Learning to cope with new reality

The last week in February has been a strange one back our way.
Learning to cope with new reality

On Raidió na Gaeltachta the other day we had the environmental awareness officer with Kerry County Council in to remind us that March 1 is the cut-off point for farmers to burn off gorse on their land. As if one could light a match outdoors these days, let alone a gorse fire.

Later on in the same programme we had the Professor Emeritus from UCC whose special interest is in hagiography, onomastics, Irish manuscripts and, most especially, the Irish martyrological tradition, tell all our listeners in Cork that St Finbarr, in all likelihood, never set foot in their county and certainly wasn’t born there.

The eminent professor went on to reiterate a point he’s been making for over 40 years, that St Gobnait, to whom the people of Baile Mhúirne are especially devoted during February, was a pagan goddess whose Christian evangelising credentials are far from clear.

We had to stop him in his tracks at the county bounds for fear he would take St Brendan of Kerry from us. Given the week of weather we’ve had and the suffering we’ve endured with the loss of our own blessed Gooch, that would be just too much to bear.

So we thank God (or the gods!) for the return of the National League.

Although the heady days of summer and championship 2014 seem very far away, it is on weekends such as this that the blood courses that bit faster through the veins of all football people. After a three-week hiatus in league action, men of wisdom are beginning to think seriously about their football again.

The ground might not be hardening but with Sigerson Cup, pre-season tournaments and other distractions out of the way, things are starting to take shape again.

Sadly, Kerry are taking to the road to Castlebar today without the greatest forward of this and many other generations, but after the initial shock and dismay, the silver lining-thinking of their manager will see only opportunity and liberation for the rest of the year. It is a time of lowered expectations, an opportunity for new leaders to emerge and perhaps, more importantly, older leaders to re-emerge.

Despite Cooper’s absence, Kerry are in a much better place than they were when they last took the trip to Castlebar over a year ago. This time, however, they face a Mayo team in desperate search of league points. A win for Mayo tomorrow would halt the spread of early season corrosion and, much like the English rugby team last weekend, playing in front of their own supporters for the first time this season should be enough to inspire them.

Kerry will most likely return home in the exact same position as last season and with a home game against Tyrone on the radar, it won’t get much easier in the immediate future.

Given his disdain for short-term thinking, Eamon Fitzmaurice will appreciate the words of Antoine deSaint-Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

By the time this league is done and lessons for the championship are absorbed, we should have a clear sense of how Kerry intend to cope in the great wide open without Cooper.

Having started the league a month ago racked with uncertainty and doubt, Cork are in a strong position heading into round three. Beating Westmeath and Kildare at home in Páirc Uí Rinn has offered players early season validation for what Brian Cuthbert and his management team are at. Donncha O’Connor’s rejuvenation is emblematic of the dynamic within the Cork camp right now, but tonight in Croke Park is the first major examination for a developing team. O’Connor’s injury-enforced absence affords us the chance to see John O’Rourke, Paul Kerrigan and Mark Collins — a grafter, a speedster and a thinker — play in the same line together. It should be fun.

There is a saying in Irish ‘ní hionann dul go tigh an rí agus teacht as’ — going to the king’s house and coming out of it aren’t the same thing — and how Cork’s younger lads cope in tonight’s clash will be telling. No goals in two league games isn’t a huge cause for concern but when stitched with the fact that they failed to raise a green flag in their two big championship games last year — against Kerry and Dublin — they may wish to address the issue sooner rather than later.

Tyrone are the last team to emerge from the king’s house with a victory, but that one-point win in March of last year will be better remembered as the defining day in the argument for and against the introduction of the black card. The startling impact the black card has had on the first two rounds of the league is most welcome. But the biggest surprise of all is that the team most responsible for its introduction, Tyrone — the team for whom cynical fouling was “the exception rather than the rule” according to their manager — are up to this point the ones who appear to be benefiting most from the new disciplinary system.

Thanks to the black card, ‘football’ has been ‘breaking out’ again, and Tyrone are at the forefront.

It is testament to Mickey Harte and his players’ intelligence and adaptability that they are thriving under the new ways. To watch Mattie Donnelly, Darren McCurry and Ronan O Neill’s movement against Mayo three weeks ago was to behold the wonder stuff. If they keep this up as the sod hardens, they’ll be hard to stop.

The other Division 1 game this weekend sees the two teams who got promoted last year, Westmeath and Derry, face off in Owenbeg. I was a raw 18-year-old Kerry panel member the last time Derry took two league points in Killarney in 1993, and even if there’s a world of difference between the team of Scullion, Downey, Tohill, McGilligan and Brolly and Brian McIver’s young charges of 2014, there was something very impressive about the way they went about closing down the space available to Kerry on the Kingdom’s home patch three weeks ago.

The need for shutting up shop at the back shouldn’t be as great against a Westmeath side who, like Kerry last year, are struggling for scores but who are also the only team in Division 1 yet to concede a goal, thanks mainly to the heroics of their goalkeeper Darren Quinn. It’s hard to see Derry slip up here.

For all the intrigue in Division 1 this weekend, the meatiest clash across all four divisions is bound to be the rematch of last season’s Ulster final between Monaghan and Donegal in Division 2. Stephen Gollogly’s bald-headed tackle on Mark McHugh became the defining image of last July’s final, but it is hard to imagine Donegal won’t match that seismic intensity and hunger this time.

Although they appear to have closed the book on last summer’s fade out, Donegal have, from the outset of this year’s league, fielded many of the same names that defined the 2012 championship. The likes of Ryan McHugh and Odhrán Mac Niallais look like the type of players who could give them further options. Monaghan, too, have fielded players (Ryan Wylie, Fintan Kelly, Jack McCarron and Chris McGuinness) who all seem well equipped to earn their stripes this summer.

Stranger things have happened than Monaghan beating Donegal in the home of St Eunan’s Letterkenny but on this feast day of St David, when all gorse fires on all the hills of Donegal and elsewhere are supposed to be extinguished, I take Donegal to keep the flame burning.

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