Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Every county will have to take a pull somewhere along the way

Will some teams pull the handbrake towards the end of the league if they are happy with their position and start to look towards the provincial championships?
Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Every county will have to take a pull somewhere along the way

FRUITFUL OUTING: Donal O’Sullivan of Kerry in action against Thomas McPhillips of Monaghan. Pic: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Since Kerry have returned to training it is highly likely that Jack O'Connor has been encouraging the players getting an opportunity to take their chance. It is vital from the squad perspective that they step up and show they have the capacity to survive at this level. 

It will deepen the squad and intensify competition for places, neither of which is bad. Many of the players getting their chance to shine have been around the block and are quite experienced. For them, it is about taking the next step. Barry O’Sullivan is an example of a player in this space. He was on the squad in 2018 but hadn’t been involved in the meantime. In both games so far in this league, he has been effective as a defensive midfielder, and being a link when they look to move it forward. He is strong in the air and is a decent kickout option. Similarly, Stefan Okunbor has been coming on and replacing him to see out the games in a similar role. It is working and with David Moran’s recent retirement, it's an area of the field that the management will be anxious to get right as soon as possible.

What will have pleased Jack even more on Sunday in Killarney is the contribution of Donal O’Sullivan and Dara Roche. Both are only starting out on their intercounty journey but have done well in the first two weekends. O’Sullivan was rewarded with a start following his effective cameo in Ballybofey. Both delivered and will be looking to start in Castlebar in a fortnight, which will be a step up in terms of opposition and intensity. Ironically this is a part of the field where Kerry are very strong but with the shotgun nature of the season and the need for squad depth, there is no such thing as having too many potent inside forwards.

Their compadre in the inside line Tony Brosnan also impressed but in a different role in the second half, when he came out the field. He is excellent at getting on ball in pockets of space and then delivering beautiful ball to the inside line. He played a similar role in the League final last year and was similarly effective. It is a major option for him going forward and it could be a useful tool for Jack to have late in big championship matches.

Kerry now have a weekend off before they face into three tough games with Mayo away, Armagh at home and Tyrone away. They may have a few more bodies back but regardless, one area they will be looking to improve on is their discipline at the back. They conceded six points from frees against Monaghan, many of which were completely avoidable. It was clear how 'up' Kerry were for the match from the start as some of the challenges - particularly a couple from behind - were over-enthusiastic. A small tweak here will make them even harder to beat. That match in a fortnight against a fit-and-coming Mayo team in Castlebar will be a great test for them.

Needless to say Monaghan will be very disappointed with their performance. They had some bright spots from Michael Brannigan and Stephen O Hanlon but I was surprised with how open they were, particularly in the second half. They had no defensive shape and it facilitated Kerry’s counter-attack game. Kerry were sharp and constantly kicked the ball on through the lines to get those one-on-one situations that every inside forward loves. 

Vinnie Corey will certainly be looking at their shape when they are in possession and being prepared for when it breaks down. They had no player sitting to help slow up fast counter-attacks. Usually, Darren Hughes excels in this role and his absence was certainly felt on Sunday. Corey himself was also very effective in a similar role and he has the knowhow to get it right. They have Donegal and Roscommon at home for their next two games. They will need to get points in both, to start pushing themselves in the right direction and to also try and suck other teams into the relegation quagmire. When they get everyone back they will be fine but they have prided themselves for constantly managing to stay in Division 1 in the recent past.  They need to start getting points on the board fast to continue that wonderful habit.

We have clearly seen the importance of the league to managers and players over the opening weekends. The matches are being keenly contested with the intensity of some of the Division 1 games as high as it ever has been at this time of the year. Is this because they want to have points on the board asap to allow them look toward to championship later in the league? That probably depends on how soon they are out after the league finals. Kerry still have a month's break after the last regulation round of matches and could probably do with getting to the league final to help fill that gap. Mayo are playing Roscommon a week after the league final in a huge Connacht championship game so their priorities may be different at that stage of the competition.

We are all still viewing the League through the prism of seasons gone by though. Division 2 and 3 have a unique dynamic because of the jeopardy associated with competing in either the Sam Maguire or Tailteann Cup. But I wonder will Division 1 take on a different shape and importance as we move through the rounds towards championship? 

The correlation between league and championship success at the top end of the game has been clear for the last twenty years. However, because of the reasons outlined above will some teams pull the handbrake towards the end of the league if they are happy with their position and start to look towards the provincial championships? Or is it possible some teams in Division 1 might consider keeping the foot to the floor for the league as the calibre of opposition is the best possible preparation for an assault on Sam Maguire?

It is also only one of the two occasions in a season where it is possible to garner national silverware. Could they taper back for the provincial championships and then go hard again for the group stages with a view to timing their run for the race for Sam to perfection? There is plenty of food for thought but one thing is for certain. It will take some team and squad to sustain the sprint from January to July without a breather somewhere along the way.

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