The words “with all due respect” have entirely lost their meaning in the GAA world after these past few days.
It started with the patronising plaudits for Clare and Tipperary after their respective qualifier wins last Saturday and very quickly moved on to an examination of Kerry’s route to a possible/likely All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin.
“With all due respect to Clare and Tipperary, it’s a bit nuts that Kerry ‘only’ have to play them two counties to get a crack at Dublin at the end of August.”
“With all due respect to Clare and Limerick, other counties actually had to beat decent teams to get to the quarters.”
Words like “absurd” and “farcical” were used in relation to the A and B arrangements that see Kerry paired once again with Clare seven weeks after beating them by 12 points in a Munster semi-final.
Kerry people, along with many others, have for years acknowledged that the system could be fairer, more balanced and more equitable than it actually is. But why demean the unlikely achievements of these past few weeks?
There is a saying down this way, “ní féidir é bheith ina ghruth agus ina mheadhg agat”, or simply put, you can’t have it both ways. Either you acknowledge that the Clare team that beat Laois, Sligo and Roscommon in recent weeks are a decent team who could also have beaten Mayo in Salthill or Cavan in Breffni last month, or you say they have no business showing up in Croke Park tomorrow.
You can’t have it both ways.
Ditto when it comes to the Tipperary team who’ve beaten Cork and Derry to get here on merit. They are either a decent emerging team who’ve been kept down by better teams in Munster, and by their internal struggles with dual status these past few seasons or they are on a hiding to nothing against Galway tomorrow.
Again, you can’t have it both ways.
Whatever narrative you choose, Tipperary and Clare are two of the four best teams thrown up by the back-door system in 2016 and fully deserve their day in the sun tomorrow.
Should Cork beat Donegal this evening (a feat not beyond them given the peaks and troughs of this current Rebel group), we could have four Munster counties in the quarter-finals for the first time since their introduction 15 years ago.
Those who have knocked and continue to knock the Munster football championship shouldn’t be doing so based on a qualitative analysis of the championship. Those who’ve never played in the Munster Championship won’t ever be able to gauge, for example, how much heart the great Limerick team of 2003-2005 invested in their attempt at winning a Munster title in those years.
I can recall brief conversations with former university colleagues, Jason Stokes and Damien Reidy, after Kerry beat Limerick in a replayed Munster final in 2004 and trying to impress upon them the need for Limerick to have a proper rattle at the qualifiers. They knew and I knew that I wasn’t doing it out of an altruistic wish to see Limerick football advance. Our rivalry with Limerick in those years was very real and very keen. The main reason I wished to see them succeed was that I was getting tired of football people from counties outside Cork and Kerry devaluing and diminishing our Munster titles by telling us that we had it easy.
In Kerry, we knew that wasn’t the case. Unfortunately, teams such as the aforementioned Limerick side, that might have pushed us to the limit within the province, struggled to make an impression in the qualifiers. In many cases, they would lose and exit the qualifiers by a single point, sometimes by two and very rarely by more than three.
Without a piece of silverware to show for their efforts or at least a quarter-final appearance, history usually disregarded them.
When many of that golden generation of Limerick footballers were in their twilight years in 2011, they eventually got to play football in August after a string of impressive performances in the qualifiers. Then, as now, the Munster underling was pitted for the second time in a season against Kerry and the result was entirely predictable as Limerick went to battle without their talisman John Galvin and had to replace another, Stephen Lucey after only seven or eight minutes.
It has always been thus with Munster teams striving to make a breakthrough. They can never seem to arrive at the perfect confluence of quality players, singular focus and a touch of luck. Limerick followers five years ago had cause to lament that they didn’t have forwards of the calibre of Ger Collins and Ian Ryan in 2004 when they could well have won a Munster title. Progress always comes too late.
That is why tomorrow is so special, not just for Tipperary and Clare, but for Munster football. Clare and Tipperary are still young enough and their progress this year hasn’t come too late.
I am well aware that since the qualifiers began the entire focus seems to have shifted to August weekend when, we are told, the ‘real’ championship starts and the heavy hitters have their limbering up done.
I don’t expect Clare and Tipperary to be standing after tomorrow but I do think Clare manager Colm Collins could, in time, come to reassess his wish to abolish the provincial championships on a trial basis. The 2017 Munster Football Championship could represent a huge opportunity for this group of Clare players to consolidate this year’s progress.
What more appropriate way to mark the 25th anniversary of the heroics of John Maughan’s men in 1992 and the 100th anniversary of their only All-Ireland final appearance in 1917?
After this summer’s warning shots from Clare and Tipp, Cork and Kerry know that the days of taking a Munster Championship for granted are gone. More importantly, perhaps, the perception of Munster football by outsiders might have changed too.
So let’s give counties such as Clare their “due respect” and properly analyse where they might trouble Kerry tomorrow and vice versa:
Jamie Malone and Gary Brennan, Clare’s form players all year, are the obvious starting points. Malone has what we are told Kerry are missing around the middle — legs — and even though his track record against Kerry hasn’t always been the best, Brennan is starting to look like he belongs at this level and the doubt-ridden play of his early career seems well in the past.
Pearse Lillis, Eoin Cleary, and Keelan Sexton have shown in Cusack Park, Markievicz Park and Pearse Stadium that they have the energy and fitness required to adapt to Croke Park and it was noteworthy that Clare had spare men riding shotgun on either side for David Tubridy’s and Malone’s goals against Roscommon last weekend.
Clare are the type of team that commit enough support runners to each attack to force defenders to make decisions earlier than they would like and they are competent enough to punish any sloppiness in tackling on Kerry’s part too.
Clare also seem to be recycling the ball better than they were seven weeks ago in Killarney. The one big lesson Colm Collins took from that day was the extra few seconds on the ball simply are not there against better teams.
Kerry will have taken heed of the benefits that swarm tackling brought them against Tipperary and will attempt to bring it up another notch without leaving gaps behind them if the opposition manages to escape the heat being put on the ball.
If Clare goalkeeper Joe Hayes tries a few of the high-risk kickouts he managed to complete into the wind last weekend in Salthill, he can expect the likes of Paul Geaney, Darran O’Sullivan and Stephen O’Brien to pounce much quicker than the Roscommon forwards did.
Indeed, it is difficult to assess where Clare are at because of the alarming drainage of confidence in the Roscommon ranks in the last few weeks. This was best illustrated by Jamie Malone’s attempt at a point just before half-time that hung in the breeze at the edge of the Roscommon square. It was in the air for a while but was claimed by nobody until Keelan Sexton decided to go for it and subsequently attempted an over-the-shoulder kick that went harmlessly wide. Had it come off, it would have been a great score and a throwback to the romance of yesteryear when young players were encouraged and allowed to make mistakes like that.
Everybody knows from this weekend on however, that the idea of romance in serious intercounty football is mostly a lie.
Clare and Tipperary know that too and they won’t expect any sympathy if it all goes belly up tomorrow.
But it doesn’t mean they don’t belong there and doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be given due respect.
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