So tomorrow it all starts again. Not the really serious stuff – that gets going for us in May when we face Galway – but the League is of significance in its own right and we can expect plenty of stern tests in Division One over the coming two months.
The first team announcement of the year for a competitive fixture is always an event that merits attention. Who’s available to line out from the leading group of panelists? Are any new lads being given the nod? Is there any hint about a fresh tactical approach?
Obviously, with so many of last year’s All-Ireland final team out of action for tomorrow’s League opener – either through injury or unavailability – the team named to face Monaghan was always going to be one showing several changes from the one that started against Dublin last September. And it was.
The team we named last night contains just seven players – David Clarke, Brendan Harrison, Colm Boyle, Paddy Durcan, Kevin McLoughlin, Aidan O’Shea and Jason Doherty – who lined out from the beginning in last year’s final. However, a further four who saw action off the bench that day – Ger Cafferkey, Stephen Coen, Diarmuid O’Connor and Conor Loftus – are also in the first fifteen for Clones.
This means that the team we’re fielding tomorrow isn’t one lacking in experience. Only two players – League debutant Eoin O’Donoghue (best of luck to him, by the way) and Michael Hall – haven’t been on the field for us at some stage in an All-Ireland final since 2012 and, of course, that duo both boast All-Ireland medals at U21 level (minor as well, in Michael’s case).
As well as that, we’re unlikely to name too many neophytes among our sub list for tomorrow. Assuming there are no changes to the named team – and, if past evidence is anything to go by, there could well be one or two – we’ll have among our replacements the current Footballer of the Year, Andy Moran, as well as the likes of Robbie Hennelly, Kevin Keane, Caolan Crowe, Shane Nally, Danny Kirby (assuming he’s fit), Conor O’Shea, Alan Freeman and Cillian O’Connor (if he’s over the ‘flu). Ger McDonagh, Shairoze Akram, Neil Douglas, Brian Reape, Fionn McDonagh and Ciaran Treacy could also feature but the list I’ve named just there (plus the first fifteen) runs to thirty players and we can only pick a match-day 26.
What of the first fifteen? From the looks of it, we’ve gone with possibly the strongest line-up currently available to us.
David Clarke – now a two-time All-Star – was always going to start between the sticks. Ditto Brendan Harrison in the corner. Ger Cafferkey didn’t have a great summer last year but he needs game time this spring if he’s to play a major part for us in this year’s championship.
I’m delighted to see Eoin O’Donoghue get his chance. Brendan Harrison two years ago provides the template here and if the young Belmullet man plays to his potential over the coming weeks he could prove equally hard to dislodge come summer.
Michael Hall made his League debut as long ago as 2015 but he’s still a young relatively inexperienced player so partnering him with four-time All-Star Colm Boyle and the irrepressible Paddy Durcan brings solidity to the half-back line. Six is a big position, though, so this is a significant test for the Breaffy player. A big chance too.
The same goes, to some degree, at midfield. With Tom Parsons and Seamus O’Shea out, we obviously had to muster another midfield pairing. Jason Gibbons could never be accused of being the luckiest player where it comes to injuries but he’s back, he’s fit and he comes into the side on the back of some fine club form last year. We really need him to perform there and it’d be great to see him have a stormer tomorrow.
Stephen Coen has been deployed in several positions over the past few years. While he’s undoubtedly better further back his appetite for hard work won’t go amiss in the engine room. Jason will obviously be expected to provide the dash, while Stephen minds the shop.
I assume Aidan O’Shea will also drift back to centrefield and, if he does, that should give us a fairly strong threesome in the middle of the field. As well as providing a shield in front of our defence it also opens up the space further ahead for Kevin McLoughlin and Diarmuid O’Connor to roam at will towards their posts and to spearhead our attacking bursts.
Jason Doherty revelled in the additional space provided last summer when Aidan was stationed further back and his role as pivot of our attack tomorrow will be important to watch. Jason is well able to win ball and we’ll need him to do this and, as well as taking the odd score himself, to bring both Evan Regan and Conor Loftus into the play.
This is a huge League campaign for Evan. He’s been seemingly on the verge of breaking through to the first fifteen for years but last summer was unable to force his way into the match-day panel once we got to Croke Park. With other young guns now looking for a slice of the action the pressure is on the Ballina man to produce the goods. Hopefully starting tomorrow.
Conor looks like a man who’s set to nail down a starting place sooner rather than later. Easier said than done, of course, but a run of games, and plenty of scores, will make that task easier for him. He scored a goal against Monaghan the last time we played them at Clones. Another one tomorrow wouldn’t do any harm.
Tomorrow’s match is sure to be a tough one. The absence of Conor McManus and Kieran Hughes for them is, of course, a huge boost for us but Monaghan will have targeted this game for points and will come at us with all the primordial tactics that Ulster teams specialise in at this time of year. This is what they did to us last year and we weren’t able for it. We need to be tomorrow.
Ultimately, though, what did for us twelve months ago was some shocking wastefulness in front of the posts. A significant improvement in that department, allied to a willingness to go toe-to-toe with the Farney lads in the physical department, would go a long way towards getting us the desired result at St Tiernach’s Park. Here’s hoping that this is precisely what we do.