Because we never really know what different teams set out to do or just how much they’re giving the league, the first two rounds of league football can be particularly beguiling. How much can we read into Kerry’s poor attitude in Tralee three weeks ago? How real is the Armagh resurgence? Is Dublin’s indiscipline a sign they are not yet at the mental pitch required to drive on from last year ? And are Cork as good as they looked in dispatching Down?
As always, summer will determine the true worth of any team, but two teams who will surely have welcomed the three-week break are Donegal and Kildare, the teams that provided us with the maddest, most adrenaline fuelled and most transcendent moments of 2011. Two defeats from two league matches in February has supporters from both counties starting to worry.
Kildare’s worries centre mainly on the fact that they haven’t managed to score a goal in their opening two games against Tyrone and Monaghan. The 18 points they scored in a challenge game against Kerry last weekend was an improvement on the 12 they’ve averaged in the league up to now but half of those points were scored during dead time in challenge matches when experienced players stop being competitive.
If Kildare are to build on the promise of recent seasons it is going to require a great deal more luck than they’ve been having. At some stage too, they are going to have to decide on their best attacking formation. Of course the unavailability of certain players and the need to experiment with others will always give a side an unsettled look during the league but come the stretch in the evenings at the end of the month, things would want to be stabilising in the Kildare camp.
By then Dermot Earley and Hughie Lynch should have a bit more training done, Johnny Doyle should be shifted to the inside line, Eoghan O’Flaherty needs to decide if he’s a back or a forward and Mikey Conway, Ronan Sweeney, Morgan O’Flaherty and Padraig O’Neill are four others in danger of falling between two stools. Tomás Connor is a potent weapon at the edge of the square, but, much like Kieran Donaghy in Kerry, you can never be sure if it is better to stick stubbornly to the aerial bombardment or redeploy their obvious strengths to make things less predictable. Either way, the days of unimpeded access to airspace for big full-forwards are long gone.
The most worrying aspect of the Kildare campaign to date has been the fact that none of the fringe players have stepped up to the mark when given their chances. At the start of the spring I would have thought Kildare would be the one team to most benefit from a decent showing culminating in promotion from Division 2. Now I’m sure they would settle for the emergence of two or three viable new starters — that and a few goals.
This evening’s outing in Páirc Tailteann is set up nicely for Kildare. While not yet in do-or-die territory, the local rivalry, the sense of occasion on a Saturday evening in spring and the Royals form in February have all served to crank things up a notch. It’s the perfect platform for Kildare to re-establish their credentials as a serious team. I think they’ll be ok.
This time last year, Donegal had drawn at home to Sligo and beaten Tyrone away but the first real inclination we had of Jim McGuinness’ revolution was in their 1-5 to 0-8 draw with Kildare in Round 3. Apart from Down (who leaked four goals against Cork last time out) no team has conceded as much as Donegal in the opening rounds this year.
Of course, it has been up front Donegal have struggled so far but the return of Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden, Martin McElhinney and Christy Toye gives them options and extra physicality. There was a distinct sense from Donegal of a team going through the motions in the defeat by Laois three weeks ago. They went the first 25 minutes of the second half without a score and it was only when they went 11 points down that they rallied.
Their next two games will be revealing. Cork go to Ballybofey tomorrow and a week later Kerry await in Killarney. Whatever criticisms we had of McGuinness’s style and methodology last year, results always provided a most eloquent rebuttal. It is difficult to imagine that a management team which produced the most radical departure from traditional tactics this past decade don’t have a few more tricks up their sleeves. It may however, be difficult for them to revive a worthy version of what became a discredited strategy last autumn, particularly in light of revelations in that book featuring the keenly missed Kevin Cassidy. The evolution of this Donegal team between here and the summer could be fascinating.. or it could be anti-climactic.
Perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate the effect that losing all five competitive games (three McKenna Cup and two National League) so far in 2012 has had on team morale, but beating a table-topping Cork team who have shown signs once again of a team on the cusp, would do much to restore faith. Another home defeat is inconceivable.