THE first few matches in the National League can often be a great indicator of what aspects of the game teams have focused on since they resumed inter-county training.
This is often linked to what they feel cost them in the previous season, and hence needs improving. Counties with new management, in particular, will be interesting to keep an eye on. Is there a major change in philosophy and playing style, or is it more of the same? New management often tend to go with a few new players to put their own stamp on the team. Balancing and not forcing this is a fine art though. The first few games will give all of this work context and the quality coaching will then kick in to embed the new patterns. Or in some cases ditch it.
Donegal, in particular, will be good to keep an eye on in this space. Can they move away from their ponderous running game and move with the times? They have plenty of talent and the retirements of Michael Murphy and Neil McGee will force these players to step up. It could be the making of them.
By selecting Conor Loftus at centre back it looks as if Kevin McStay is seeking to add a kicking element to the Mayo half back line to balance their natural tendency to run the ball from there. Kevin Walsh’s influence on Cork will be fascinating. While he will undoubtedly make them stronger defensively he will also bring plenty of ideas and expertise around kickouts and attacking structure. His experience of competing with the big guns and his technical one-on-one coaching will be invaluable.
Colm O'Rourke’s impact on Meath will also be intriguing. He is on record as saying he wants Meath to kick the ball more. In terms of big picture thinking he knows that to win big a team have to have a kicking element to their game. It is also a natural part of the Meath football DNA. However it takes time and patience to build the relationships between kicker and receiver on the pitch. The early season inclement weather can also add a further layer of jeopardy to this type of game.
I will be in MacHale Park Saturday night and one of the things I will be watching out for is the dynamic in the Mayo management team. Kevin McStay’s experienced high-powered brains trust will bring some amount of expertise and perspicacity to the table. With McStay’s army background I am sure there are clear structures in place and the chain of command is well established. How this plays out in the heat of battle will be fascinating. When changes are needed during the match who is calling it? How the discussion takes place will be decisive. Communication between the sideline and the members of management in the more elevated positions will be critical. This can be more challenging in some grounds rather than others. In any management team I was involved in, the manager made the ultimate call. Yes everyone could feed into a discussion but the boss decides. With such big personalities involved will everyone be happy to toe the line, particularly when the calls don’t work? The last thing McStay wants or needs is a Roman decimation.
With a new media rights deal, the level of coverage on this opening weekend is unprecedented and a signpost of things to come in the new media landscape. There are seven games being shown live across various platforms Saturday and Sunday. As well as the live offerings, the level and quality of coverage from print media to podcasts is growing season on season, with the appetite for content strengthening exponentially.
The attendances at some of the pre-season matches underlines the pent-up demand for inter-county action. Enhanced digital in-game and post-match digital highlight clips and fan footage shared on social media is adding another element to the supporter experience. This level of exposure partly explains the David Clifford phenomenon. The announcement by RTÉ of the Saturday night highlights show for championship is a hugely positive step. It will allow both weekend programmes to breath. There will be more scope for debate and analysis and an opportunity to show teams further down the food chain more often. It is an exciting time as this level of coverage and profile can only be good for our games. It is a long way from the dark and insecure days where avid followers of the GAA had to make do with three live matches a year, The Sunday Game, the Golden Years video (even if you weren’t from Kerry!) and the Gaelsport annual.
As we have seen in recent weeks the pitch in Croke Park is worn and hungry. It has even precipitated the use of green dye on the worst affected areas to improve the aesthetics for TV. The club traffic there over the last few months has certainly contributed to this. While the ideology is noble I imagine Croke Park will strike a better balance next winter. I was lucky enough to be there with Fossa and while it certainly didn’t take away from the enjoyment of being there, or the win, it did shock me. Usually regardless of the time of year the pitch is like a lush carpet. While I am no groundsman it is clear the pitch needs a bit of a break to recover, particularly with the condensed rapidfire nature of the upcoming season. Dublin play Kildare there this weekend but could they move their next home game against Clare in round 4 to Parnell Park? Their final game against Louth is on March 26th and it would give the pitch the bones of six weeks to recover prior to the Colleges finals on St Patricks Day. There is also the broader point around the continued use of Croke Park for Dublin’s home league games. I was lucky enough to be involved in a few league encounters with the Dubs in Parnell Park where the atmosphere was always electric, an atmosphere that is lost in the Big House. While understanding the positives around the Croke Park experience for both Dublin and their opposition there is no doubt their Donnycarney venue adds to the spectacle.
I have so far held off making a definitive judgement on the success of the split season. I need to see how this year's intercounty season pans out to fully appreciate the impact of our new arrangements. Having been involved with a club team throughout 2022 and into 2023 I can appreciate the clear advantages the split season presents but some of the challenges are the same as ever. Club teams that went deep into the winter have been on the go for a long time. Inter-county players involved in these successful clubs such David and Paudie Clifford had little or no break. While they are getting a deserved and much needed respite at the moment, this obviously impacts on their Kerry involvement.
This isn’t ideal for anyone and I imagine David as captain for 2023 will be anxious to get back in harness. When it comes to the group stages of the championship later in the season is when players have to be hopping off the ground physically and more importantly mentally. They will need to be fresh and have their energy levels at close to maximum. Will some of our top players be jaded by the time it gets to that stage? Most of the top teams will manage their most prized assets carefully but are these arrangements sustainable over a long period of time? Many of the Moycullen players are straight back at it. Seán and Paul Kelly won the Sigerson Cup this time last year and have been on the go since. Will they be able to keep that up for the rest of 2023? As always we come back to the fact we probably have too many competitions in the GAA, both nationally and locally with no close season. A competition cull is far from appealing but removing preseason competitions from the calendar seems an obvious place to start.