COLM COOPER: Finish mid-table, find your players, blood them: The key to a successful league

When winter boredom and old age has made us decrepit, the end of January can’t come fast enough. 

For a lot of Irish people of a certain age and culture, the county team is all they have to fire debate and imagination. It’s a long while to September, and besides, few dreams survive that long.

The National Leagues are a riot of chance and opportunity. If you are Armagh in Division 3, you are thinking, we must progress up to Division 2 if the McGeeney project is to stay on track. 

If you are Cork or Roscommon in Division 2, you’re banking on a fast start to get ahead of the curve, ahead of the scrap, for the two prized berths that propel a county back to the big time.

Everybody is calculating GAA algebra on the basis of squad strength versus fixture schedule.

In Division One, Kerry have three home games this spring — Donegal, Kildare and Galway — and they’ll possibly need to win all three to keep the wolves from the door. Three of Tyrone’s first four Division One games are away, and the Omagh fixture is Dublin. 

They may be better braced than Dublin, Kerry or Mayo in terms of squad depth, but Mickey Harte will need to hit the ground running nonetheless.

I want to see Cork more this spring. And I will. A new manager and a lot of new names for this evening’s opening clash with Tipperary but incremental progress is essential.

With no Nemo players for a while, Ronan McCarthy may take a step forward, then back, but what he needs more than anything is to make the tide of Cork football rise again. Being part of the summer’s Super 8 is crucial in Year One.

Without exception, every county — the people inside and outside the tent — is looking to get some fresh faces to come through.

Regardless who gets to league finals at Easter, the biggest win for any and every county from the league is to identify the top 20 players, and a few more besides, who they can base their championship plans around. 

The worst thing you can hear from a county in May is they have no idea what their starting 15 is.

Whereas there’s no ultimate imperative for the likes of Kerry, Dublin and Mayo to win Division 1 this season, everyone wants a fast start. No one likes playing catch-up.

Squads can be depleted for the first two games, and Kerry are reporting a massive number of absentees as things stand. 

That Éamonn Fitzmaurice has not indicated any great concern would suggest they are not long-term problems. That’s good. If a player is missing the majority of the league, it’s an issue that inevitably spills into the summer when they are trying to find form.

If Dublin and Mayo are going to be depleted and vulnerable, it’s in those opening two or three rounds. 

Leaving aside Dublin, who have shown the depth of their resources, there’s no-one in Kerry, Mayo or Tyrone management who would say no to a shot of young lads putting up their hand and breaking into the set-up this spring.

I write this before the Kerry team for tomorrow is announced, but it’s safe to assume there will be some fresh faces against Donegal tomorrow and Mayo next weekend in Castlebar.

And while all the talk is of David Clifford and Sean O’Shea, I am more interested in the defensive players — Gavin White, Jason Foley and Brian O Beaglaoich when he returns from the Gaeltacht’s All-Ireland club duties.

There seems to be plenty of players coming through from midfield up in Kerry, but not so much from No’s 2 to 7. Can someone put their hand up and say ‘I am ready to take a jersey’? 

The likes of Foley from Ballydonoghue delivered a very impressive minor career at full-back, but with injuries he has dipped off the radar. That’s not unusual. When people are talking up David Clifford, they should remember that very few players come through immediately.

Clifford is a fantastic player, and I would use him in the league. But sparingly. Maybe ten minutes here, pick and choose your games very carefully. 

He is coming into a regime of advanced S&C and a different level of training that will take months to acclimatise to. 

The public miss some of that obviously, because they don’t see the lads hitting the gym on the dark mornings before work. But by all accounts, Clifford is adjusting quite well to life in the senior set-up.

Sean O’Shea was that prospect last year, so he has a season of serious work in the system now. There’s huge talk around the county about this guy. 

I saw him first hand against Crokes in the Club Championship, and he looked a really good player, a ball-playing No 11. Is that the way the Kerry management see him? Whether he delivers tomorrow or not, stick with him.

It’s unlikely to happen with Fitzmaurice, but some managers sacrifice young talent when the heat is on in the county. Under pressure, they believe they can’t wait for the young talent to blossom. They’re wrong. 

You have to continue to play guys if you are going to trust them later on. Everybody accepts that Kerry are going through a transition at the moment, but there’s no-one in the county who doesn’t expect them to be in Croke Park next August or even September. 

Transition or not.

The same can be said for Stephen Rochford, who may use the early rounds to ease some of his high-mileage players back into the groove. 

What’s interesting though is if Mayo were to lose in Monaghan tomorrow, and Kerry do the same at home to Donegal. They face each other in Castlebar next weekend, and suddenly the loser there is going into Round 3 with no points. That’s when there’s trouble in paradise.

Division 1 is seriously competitive. Finish mid-table, find your players, blood them. That’s not just a good league for Kerry, that’s a good league for almost any of the top eight.

I was one of the many sucked in by Donegal’s early season spurt last year and the splurge of U21 talent, but the way the season petered out, one was left wondering had they relied too heavily on the young lads in the league and consequently had little left to give in the summer. 

That’s the balance I was referring to earlier, and one Declan Bonner must get right in his first campaign in charge.

Our own club has three lads back in with Kerry now, including the goalkeeper Shane Murphy who has more than earned his call-up. It’s been an unsettled post for Kerry since Diarmuid Murphy retired, and this fella is an excellent goalie. He has improved Crokes by 10% since he came in, and that’s a big improvement. 

The key bit though is stepping up to inter-county in terms of temperament. Daithí Casey had been in and out with Kerry for a number of years but with Crokes invariably involved in club championship action, he could never get in there for a sustained period. 

The longer he is in there this time, Éamonn will feel he has a better chance of giving Daithí a competitive chance to prove whether he belongs.

And that’s the same for dozens of other hopefuls across four divisions. Getting the opportunity to see whether they belong. Sean Powter in Cork was that player this time last year, and he proved a spectacular success at senior level. 

Ronan McCarthy has opened the door now to another handful of players to stake a claim before the Nemo contingent return. Roscommon look the best placed to bounce back up to Division 1, and they have put in a good winter. 

But there’s hard yards everywhere in the second tier, from Louth to Cavan to Clare, and even Meath, who still seem to be the perennial underachievers.

Liam Kearns is still getting a great response from the Tipperary squad, irrespective of how many players they lose and for what reason. They have a strong team out this evening in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. 

A win in Cork is hardly beyond the bounds of possibility for Tipp and it would raise more questions than provide answers. That will be the way across all divisions, this week and next. It’s going to take a few weeks for patterns to emerge.

But will the old lads stirring the tea be so patient?


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