Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Kerry have a knack of winning the historic All-Irelands...

Specialist players such as goalkeepers, man markers and free takers will be missed most if ruled out of the Championship by injury - or Covid-19. Suitable deputies will be imperative and only the best have these.
Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Kerry have a knack of winning the historic All-Irelands...

BATTLING THE ELEMENTS: Teams will find a winter championship a different animal, and the biggest consideration may have to be for the wind, believes Éamonn Fitzmaurice. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Because they are the knights of summer, and winter is coming

George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings.

When Uachtarán John Horan informed us on the Sunday Game last May that as long as social distancing was a central plank in dealing with Covid-19 we wouldn’t have Gaelic games, any sort of GAA Championship looked implausible. 

Historically, the championships had been played through two World Wars, global pandemics like the Spanish Flu, the struggle for Independence on this island a century ago and a vicious Civil War. It looked as if Covid-19 was the kryptonite that was finally going to shelve a season. 

Thankfully, a gradual return to play has seen the club championships played and paved the way for the juggernaut of intercounty championship to return. The rights and wrongs have been debated ad nauseam but for me once the players are happy to play and feel safe doing so, I'm grateful for the escapism the whole country is going to benefit from in the coming weeks. 

This winter, more than ever we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the players and management teams providing this entertainment.

The novel nature of the championship structure is going to bring a significant edge to matters. Straight knockout. Result on the day. No quarter-finals. No supporters. Possibility of penalties. All will bring their own excitement but the straight knockout is going to move the needle most in terms of interest.

Of the early games Tyrone v Donegal and Kerry v Cork stand out.

Two of this esteemed quartet will have one championship game this season. A sobering thought. This should bring a level of competitiveness to all matches as only a knockout game can. 

There will be some shocks, particularly in the early rounds and while there is a possibility of some giant-killing acts, it is not as likely. While a big scalp might be taken in the provincial series, the further we go the usual suspects will emerge. 

Dublin are still the team to catch. Kerry are now on their coat-tails and look to be closing the gap further. 

Behind them Mayo, Galway, Tyrone and Donegal will all be in the hunt. If the December champions are from outside of this group I will be surprised.

As well as having the most talented players, these teams have the greatest squad depth, from Dublin down. Squad depth is always critical but has never been more important. Injuries and suspensions could rule a player out for a significant portion of the championship.

Specialist players

The other factor is the spectre of Covid-related unavailability and the hassles that can bring for a group.

Specialist players in particular such as goalkeepers, man markers and free takers will be missed most. Suitable deputies will be imperative and only the best have these.

The timing of the Championship is going to be a factor. Winter football is a thing and the weather will have its say over the next few weeks.

There will be games played in wet and cold weather. All of the challenges that go with this will emerge. Handling and execution of the basic skills will be more difficult with numb hands and frozen toes. The wet sod will mean plenty of slipping and sliding underfoot and spillages in possession.

Workrate and tackling will be king. The likelihood of forcing turnovers by effective tackling increases exponentially when the ball is wet. Defensive football will probably rule. 

The factor that can have the biggest impact though is the wind. We all appreciate the importance of the kick-out in football now. In last year's All-Ireland final replay, there was only one kick-out in the entire game that was not secured by the team taking the restart.

Think about that for a second. By securing all of their own kick-outs, it gives teams plenty of possession to attack the opposition and kill any momentum a score can give.

This winter if a goalkeeper is facing into a gale-force wind for a half it is going to make matters very challenging for that team. 

The team playing with the wind can play a really aggressive press. There is no downside to doing this. The goalkeeper can’t go long over the top as the wind is too strong. He can’t go short and the defender immediately passes it back to allow them to try and run the ball as per the new rule.

Even if the goalkeeper’s team win the kickout, the opposition has time to get back into shape as they will have to run the ball against such a strong wind. Teams could really get pinned in for a significant amount of time. 

They could bleed out in a scorefest that leaves them too much to claw back or retrieve in the second half. 

Innovate

To counteract this coaches will have to innovate. One possible way could be to overload one side of the pitch with bodies and try to win it as long as possible out the field whether clean in the air (Thus securing a mark) or by winning breaking ball. This could be effective, in particular, against a team that is adopting an aggressive zonal press.

Either way, I will be interested to see what solutions the coaches up and down the country come up with for this scenario.

At the moment the water breaks still look a bit scattered and ad hoc to me. They are having an obvious effect on momentum in games but can be used better. They are an invaluable opportunity to reinforce messages and remind players of their roles. Will coaches and managers be able to deliver concise messages that point the players in the right direction? 

I was watching Jose Mourinho in action on the Amazon documentary recently. I have been surprised by some of the language he uses at half-time for such a renowned coach.

He speaks about desire, courage, and other vague phrases along similar lines. What does this mean to a player at half-time?

Nothing to most. I would expect him to be saying I want to see your desire in the second half by being first to the ball, how many tackles you put in, how often you want to get on the ball etc. This language of instruction can be crucial during the water breaks.

Also, often the referees blow for the water break on a kickout. Similar to Basketball or an American Football time-out, a team could have a particular set play ready to go - depending on the way the game is going - that they decide to use during the water break. 

It is an opportunity to give everyone a quick reminder of their role in said set play. A kick-out to a goal chance for example. Think of Jack McCaffrey’s goal in the drawn All Ireland final last year, or Donegal’s extra-long kick-out and flick on to oncoming runners. This could be particularly effective downwind. Either way, I feel that the water breaks will be significant by the end of the championship.

The absence of crowds is something that, unfortunately, we are getting used to in all sports. In fact, it has become so normal now that it seems strange when you see old footage and crowds at matches again. I’m not convinced it is going to make that much of a difference to the players. 

When playing big matches, the crowd melts into the background. You are more likely to hear a vocal supporter at a club game with 50 people present than you are with 80,000 in Croke Park.

The significance with regard to the effect an empty Hill 16 will have on Dublin is being touted. This group of Dublin players are so experienced and resilient now that nothing would surprise or faze them. 

I do think the absence of crowds will make it easier on referees though. The best-followed counties with the most vocal support - such as Dublin and Mayo - were able to put pressure on referees. The Hill are specialists at it. 

Regardless of what referees say, they are human. For example, we haven’t seen too many penalties awarded at the Hill 16 end of Croke Park against Dublin in Championship.

The missing crowds might free up the referees and their decision-making.

Hopefully, we get to December 19 and All Ireland champions will be crowned. Even then it will be different with Covid protocols around the presentation of Sam Maguire.

There will be no huge homecoming for the victorious team and the celebrations will be more muted.

For the players, though, that will make no difference. They will be content in their own bubble. When you win an All Ireland there is obviously the initial bedlam. When this calms down the quiet satisfaction sets in, often at random and unexpected times.

It can happen driving to work a few weeks later, seeing a Kerry flag and having a smile to yourself, knowing you're the member of an exclusive club, understanding the hard work that went into it and appreciating that something special was achieved with a special group.

In these uncertain times, picking the county to win All Ireland can seem almost incongruous. Dublin are still the team to beat but Kerry have a knack of winning the historic All-Irelands.

The centenary All-Ireland in 1984, the millennium All-Ireland in 2000 and the 125th commemoration in 2009. The Covid All Ireland in 2020? 

Maybe, just maybe.

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