Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Time for teams to get house in order

After the League, counties normally have a chance to gather themselves, but not this year. The knockout Championship also adds another element of anxiety to the mix for teams that are struggling
Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Time for teams to get house in order

Thomas Galligan of Cavan reacts to a missed opportunity on goal during the Allianz League Division 3 relegation play-off match defeat. The Ulster champions will want to forget about this league effort as championship approaches. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

There were many storylines across another weekend of excellent football, including the dramatic conclusion in Clones. We are all waiting for the inevitable tightening up of things that we anticipate championship will bring. Maybe this is merely a self-fulfilling prophecy and we should relax and enjoy what we are being served up.

While some teams have started to set up more defensively, the accuracy and conversion rates mean we are still being treated to samba football. Below are some of the factors that caught my attention over the weekend.

Division 1 standards and smarts

Any team with ambitions of silverware, either of the provincial or national variety, needs to operate in Division 1 and play against the top teams regularly. I accept Cavan and Tipperary disproved this in 2020, but those events were major outliers. Playing in the top division guarantees exposure to every aspect of the game to best allow a team’s
development to continue.

It allows players and management teams to measure themselves against the best.

One of the things I enjoy watching out for most is teams reacting to each other tactically during the match. These moves and counter-moves by the top teams can be as intriguing as they are crucial. Yesterday, Clare showed that they are very close to Division 1 standard in this regard. For example, the Aidan O’Shea v Darren O’Neill battle was absorbing. Early in the game in Ennis, Clare had success using an overload kickout long to O’Neill, with Darragh Bohannon assisting him. James Horan quickly reacted by moving O’Shea from 14 onto O’Neill. O’Shea proceeded to dominate, and completely disrupt this Clare kickout. He drove Mayo on as they dominated Clare for the rest of the first half.

I was interested to see if Clare would react, and they did. They moved O’Neill to the other side for kickouts as a decoy to take O’Shea with him, but more importantly they told him to bomb forward when Clare were in possession, both to run O’Shea and to become a threat at full-forward. He scored one goal and set up another to bring Clare back into the game.

The tweak was good from Clare, but they need exposure to that, week in week out, to go to another level. Kerry will provide a similar test in a fortnight.

Interestingly, I also felt that Mayo showed signs of being out of Division 1 for this league, as they weren’t as sharp as they normally would be, particularly in managing the game out. Horan will realise this and will look for immediate improvement in the Connacht Championship.

Typical Dublin

Dublin comfortably beat Donegal on Saturday evening, doing what Dublin do. We all know the patterns at this stage, we appreciate the skill levels and the decision-making, and we know that, should they require it, they can look after themselves and each other. Their goal summed up what they are all about, on and off the field. Michael Langan has been having a great league for Donegal, and has scored two cracking goals against Monaghan and Armagh by driving through the middle. Dublin would have identified this, and singled out Langan in their video analysis in preparation for Saturday.

When Langan received the ball in the middle of the field late in the first half and started soloing towards goal, a group of Dubs immediately went after him with intent. Peadar Ó Cofaigh Byrne, Brian Howard, Con O Callaghan, and Michael Fitzsimmons collectively forced a turnover, with Fitzsimmons securing possession and immediately transferring the ball to Brian Fenton, who got his head up and kicked out of defence to get them counter-attacking.

A blue wave, including Eoin Murchan, poured forward to support the counter-attack and after playing a one-two with Murchan, Paddy Small finished the goal.

Supporting Small and available for a pass if needed was O’Callaghan, who had sprinted 100 m after helping to force the turnover.

Everything about the goal — from the pre-match preparation, to the intent and appetite to force the turnover, to the accuracy and pace of the move — summed up what Dublin are all about.

They punish mistakes severely, and this goal clearly showed, in a game lacking significance, that they still have the hunger at both ends of the field.

Brian Hurley’s importance

Brian Hurley’s second-half performance against Westmeath on Saturday was key to Ronan McCarthy’s side maintaining their Division 2 status. When Cork were going well under Brian Cuthbert in 2013, 2014, and 2015, Hurley was central. He has had some serious injuries in the meantime, but he looks to be back to his best. When he plays, he encourages Cork to kick the ball a bit more. He is constantly on the move into good positions.

He gives them a focus and a target. Mark Collins’ goal, which came at a crucial stage in the game, was a perfect example of this. Luke Connolly drifted out and delivered a sublime ball to Hurley, who fielded and fed the onrushing Collins, who finished well. Hurley’s presence allows Connolly to drift, which probably suits him and Cork best. Hurley finished with 1-4, kicking a few lovely points and rattling in his goal chance with confidence. If he can stay fit and consistently delivers at these levels, it will be huge for Cork.

Kerry’s defence

The headlines from Saturday’s performance in Fitzgerald Stadium belonged to Kerry’s spectacular forward display. However, when the game took on the shape it did with the early goal rush, I was keen to see how the backs played. While factoring into the story that Tyrone were flat — and as a result of the malfunction of their own kickout, the supply wasn’t as plentiful as it might otherwise be — I was happy with what I saw.

Individually, backs were tight, aggressive, and disciplined. They attacked the ball and made it hard for their opponents to win clean possession. Tyrone only scored one point from a free. More importantly, they functioned well as a unit, looked well co-ordinated, and defended collectively. Even at the water breaks, the team broke into their forward and defensive units for discussion, which is the first time I have seen this from Kerry.

As always, there are work-ons. They still need to improve on communication. Most of the Kerry backs are quiet personalities, which is fine, but they need to find their voice on the pitch. Special mention to Gavin White’s great goal. Kerry had Niall Morgan well spooked at that stage. Credit to Gavin Crowley also for the swift transfer to White, who nailed his lob perfectly.

Watershed

Plenty of teams will be quite happy with their league campaigns and will enter the championship confident, with the understanding that it is time to start going up through the gears. Kerry, Dublin, Donegal, Mayo, Armagh, Monaghan, Kildare, and Derry will all feel that they are in a good place.

There are other teams that need to draw a line under this weekend and their league campaigns, and move on. Normally teams have a chance after the league to gather themselves, but not this year. The knockout championship also adds another element of anxiety to the mix for teams that are struggling. Team meetings will be had, harsh truths will be told, watershed moments being reached will be mentioned, and a siege mentality will be fostered.

Tyrone, Roscommon, Galway, Laois, Meath, and last year’s provincial champions Cavan and Tipperary, in particular, will all be extremely unhappy with how league 2021 finished for them.

What this means for Laois and Meath, with the spectre of Dublin looming in Leinster, I’m not sure. At least Tyrone, Roscommon, Galway, and Cavan will all fancy having a cut at their provincial championships, provided that they can get their house in order.

How these teams and management, in particular the less experienced management teams, react in the next few weeks will be interesting.

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