Familiarity breeds contempt. Really? Does extensive knowledge of someone lead to a loss of respect for them? Not this weekend.
There is huge respect between the four remaining counties in this year’s senior football championship. Surely, the days of riling up players on some superfluous tirade of nonsense to tap into some form of hatred are long behind us, at least at the senior inter-county level?
We must remember that these players are far more in contact with each other than ever before. Between the colleges football they play through the Sigerson, the annual All-Star trips and the shared purpose that has developed since the Gaelic Players Association has been set up, it is a different sort of familiarity across the dressing rooms these days. Therefore, any attempt to reduce the game to petty score-settling will be lost on these players, especially when the modern-day footballer demands so much more from their coaches and management teams.
First up on Saturday evening is the game between Dublin and Mayo, a match-up that most football fans, apart from Kerry and Tyrone natives of course, would have hoped to have been the pairing for the All-Ireland final on September 1.
Not to worry, as the best two teams over the last decade are sure to serve up a modern-day classic, not because they are both playing at the same level, but because of the familiarity that binds them. The continuity and incremental progression experienced by the Dublin players since Jim Gavin’s appointment in 2012 is the bedrock for their continued success.
Compare that to what the Mayo team have experienced in the same time. The remaining two years of James Horan’s first stint in charge, the Holmes and Kennelly fiasco of 2015, the three years under Stephen Rochford where the silverware dried up, and now the first year of Horan’s second stint, which at least has brought them up the steps of the Hogan Stand for this year’s national league title.
However, there is a lot of football in some of those Mayo legs, which is no bad thing if there were sufficient highs over the years. But because of the lows, the mileage will always weigh a lot heavier in the body as the seasons pass. Nevertheless, if any county can do it, Mayo can.
At the start of this year’s championship, I suggested that James Horan’s tactical know-how will be under more scrutiny than any others, as a returning manager. The jury is still out as the disappointing run in this year’s Connacht championship meant that the backdoor qualifiers beckoned. Moreover, what should have been an opportunity for them to flex their muscles en route to the Super 8s instead resulted in further discomfort, as we were left watching through our hands as they stumbled over Down, Armagh, and Galway.
A trimming by Kerry in the opening round of the Super 8s compounded things, before, in true Mayo fashion, they made it once again to an All-Ireland semi-final after dramatic wins over Meath and Donegal. But such heroics are the stuff of yesteryear, and not the clinical behaviour required to be an All-Ireland winner in 2019.
That is not to suggest that they can’t get to that clinical place. They can. They have the players who have the know-how and the killer instinct, but the question that remains unanswered is whether they will have a gameplan or two, or three upon which to truly to take on Dublin from the throw-in to the final whistle.
However, let’s dream for a moment that Mayo can actually beat Dublin on Saturday, which is something no one has done since that Donegal game in 2014. Mayo would still be left with the final to contend with three weeks later, which reminds me of what Donegal did in 2014 when their five-day training camp in the lead up to their semi-final win against Dublin left them out of ideas for their game against Kerry in the final.
Which is why this weekend’s action is so remarkable. Mayo may be the only team who can beat Dublin, but if they beat Dublin, and that’s a big if, they are very beatable by both Kerry and Tyrone. That is why the measure of the team will reflect the information coming from the sideline.
To state the obvious, each of these games will be contested on the field by the players, but possibly less obvious — the winning of the games will come from the smarts on the other side of the whitewash.
This season Mayo have found new players to add to the depth of the squad in James Carr and Fionn McDonagh, and resurrected the careers of others in Darren Coen and Evan Regan, to bring much needed competition to the forwards. But unless they can collectively step up to the level where Dublin exist and thrive, they will be taken apart, and this is where tactics, gameplans and the ability to adapt on the fly will come under the microscope for the coaching and management team.
There is no such concerns in the Tyrone camp with the hugely experienced Mickey Harte marshalling the line, as he does. He will not be lulled into a false sense of security either, nor waste time thinking about past victories against Kerry in 2005 and 2008. However, his players will take great confidence from whatever strategy he presents to them in his attempt to return to Croke Park for a second final in two years.
Whatever happens on Saturday, there is a sense of inevitability to how the game will be played because of how Mayo and Dublin match up. However, the same can’t be said for the Kerry and Tyrone game, where contrasting styles could make for an intriguing Sunday afternoon in Croke Park.
Peter Keane’s Kerry will trouble Tyrone through their renewed stability at the back that sets their young guns free to rampage up front. Again, there will be respect between the sides. It will be hard-fought and not an inch will be given, but in the preparation of the game, both management teams will spend time on their opponents’ weapons. This old adage about focusing on ourselves is nonsense in the modern game.
Maybe the balance of time in the lead up to both of this weekend’s matches will have an inward focus, but huge time will be invested in working out solutions to the problems the opponents’ strengths will pose. This is the starkest development in the game over the last decade.
For this reason, where once a gameplan sufficed, nowadays multiple gameplans need to be prepared and rehearsed in equal measure. Anything less and you will be found out over the 70-plus minutes. At this stage of the season, the teams are just too good. So, in some respects, it almost doesn’t matter how good the players are, nor should it matter how fit they are. It will come down to how well prepared they are, tactically.
And, this preparation will be born out of how much respect each team has for their opposition.
In a somewhat subdued championship so far, things have finally got interesting.