With only a few days to go to our third consecutive NFL semi-final appearance, it’s as good a time as any to set down a few thoughts on how the team is shaping up and what the rest of the year might hold for us. I know, it’s still only April (even if the weather smacks of early Summer) but, despite this, it’s worth bearing in mind that we’re only five and a bit weeks out from our Connacht championship showdown with Galway. This means that the countdown to the real action is already on in earnest.
Sunday will be, in part, a good test and, in part, a bit of a pain in the ass for both sides. The only good point about it is had we not met at this penultimate stage, there’s a good chance we’d have come up against each other in the final itself and that would have been just four weeks out from the Pearse Stadium showdown. It’s better to meet them - and beat them - this weekend instead.
The two semi-finals should, in theory, demonstrate that the football in Division 1A was far more competitive than in 1B but I’m not sure it’ll work out that way. As I mentioned the other day, Brian McIver’s rather odd rotation policy in recent weeks could mean that Donegal mightn’t be as slick as they were a month or so ago and this could give Kildare a sliver of hope. Meanwhile, any Mayo/Galway clash will always have its own individual mood music and how this one plays out will have little or nothing to do with who our respective opponents have been in the league since the start of February.
So how are we developing? I’d say Johnno and his colleagues will be pleased enough with how things have gone so far. They inherited what must have been a very dispirited group of players but have, within a few short months, turned them into a side that likes to win, successfully negotiating a difficult league campaign to earn an early reappearance at Croke Park. That’s not unique, I know – John Maughan picked his charges off the floor in early 2005 to get them to a league semi-final as well – but this was an extremely tough Division and we did manage, despite a litany of injuries, to qualify for the semis with a match to spare. And we scalped Kerry, Cork, Dublin and Tyrone in the process. We’ve even managed to get our first pitch invasion out of the way too.
The positive start to the year means that, despite last September’s pasting, we’re still one of the big beasts in the jungle, a point confirmed by the bookies. We’re only on offer at 15/2 for the All-Ireland and there are good arguments to be advanced as to why those ahead of us in the betting are, apart from Kerry, demonstrably no better than we are. Tyrone’s odds of 9/2 says more about past achievements than future prospects and Dublin’s at 11/2 appears to be more about wishful thinking. Kerry, at 2/1, are, however, rightful favourites.
One interesting aspect of Johnno’s Second Coming is the way in which the broad outline of this year’s championship team has rapidly become apparent. The two really big problem areas – full-back and centre-back – were dealt with immediately and by the time the first league match – the win over Kerry – was over, James Kilcullen and Billy Joe Padden had their pawprints pretty much all over the No.3 and No.6 jerseys respectively. In the weeks since, they’ve both firmly nailed down these positions in the side.
I think we know at this stage more or less what the backline will be for Pearse Stadium. David Clarke, back again following Kenneth O’Malley’s unfortunate thumb injury, will start between the posts. Flanking Kilcullen will be Liam O’Malley and Keith Higgins, with Aidan Higgins an additional option on either side. Alongside BJP in the half-back line, Enda Devenney and Peadar Gardiner are likely to start, with Trevor Howley pushing hard for inclusion and Garry Mullins also in the fame.
The backline, which had all the defensive properties of blancmange last September, is still a worry. Keith Higgins is great going forward but not as great when his man is coming at him. We can be shockingly loose at the back at times, as the first half against Dublin showed so vividly, and there’s always a worry that some day we will concede a hatful of scores, many of them goals. That said, the backline is undoubtedly better now than it was last September and, as fitness levels improve and the training starts to pay off, it will get better still. But there’s a nagging itch there, all the same.
When we get to considering midfield, it’s then that the impact of the injury list starts to bite. David Brady and Ronan McGarritty would probably be our first choice midfield pairing but the former is still struggling to achieve fitness, while the latter is unlikely to play any meaningful part in the campaign. If Brady does manage to return to full fitness, I think he has to start for us against Galway, probably in tandem with Harte. The other option would be a Brady/Heaney pairing but they bring similar skills (and drawbacks) to the table, whereas their strengths (physical presence, leadership in the middle) complement those of Harte (good forward momentum and ability to score). So, it’s looking like Harte with Brady or Heaney and James Nallen in reserve for a few cameo appearances. Barry Moran and Seamus O’Shea could get call-ups from the U21s but, if Brady returns to rude health, we’re probably well enough covered in this area as it is.
