Éamonn Fitzmaurice: The hurt from last year will drive Kerry and Donegal

After a long wait, the return of Gaelic Games has enlivened us and Championship 2021 will answer a host of fascinating questions, writes Éamonn Fitzmaurice
Éamonn Fitzmaurice: The hurt from last year will drive Kerry and Donegal

A knock-on effect of a knockout championship is the serious hurt generated from a premature exit. Both Kerry and Donegal fall into this category,  writes Éamonn Fitzmaurice

Ariggo Sachi once described football as ‘the most important of all the unimportant things in life’. While soccer, rugby, and golf have sustained us through lockdown 2021, Gaelic Games are the heartbeat of our communities and of the Irish summer. It is great to be back.

Conversations around the weekend fare will take centre stage once more and talk of the global pandemic will thankfully fade into the background. As we rip into the season with games coming thick and fast form lines and storylines will be established.

Thinking ahead is challenging as without context we can’t be sure where anyone is at but for what is it worth I think it might be worth keeping an eye on some of the following areas.

Hurt that drives

A knock-on effect of a knockout championship is the serious hurt generated from a premature exit. Both Kerry and Donegal fall into this category as both were strongly fancied to at least test Dublin last year prior to crashing and burning.

When Kerry lost the All-Ireland replay in 2019 the sense in the county was that progress had been made, it would only be a matter of time before they were climbing the Hogan Stand steps and an air of positivity prevailed. That mood was completely flipped on its head last winter and in that uniquely Kerry way suddenly the natives were extremely restless.

The players and management are backed into a corner and I expect them to come out with everything blazing. The age profile and training age of the squad is good and the graduates from the successful minor teams will feel it’s high time to deliver. As a player, I remember being in a similar position when we lost to Cork in the Munster final in 1999.

The hurt from that defeat drove us for the 2000 season when we won the All-Ireland. The key to harnessing this hurt positively is to get momentum early in the season and build confidence by winning. Losing games only franks the question marks.

Both Kerry and Donegal have on-field issues to solve as Kerry look to better balance their attack and defence while Donegal will strive to eliminate the no-shows on the big days.

I’m expecting big responses from both groups of players and management teams.

What is the significance of the league?

A summer league is an intriguing prospect. The debilitating winter conditions won’t be a factor and that should make for quick and enjoyable games. Players have had an extended lay-off and must be bursting with enthusiasm.

The games are also going to serve as excellent preparation for the championship. Managements will be mindful of managing players’ loads and rotating their squads. The extra subs will help with this as will an early win. They will also be balancing this rotation by trying to settle their starting team, get match fitness into key players while also establishing the pecking order throughout the panel.

The three-game North/South arrangement means that teams need to get off to a winning start to avoid relegation issues. I expect to see serious intent as teams look to build towards championship and all will hope to have the luxury of resting players as they go.

Maintaining your status, keeping your squad injury free, and entering championship with momentum and confidence will be the baseline goals. Anything else will be bonus territory.

Will rusty refs implementing new rules lead to mayhem?

The new cynical foul rule has got plenty of press over the last few weeks. Generally speaking grey areas when it comes to rules are never a good thing and there is plenty of grey in this rule.

When making the decision to award a penalty or not much will depend on the referee’s interpretation of what a goal-scoring chance is. The number of defenders between the fouled player and the goal is outlined in the rule but will the referees take other factors into consideration? Will they take into account who is in possession? A team’s best goal getter versus their corner-back, for example. What about the standard of the goalkeeper? Air and ground conditions? A lot of subjectivity comes into play there which will inevitably lead to inconsistency. Have the referees discussed this as a group?

There are plenty of questions and only the matches will provide the answers.

While this is the headline change some of the other rule changes will also be interesting. Cards for managements while also retiring the maor foirne role should make for compulsive viewing. Which manager will have the honour /ignominy of being the first to be flashed with a card?

As we introduce new rules again, increasing the workload on referees further, as the game gets ever faster and in the interest of consistency I will make my annual declaration that the inter-county game now needs two referees.

A different Tyrone

We all accept that Tyrone have plenty of excellent footballers. Much was made in the last few seasons of the way Mickey Harte set them up as they were labelled ultra defensive. They certainly were defensive but the days they got their counter attack game going, they were excellent.

Their problem was that against the best teams this game-plan simply didn’t work, in large parts due to not having enough of the ball and having to expend most of their energy in their own half defending rather than attacking.

