January and 31 teams plus New York and London are pounding the pitches, sweating the gyms and riding high in the saddle. Progress will be measured by progress in the FBD, McKenna Cup, O’Byrne and whatever Kerry blow out dirty petrol in.
In truth it’s an almost futile process for most counties. Like WW1 soldiers, they go over the top to be mown down before the hay is turned. Flickers of success in the four division leagues merely prolong the inevitable.
One way or another, with Sky on board and players demanding more meaningful exposure, we are in the twilight zone of the provincial championships. They are losing their value and worth.
Dublin, Mayo, Donegal and Kerry have shown virtual domination in recent years. This is not an anomaly, we can measure progress particularly since 2011 when those four broke from the pack.
Picking four more teams to equal them is a challenge. Cork for sure, Dublin are without meaningful challenge in all of Leinster, maybe a resurgence from Kevin Walsh and Galway and Ulster’s attritional championship that might occasionally blaze by poking Tyrone or a McGeeney-inspired Armagh.
That’s it. Maybe four teams with a realistic chance of winning Sam. Worse case scenario, would anyone put their house against only Dublin or Kerry winning this year’s title?
I met a few Leitrim players last year. My admiration for them is unbounded. They train as hard as any county. They are as gifted – what would most counties give for an Emyln Mulligan? They dream and aspire like a Kerry man but they lack numbers, they lack tradition.
In Connacht Sligo and Leitrim combined possess five senior provincial championships over 135 years. Mayo have amassed that many inside the last six years. That’s not a boast – no, winning provincial titles often masks other weaknesses. From 45 Provincial titles Mayo have three senior All-Irelands. Donegal have an 8:2 ratio and Down have an impressive 12:5 ratio.
Eventually, either through TV demands or followers turning up in large numbers only for the August quarter-finals , the GAA will go for a three-tier championship, senior, intermediate and junior. In the meantime the gap widens and the annual cull continues unabated.
Where stands Mayo? According to the Irish Independent rankings, they are placed fourth. I assume that this is going on last season’s results. Kerry are ranked number one and Mayo should be ranked three on results based on last year’s championship. The resultant All -Ireland champions needed two matches, extra-time and controversial calls to knock Mayo out.
However, delving through the figures over the last six seasons show that of the Big Four, Mayo, are the only ones not to win the big one. Dublin with two, Kerry and Donegal with one apiece lead the way. That group were joined once over those four seasons by Cork and Tyrone.
Can we maintain our top four status? Certainly I see both Kerry and Dublin keeping the pace. Donegal without the driven McGuinness will be replaced by Armagh with the equally driven McGeeney. And us?
To go forward we must look back to 2011. James Horan benefitted from one trait not normally associated with Mayo managers … good luck. London were within minutes of scalping Mayo and had they then, added to the awful 2010, the county would have been reaching for the sedatives.
That let-off saw a solid run until they ran into a gnarled Kerry side led by Jack O’Connor. Kerry won handily enough in the end. Contrast both teams in Limerick last August. From the 19 players used by Mayo, only Trevor Mortimer, McGarrity and Campbell were absent.
Kerry lost Tomas Ó Sé, Tom O’Sullivan, Kealy, Darran, Gooch, Galvin, Bohan and Scanlon. Dropped for the start were Marc Ó Sé, Declan O’Sullivan and O’Leary. Wholesale change whilst we held virtually the same team from four years earlier.
Remember young Lyne and his two points in extra-time for Kerry in the replay? The heroics didn’t grant him a second on the pitch for the final. Eamon Fitzmaurice is cut from the same stone as Brian Cody. Tommy Walsh, arguably a notch behind King Henry, merited zero minutes in the All-Ireland final plus replay.
Fitzmaurice dropped Marc Ó Sé, Kerry royalty, for the Mayo replay. The sun didn’t stop shining in the Kingdom over that – no, Fitzmaurice backed himself and his philosophy. Ó Sé responded accordingly and Kerry rediscovered their mojo.
The soft centre cost Mayo over the last four years and was not addressed. Kerry 2011, Down and Coulter 2012, David Clarke’s size 12s against Dublin at the death in semi-final, Murphy for Donegal. Likewise the concession of an U16-type goal against Dublin in 2013 and Donaghy making merry in 2014 were costly.
It’s not the absence of that abused term “marquee forward” that has cost Mayo, the scores we got against Donegal and Dublin in 20012/13 were good enough to win many All-Irelands. No, Mayo have had a number of All-Star forwards over the years. O’Connor, AOS, Mort, Dillon and McDonald can be termed as “marquee forwards” though not always together or in tandem.
The panel was retained in total for this season. Yet the previous manager was reluctant to use that panel. When Cunniffe was injured against Dublin in 2013, instead of replacing him with a panel defender, we saw Keith Higgins brought back from 11. Ger Brennan went from hands full to scoring a vital point with his weaker foot. Despite Donaghy running riot last summer, remedial action was slow in coming.
For the new management team to succeed they need their wing backs to continue their high energy game. There are issues in two three spots at the back. Clarke with his experience and calmness is a must.
After 1996 I figured if we obtained a “marquee forward” to supplement James Horan’s stellar ability and a keeper to steady the defence, anything was possible. We got McDonald and Peter Burke but fate ensured Brady, O’Neill and Cahill suffered broken bones. Flanagan and Sheridan nursed injuries all season and Horan’s form deserted him. In other words fate wasn’t listening.
For Mayo to break the final day glass ceiling, big decisions need to be made. Fortune favours the brave. Dublin Mk I won in 2011 with a defensive set-up, Donegal in 2012 crossed the line with their total belief in their manager and his style and methods. Dublin Mk II won 2013 with a brand of offensive football tailored with brutal pragmatism. Kerry gambled in 2014 with a huge injection of freshness and serious decisions made.
For us to achieve the winners enclosure nobody should be above the team. The goal is the ultimate. If the full panel doesn’t believe then those that are in the team are in for ever and those that are out are there for the ride and the training pitch matches.
Sentiment should be banned from the pitch, the dressing room and team. In 2004 Dara Ó Sé missed that year’s final through a broken leg. He vanished from the Kerry collective until the canister was won. No sentiment , no maudlin gestures from those serial winners.
We need that steel. Mike Hassett was the 1997 Kerry captain . He lifted the Munster cup, missed the semi-final against Cavan and was relegated down the subs bench for the final. He wasn’t awarded a winner’s medal. Kerry minted 22 medals and Hassett hadn’t made that number. Tough, but like Kilkenny it’s winning that matters not the support cast. Hard work, hard calls and the smile of Lady Luck are a prerequisite. I wish them all on the team, managers and supporters in the year ahead.