atching last Sunday’s league finals, especially Kerry and Dublin playing out yet another cracker in Croker, a number of things about it got the pulse and mind racing about the summer ahead — and even the one after that...
Yeah, there could have been more done for the mid-tier and weaker counties and those counties could have done more for themselves when voting at Congress, but last Sunday further underlined that the more we get to see Kerry-Dublin, Dublin-Mayo, or Mayo-Kerry on a sunny day that feels like championship, the better.
The latter pairing haven’t faced off in championship since 2014 and that seismic clash in Limerick. They’re due to collide in an All Ireland semi-final this August but that still leaves the likelihood of one of them not playing Dublin at some stage this summer. With a Super 8, there won’t be any way for a special or big three to avoid one another, be it in Croker, Killarney, or Castlebar.
Fitzmaurice’s command of his managerial brief is bordering on masterful now, from how he integrates new players into his team to how he assigns diminished but nonetheless vital roles for veterans such as Bryan Sheehan with his late majestic curling point. The way in which Fitzmaurice saw an opportunity in Paul Curran’s recent post-Tralee comments was also indicative of someone increasingly at ease and attuned to the demands and possibilities of his position.
Fitzmaurice as much as anyone is aware of just how little separates the top teams and how victory and defeat can hinge on an official’s decision, and how unconsciously and sub–consciously, referees can be swayed in the pressure moments by how they are predisposed to certain players and teams.
Though he did not reference the 2015 All—Ireland final in his comments last week, Fitzmaurice would have been very mindful of that game when, as Kieran Donaghy put it in his autobiography, the Dublin fullback line were repeatedly “bullying my boys”, to the virtual indifference of the umpires and David Coldrick’s appeasing, enabling approach with his “Watch it, Philly” pleadings. Johnny Cooper’s studs catching Diarmuid O’Connor late in that year’s semi-final; Donal Vaughan being repeatedly stopped and hauled – and in one case, swiped at by John Small – running off the ball in last year’s final replay, causing Mayo’s best player in the drawn game to incur an injury that ruled him out for the second half; Brian Ó Beaglaoich in last year’s semi-final “wrestled to the ground and basically choked” by Cormac Costello; time and time again in the big games Dublin players have escaped black and red cards in a way, say, that Seamie O’Shea or Lee Keegan did not for lesser, more borderline offences.
It’s human nature. Champions enjoy a halo effect and it’s hard for referees and officials not to be blinded by it. Fitzmaurice’s intervention was like a reminder from the optician that they were due another eye test.
Some pundits have suggested it’s a card that Fitzmaurice cannot play again in the championship but they miss the point. His comments weren’t just aimed at last Sunday’s officials but at whoever might referee the All- Ireland final or indeed any other Dublin game this summer. Up to last Sunday Dublin players were repeatedly getting the benefit of the doubt, especially in running off-the-ball entanglements. After Fitzmaurice’s notification, officials are more likely to view at such violations through different lenses.
As sincere as Jim Gavin is when he says his team just look to the next game and to try and perform in it and win it, the biggest hint last Sunday that he had his eye on an even bigger prize than another league title was in who he brought on for Connolly after he incurred a black card. If it had been a knockout game in the All-Ireland series, Kevin McManamon would have been straight in, if not on from the start. Instead Gavin wanted to give Niall Scully some exposure to the heat he can expect in an All-Ireland quarter-final, semi-final or final that no Leinster championship game this summer will be able to replicate.
Most of the leading counties, bar Tyrone, got what they wanted from the league, or at least what they needed. Monaghan are back on track after last summer’s early exit to Longford; more so, in Jack McCarron, they have finally found that greater support for Conor McManus we’ll all been crying out for. Donegal have lost more than a handful of All-Ireland winners but may have blooded as many future ones. Kerry got to beat Dublin – which was bigger than winning the league title itself – and found at least five new players who are real options to play championship minutes.
Dublin though are also nicely positioned after this league. They got to break the record for consecutive games unbeaten and then have that streak end; in short, it reminded them and everyone else that while no team has been harder to beat, they’re hardly unbeatable. Something else is worth bearing in mind – the last time Dublin lost a league final by a point (back in 2011), they went on to win that year’s All-Ireland.
For the last nine weeks we’ve been treated to cracking games between the top teams, one week after another – now we’ll have to wait that long again for the next series of games to truly whet the appetite for neutrals. But hey, it could be worse. For a few years there only Donegal gave us anything to find interesting about the championship this side of August. This year they’re going to get a little more help. A week before Rory Gallagher’s team more than likely square off against Tyrone in an Ulster semi-final, there are three games that catch the eye.
Top billing on June 11 has to be the likely meeting in Salthill of Galway and Mayo, assuming Stephen Rochford’s team see off Sligo a couple of weeks earlier. Last year Mayo – uncharacteristically – were not primed for their old enemy. This year, you’d expect them to be; the backdoor did them no harm last year but another summer of it could finish them. Galway could be about to start something. They’re not yet ready this year to win an All-Ireland, but a bit like Mayo in 2011, they could stop a team or two from winning one while gaining the experience for future assaults at Sam. June 11 will tell.
The same afternoon Cavan will play Monaghan or Fermanagh, the kind of game that Ulster prides itself on; you might fancy Monaghan to emerge but any of the other two will fancy themselves.
Also on that day, Cork will almost certainly host Tipperary. It’s hard to see either of them stopping Kerry winning a fifth consecutive title under Fitzmaurice; it was quite revealing to hear Kerry players dismiss last week’s victory “as only the league” yet talk openly about being only judged on August and September, not bothering with the obligatory reference to Munster finals and “Cork being Cork”. But Cork-Tipp is a game that’s intriguing in its own right. Cork are fighting for the right to get back to being Cork but Tipp, with their boldness and the likes of Quinlivan and Sweeney, will relish another shot at them and the big time.
We’re looking forward to that day too. It’ll nearly be as good as the league.