New Tyrone joint-manager Brian Dooher, left, and Feargal Logan.
New Tyrone joint-manager Brian Dooher, left, and Feargal Logan.

There will probably be a change in style which should help them but I think the biggest change will come in their attitude. Brian Dooher had a cold ruthlessness about him as a footballer and I expect him to be the same as a manager. Similarly, Fergal Logan was no shrinking violet and knew how to take care of himself when he played. I expect Tyrone to have a real aggressive edge about them this year as the U21 team had when they were involved with them.

The them-against-us identity of the All-Ireland-winning Harte years will be to the fore again and coupled with the freshness of approach may well make them a serious force once again.

Can anyone beat Dublin?

That old chestnut. Dublin will most likely breeze through Leinster again, get games under the belt to sharpen up for an All-Ireland semi-final and final showdown. The knockout championship suits them.

The lockdown also suited them as tired bodies and minds will have been rejuvenated for another go. The scary thing about them in last year’s final is they were not at their best but still dug it out comfortably.

They are continuing to evolve, both in terms of personnel and playing style which is keeping them that step ahead. While they are introducing new players regularly and accepting that they are excellent players, I don’t think they are at the standard of what is going out the door.

This isn’t affecting them yet but it will in time. They are still ahead of everyone else but the gap is closing. Of course, they can be beaten this year but it will take a special team getting nearly everything right to do it. For the sake of football I hope someone does, preferably Kerry.

Joyce’s Galway Mark II

Jekyll and Hyde is the only way to describe Pádraic Joyce’s first season in charge.

Galway were flying in the league when Covid-19 derailed their season. They failed to win a game on the return to play last autumn and their early-season progress was long forgotten.

Sligo being unable to play the Connacht semi-final didn’t help Galway’s cause as they were straight into a final without much to go on in terms of form and confidence. On the day Mayo were better but Galway could have stolen it at the end.

Joyce and his players must have been hugely frustrated with the way the season panned out. I expect them to get back to where they were and Galway at their best are a summer, top-of-the-ground team. Year two of the Joyce project should make for compelling viewing.

Can Armagh take the next step?

I have kept a keen eye on Armagh’s progress under Kieran McGeeney over the last few seasons since I finished with Kerry. I have been impressed with much about them, from their style of play to some of their individual players.

I have felt for the last two seasons that they needed to get back to Division 1 and get exposed to that level of football on a regular basis to make the next step. Now that they are back up there they will want to stay and the league will be extremely important for them. Kieran Donaghy’s addition to his backroom team was a good call by McGeeney. Kieran will give them plenty of different angles, energy and enthusiasm, and an abundance of experience. They have a lot of the ingredients to win games, they just need to start beating top-tier opposition regularly. They are on the easier side of the draw in Ulster, if such a thing is conceivable. They will most likely have to beat Monaghan to get to the final. It feels like it could be now or never. Keep an eye on them.

Division 4 Galacticos

We have seen in the past many times where prophets from outside of the county have delivered success. Micko, Páidí, John O’Mahony, John Maughan et al.

In most of these cases the synchronicity of a decent squad coupled with an excellent manager worked. It is rare however that an outside manager does well with a team struggling in Division 4.

This year the division is stocked with big names varying from rookies to veterans and it will be intriguing to see how they get on. Will the managers be humbled and understand the truism that you are only as good as the players you are working with? Or could they deliver a bounce and make a county dream, as Micko did with Wicklow?

Cork

Cork have been on an upward curve for the last few years as they have made incremental progress on and off the field.

DEFINING SEASON: This summer will inform us if Ronan McCarthy is building something special at Cork. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
DEFINING SEASON: This summer will inform us if Ronan McCarthy is building something special at Cork. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

The graph obviously stalled last year when they failed to capitalise on their opportunity to win a Munster Championship. I imagine the management and players are now in a position where they are impatient for success and will want to see real progress this season as opposed to the incremental variety.

Promotion from Division 2 will be top of the agenda initially, followed by a cut off Kerry in Killarney, barring another season of shocks.

However, they haven’t won in Killarney since 1995, before many of the players were born, Killian O’Hanlon is a huge loss, and they will also be facing a dangerous wounded animal. This summer will inform us if Ronan McCarthy is building something special or if they are destined for a further spell in the doldrums.

- You can read the Irish Examiner's 20-page special publication looking forward to the Allianz Football League and Championship with your Friday edition of the Irish Examiner in stores or from our epaper site.

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