Things get more complicated in the forwards. Again, injuries are relevant, with Ciaran McDonald a long-term absentee and Trevor Mortimor also sidelined, most likely until July. Mac’s injury looks like it will keep him out of serious involvement in the campaign and, given that he’s never going to be a bit player, it could well be the case that we’ve effectively seen the last of him. Trevor should make it back but, like last year, the unfortunate timing of his injury means that, when he does recover, he could find it hard to break back into contention for a starting place.
In terms of the central attacking places, the most likely options for now are Kevin O’Neill on the forty and Ger Brady at full-forward. O’Neill has recovered from injury, is playing well and has the necessary vision and chutzpah to lead the attack. The joyous manner in which he pinged ball inside against the Dubs in the second half at McHale vividly illustrated this. Ger Brady doesn’t have those same qualities but his physical strength and undoubted ability to run directly at defences could (and it’s still only that) make him into a pretty damn good full-forward. Of all the players’ performances this Sunday, his (presuming he plays at full-forward) is arguably the most important in terms of what team we put out against Galway next month.
Filling in on the wings, we have the likes of Aidan Campbell, Aidan Kilcoyne, Andy Moran, Alan Dillon, Conor Mortimor, Michael Conroy, Marty McNicholas and Austin O’Malley. We’re still some way from having a settled forward line but that’s no real surprise – you tend to see more chopping and changing in the forwards depending who might be on fire at any moment. As things stand now, I’d say that Campbell, Moran, Killer, Dillon and Mort are battling it out for the four places, with Killer possibly losing out on a starting place. However, this could easily change between now and 20th May.
Overall, we’re in good shape given the time of year and where the journey has taken us to date. I’d like to see us win the league because (a) it’s a national title, (b) it would reinforce the message (which I’d though we’d emphatically made on that Day of Days last year when we beats the Dubs) that we can win at Croke Park and (c) it would stop Galway winning it. A rematch with Donegal in the final would be the perfect send-off for the Pearse Stadium showdown and it could also be an interesting precursor to the All-Ireland series, as we shall see in a bit.
The Galway game on 20th May is, let’s face it, the real Connacht final. Sure, Maughan and his Sheep Stealers will huff and puff but I cannot, in my wildest nightmares, see them troubling us unduly if we get past Galway. Likewise Sligo and Leitrim. No: this year, the Connacht final takes place in May and we need to be aiming to win it. If we don’t, it’s not the end of the world but it just means a far tougher run to the All-Ireland series and a much harder quarter-final once we get there. Johnno knows this route well, having taken Galway all the way to Sam along it in 2001, but I think we’re more of a confidence team and we perform better when we arrive in Croker as Connacht champions. So, the front door it needs to be.
Assuming we make it, who are we likely to find there? We’re in the Ulster end of the house this time, which means that we could face the beaten Ulster finalists (or a qualifier, Galway, perhaps?) in the quarters, followed by the Ulster champions in the semis. Ulster would appear to be between Armagh and Tyrone (both declining in power), Donegal (who really do appear to be on the up) and, possibly, Derry (as the other three are grouped together in the other half of the draw). A league final meeting with Donegal on Sunday week could, therefore, be a useful bit of sparring ahead of a more serious clash later on in the Summer.
In the other half, there is, of course, Kerry and there’s also Dublin. Kerry should regain their Munster crown and the Dubs are likely to have another (possibly slow) march to the Leinster title. Kerry are likely to ease into the semis and, although the Dubs might stumble a bit on their ungainly way through Leinster and face a bit of a tussle with Cork, Tom Humphries should finally get his day in the sun as his beloved Dubs at last take the field against Kerry. Most likely only to get walloped again.
Ultimately, if we’re to do it, we’ll have to beat either Kerry or Dublin in the final. Neither option looks wholly palatable but we shouldn’t think that either of them can’t be beaten. Far from it: Dublin under Pillar are always going to be beatable, as we showed last August and which Kerry, for broadly similar reasons, should demonstrate equally well this year. That leaves Kerry. It always does, doesn’t it? However, the simple fact is that if we want to win the Sam Maguire we’ll have to beat the buggers at some point. Sure, it would be better if somebody else did it first or if we got to tackle them earlier than the final but this is how the draw pans out this year and we have to deal with it on that basis.
For what it’s worth, I think Kerry – under Pat O’Shea – will be less settled and, possibly, more beatable than they were last year. But they did have thirteen points to spare on us last September so they can afford a bit of slack and still beat us handily enough. We have a huge amount of catching up to do to compete with them but, if there’s one thing Johnno will do for us, he’ll make us competitive again. Even against Kerry in the final.