Well, we now know the team and there’s not long to wait till hostilities begin on Sunday afternoon. I’ve made it to Clare en famille after a very early start – despite which the M50 was still jammers (as us metropolitan dwellers are apt to say) – and I’m now ready to strike northwards before noon on Sunday.
Let’s start at the back. Kenneth O’Malley returns between the sticks and it’s not only because David Clarke appears to be crocked that this is good news. O’Malley inspires more confidence in the position than Clarke has done, he’s great under big inswinging Hail Mary balls and he has, to boot (pardon the pun), the mother and father of a kickout. This latter area is another one where Clarke has been iffy enough and having someone who knows how to kick the ball out and where to kick it to could be crucial, given the difficulties we may have (which I’ll get to in a bit) in winning primary possession around the middle.
Liam O’Malley has been selected to play but he still has to undergo a fitness test, which, if he fails, will most likely see Aidan Higgins start instead. I hope O’Malley does start – he had a superb game against Galway in the league semi-final and, with a fair bit of positional switching likely to be going on in Salthill, Paddy Power would give you short odds on his having to man the full-back berth at some point. In the other corner, we need Keith to totally nullify Meehan again and, into the bargain, sweep forward to help create a few scores too. And beat Galway single-handed in hurling while he’s at it.
BJ at full-back? Well, it’s not as if there’s a lengthy queue for the position and once it became clear that James Kilcullen wasn’t going to line out there, it was always going to be a case of running repairs. As well as this, BJ hasn’t inspired total confidence at centre-back (though I felt he’d done enough over the course of the league campaign to get the nod there for Sunday) so moving him back allows us pursue other options there. It’s impossible to know how BJ will do in the position: he played well there for 35 minutes in the challenge match against Kildare but marking P Joyce in a championship match in Salthill will be a slightly stiffer challenge for the versatile Belmullet man.
As I said last night, I’m happy that David Heaney hasn’t been selected there (though he might be switched back into the position at some point on Sunday) as this would, I think, have meant that he’d have ended up as our full-back for the rest of the 2007 campaign. No more than Paul Wolfowitz sorting out an extra pay increase for his girlfriend at the World Bank, this would have been a seriously bad idea. Far better that he (Heaney, not Wolfowitz) lines out at midfield, a position in which he’s far more comfortable and effective, with the added option there of switching him to centre-back, if needs be.
Like many others, I thought the last we’d seen of James Nallen in the no.6 shirt was when he trudged forlornly off Croker after only 10 minutes last September but, as spring has progressed, he’s been like a man reborn and was one of our best performers in the league final last month. Sticking him back into the position he graced so well for so long could be interpreted as (a) high-risk or (b) sheer lunacy but that’s before taking into account who he’ll be marking. Ja Fallon is as far past it as our man is and he’s unlikely to provide Jimmy with any kind of searching examination in the area of pace. So, Nallen at no.6 appears to be (c) horses for courses.
Devenney and Gardiner, as expected, take the wing-back slots. Both need big performances, especially Gardiner whose form this year has continued to disappoint. I think he must be close enough to losing his place at this stage and he really needs to put in an improved performance, both offensively and defensively, on Sunday.
Midfield has been a problem area for us all year, not surprising given the continuing absence of both Ronan McGarritty and David Brady. Bergin’s ball-winning ability is a major worry for us in this area – he won loads there in the league match without expending much effort to do so – and without Ronan (who totally bossed midfield in last year’s Connacht final) we have nobody to compete with Bergin in the air. Harte will win some ball but he doesn’t have the same physical presence and would be a better asset at no.10.
We beat Galway in the league match despite losing midfield but this was due to Galway’s inability to take their chances and our high conversion rate of what few chances came our way. In contrast, we won midfield in the Connacht final last year but still only won by a point due to some shocking profligacy in front of the posts. This means that unless we feel we can win the game on the odd few scraps of possession here and there, we need to do what we can to break even in this area. Heaney has shown his ability to win scrappy ball around the middle, a facet we’ll welcome more than once on Sunday, I reckon. We’ll just have to muddle through as best we can at midfield, through a combination of breaking it, crowding the area, channelling the ball up the wings and, where necessary, bypassing the sector altogether.
I think it’s largely pointless talking about the forwards in a fixed positional sense. Will Ger Brady stay at no.10? Or Kevin O’Neill at 14? Of course they won’t and Andy will also be buzzing around like a blue-arsed fly all over the joint. I’d expect to see the Skipper on the forty with Ger Brady more often than not inside, alongside young Mort. As I said last night, it’s great to see Trevor back in the starting fifteen again, especially against Galway and it’s safe to conclude that, if the Mort boys cut loose, we’ll be on our way.
Hopefully both DB and Super Mac will pass their fitness tests. With the likes of Campbell, Kilcullen, Aidan Higgins, Howley, Killer, Marty Mac and Austie also on the bench, we’ll have plenty of options if necessary to make changes over the course of the seventy minutes. It’s a strong bench and, as the brother (not to be confused with The Brother, this is the eldest one) said in a text to me last night after the team was announced, this is a fightin’ team. And one that I increasingly think will be a winning one, albeit by a tight enough margin.
That’s it - back (from De Banner) tomorrow with some final pre-match ramblings.