this vein of form going. Mort is Mort and we also need him to continue doing his stuff. Andy needs to keep getting all that possession but we also need to see him do more with it, in terms of laying it off better and scoring a bit more.
Like I’d say is the case with most others on the terraces, I’m happy enough with Johnno’s team selection for Sunday and it does appear that the shape of a championship side is starting to emerge. There are still a number of question marks over a number of places but now’s the time of year for finding out who is best placed to fill the available gaps. What we’re seeing emerge is a mixture of the tried and trusted (e.g. the likes of Heaney, Higgins, McGarritty, Dillon, the two Morts and Andy), the second-comers (Gill and Austie) and the newer brigade (Cunniffe, Conroy and the rest). The next three games will tell us a lot as to how far this mix might take us over the course of the Summer that lies ahead.