In the last twenty years, only seven counties have played in the All-Ireland Senior football final. Three of these teams, Dublin (8 wins from 8 appearances), Kerry (5 from 11) and Tyrone (4 from 5), have claimed Sam seventeen times between them in those twenty years, the remaining three going once each to Armagh, Cork and Donegal. Mayo (0 from 8 appearances) are the only one of the seven finalists in this time period that have not taken home Sam at least once.
Going back through the years, we have come agonisingly close and are left with a litany of what ifs, but the bottom line is that we have always done something or omitted to do something that resulted in us failing to get over the line. And in the current year, we again ask what is the likelihood that we could finally break the glass ceiling.
We would, of course, have to actually get to the final – in the last twenty years, we have never played in three consecutive finals – and the route to this year’s one has the most difficult path through Connacht, with an alternative way through the now shark-infested waters of the qualifiers.
But if we were to get there, it is statistically likely that we would have to beat two of Kerry, Dublin and Tyrone to emerge victorious. Is that likely? I contend that it is not, for the following reasons.
First, the other teams are relatively settled. We are not. This has two primary causes, one dependent on the other.
One cause is to do with our injuries. We do not know for certain what the cause of this is, but twelve of our top players are either nursing minor but persistent niggles or, in a few cases, are out until beyond the middle of July.
One wonders has the lack of a home training venue over the first few months of 2022 been a major factor here. It cannot have helped. Switching between hard and soft ground is tough on the hamstrings, the knees and the ankles. Doing it consistently over the cold, wet months of the league must be a factor.
Another cause for our unsettled team has been the need to bring on new players to the extent that they can be major players in the heat of championship battle. This has resulted in chopping and changing between the back and forward lines and has seen Aidan O’Shea playing twice at No. 6 and twice at No. 11.
It is hard to get the best out of a major player like Aidan O’Shea if, by his early Thirties, we still do not know his best position. For my money, he is the best defensive midfielder in the country, blocking up the middle channel, turning over ball on his own 65 and starting the counter attacks. He is one of the hardest workers we have every had but he is not the playmaker we need at No. 11. Diarmuid O’Connor is, and Jack Carney is fast shaping up to be the next best in that position.
The same six backs need to consistently play together, two of whom must be man markers, two of whom are speed merchants who can break quickly with the ball and two who work like hell to close down spaces, so that opposition players get no time on the ball. Likewise, we need consistency in the forward selection. We did not have that last year coming into the All-Ireland, Tyrone did. Kerry had it in the League final this year, we didn’t. Result, we lost both finals.
A second reason we may struggle this year is that in matches we break too slowly. In the most recent lost finals, we were slow getting the ball out to the halfway line. When we got there, too often we passed the ball laterally and eventually tried a kick pass into a full forward line where two opposition sweepers had set up shop. Result? A turnover for the opposition.
In contrast, the Tyrone and Kerry teams moved the ball with 30 metre kick passes and hard running to our 45. If the channels were blocked at that stage, each ball carrier had at least two out-options, one of which was always running into a shooting position.
We don’t do that. We get the ball and wait for the runner. They create the runs and then choose the best offload option for a score. Result, we conceded two goals in both finals and failed to score a goal in either one.
A third issue for us is that our handling is poor. Too often, we lose possession during an attack. Passes have to be accurate and players in possession have to work harder to protect the ball. In the last two finals, these turnovers cost us dearly, turning promising attacks into potential opposition scores. We will not win tight matches if we do not sort this out – and fast.
A fourth reason is how we play the ball into our forwards.
A forward has three things to do to turn possession into a score on his own: he must turn to face the posts, make room for the shot and finally kick the ball accurately. The receiver of the ball in the inside forward line gets an extra chance if the ball is played in such a way that he can claim a mark.
However, our forwards too often get possession with their back to goal from a ball that hops in front of him. The best ball they can then play is a pop pass to a forward facing the right direction. However, we don’t do this enough and the forward then has a serious amount of hard work to do to make a score out of the attack.
In our last two finals, Kerry and Tyrone moved such ball quickly, creating several score chances. Result, two more finals left behind.
After the All-Ireland last year we spent a long winter ruing our failure to bring Sam home. Local journalists asked if the management had reflected on what went wrong. They were assured that they had.
However, the most recent result against Kerry showed that the same fault lines remain. Reflection might have taken place, but there is no evidence yet that the issues that existed in last year’s final have been resolved and looking back at our 0 from 8 record over the last 20 years, I really hope that I am proved wrong as the rest of the year unfolds.