We got our first taste of real summer over the weekend, both with a brief spell of fine weather at home, as well as a blistering start to the football championship in a different country.
It sets things up nicely for the first high profile showdown of this year’s glamour competition: Mayo and Galway flex their collective muscle next weekend in MacHale Park in what will surely be a glorious arm wrestle to start the quest for Connacht title honours and their journeys towards loftier ambitions.
Galway are this year’s bolter. By pushing Dublin to the limit in the Division One final in Croke Park, they’ve made the country sit up and take notice, and given hope to their supporters that they have found a grittier substance to match their style.
They’ve always had the pace and panache, but this season has seen the emergence and refinement of their very own defensive system.
The most significant alteration in this Galway side has obviously been structural. It’s been a coaching or management-led adjustment instead of a sizeable turnover of players.
Their big zone defence is nothing that Dublin, Kerry, or Tyrone don’t fall into at different stages of games, some more than others, but it’s been a new phenomenon to see the Tribesmen with such orchestrated defensive positioning.
Whether it has been Kevin Walsh accepting that they needed to make a change to their structure or the influence of his new coach from Tyrone, Paddy Tally, they’ve found something that really works for the guys they have.
And it makes them a far more dangerous proposition for Mayo or anybody else in their sights.
Their newly emerged leader and chief battering ram Damien Comer wasn’t shy when asked about their collective ambition for the year at a recent gig and it was refreshing to hear a current player being ballsy enough to answer a question from the media with a bit of forthrightness.
But his words (‘Dublin are beatable, we can win All-Ireland’) showed the type of confidence and belief that they have developed in their group through a new system that produced a largely dominant league campaign.
If his words gave us a window into the Galway attitude, they have also given Mayo a clear indication of the challenge that lies ahead of them if they are to be spared yet another marathon trek back to Croke Park for August.
Somehow, a team that has displayed the kind of consistency and relentlessness of this Mayo squad over the past few years have found themselves lurking in grass high over their heads.
It is like a wounded tiger stalking a young wildebeest. It’s set to produce a contest that looks set to provide the kind of entertainment that we crave from championship football.
You can just imagine Aidan O’Shea, Colm Boyle, and the rest frothing at the mouth inside their dressing room at the thought of quietening all this growing hype around this Galway team.
What has happened to the respect they have built up and earned by competing at the top end of this competition for years?
If you were a player in that Mayo dressing room, it must be annoying to hear people putting Galway ahead of you as contenders after only one good league campaign.
Tactics, systems, and stats are all vital when top teams go searching for those few 1% improvements, but none of them matter as much as the psychology of the men in the fight.
Mayo will take that dismissive attitude as a slight against them, and so they should.
Whether they are good enough in early May to take it out on Galway, I’m not sure, but whoever comes out of this one will know they earned every single yard gained.
While last Sunday’s low-key matchup didn’t instigate a bidding war between Sky and RTÉ for the rights, there was a fascinating element to the New York and Leitrim game brought about by the quality of the competition that transpired, as well as some of the names on the team sheets from the Big Apple.
Every year, it’s a similar story for clubs all around the Ireland who have the spectre of key guys heading off to the States for the summer hanging over their heads.
I never went over playing ball, and in truth, while I didn’t miss it at the time being involved with Kerry into deep summer, it is something that’s hard to get too upset with players for wanting to do.
Each season, as clubs become eliminated from their county championship competitions, clubs in the US start circling around some of those better players, ready to snap up the most prized playing assets for a few months and claim them as their own.
It is an attractive proposition for players at a time when most clubs aren’t playing
anything more than league games at home; free accommodation, a few grand in your arse pocket, sun on your back and a bit of ball to keep you busy. What more could a 20-something-year-old college student ask for?
In years past, it was a problem that only befell the club scene, but as the inter-county championship competition continues to be eroded by the inequality of a system that most have no chance of winning, we’ve begun to see more county players forsaking their provincial championship in favour of heading away across the pond.
Armagh’s Jamie Clarke and Carlow’s Brendan Murphy are amongst the players trying to make the most of the hand they have been dealt. As good as they are, and as much as they can deliver for their county on hard ground in summer months, none have much of a chance of winning a provincial title, let alone Sam Maguire this year.
The league has become their barometer — a regular schedule of winnable games, with the championship now only a pipedream for the provincial minnows that Armagh have become, and Carlow have always been.
A couple of months in America is a fine diversion from playing maybe only two games and being eliminated with nothing to show for your faithfulness to your home county.
Losing talented players from our championship is an unfortunate by-product from continuing down a road that does not provide a competition worth winning for those counties incapable of competing for Sam.
And maybe we’d lose them anyway, who knows, but the more the gap continues to widen at home, the stronger the North American championship will become. And then it won’t be long before New York eventually do take their first scalp.
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