Perhaps for the first time the question is not where to start Aidan O’Shea, but indeed whether to start him or not, writes Oisín McConville.
Shane Lowry has rapidly become my favourite current Irish sportsperson.
After a long day in Clones last Sunday, battling through the traffic to see the kids before they went to bed, I settled down, to the delight of my wife, to watch the US Open. Could Shane raise the spirits of a nation still mourning the Belgium defeat at Euro 2016? Could he offer some light relief from the post-mortem in Armagh after losing to Laois?
In the shadow of the Offaly man was serial choker Dustin Johnson, who comes across as quite a likeable fella ‘til you remember what former Down captain DJ Kane said before the 1994 All Ireland: “Nice guys win nawhin’.”
As Lowry’s dream went awry I found myself rooting for Johnson, the nearly man. I know what it’s like to be a nearly man: in my early years with Armagh we lost two All-Ireland semi-finals as well as a number of other games we should have won before crossing the line in 2002.
Being on the cusp of something and being unable to close it out gnaws away at your self-belief: it makes you question yourself, the players around you, the coaches, the training, the management and the tactics.
Since Dustin Johnson grounded his club in the bunker at Whistling Straits in 2010 he’s had 23 opportunities to break his winless run in the Majors and he finally did so on opportunity No. 24.
Johnson cuts a serene poker-faced figure, a look he’s perfected over the last 6 years. Sunday night’s drama increased with that one-stroke penalty looming. Surely he thought ‘here we go again’, though you wouldn’t have known, the way he played that back 9.
So what of the GAA’s Dustin Johnsons? Cork and Mayo have done their best in the last few weeks to enhance their reputation as teams who have all the mental fragility associated with football also-rans.
“Mayo don’t embrace the qualifiers” has been trotted out since Galway put them to the sword last Saturday. Well Mayo have no choice but to embrace the second chance now. Nothing focuses the mind - or causes more forensic analysis - like defeat to your biggest rivals.
I still expect Mayo to make the All Ireland semi-final, if not final, but they have a huge amount of soul-searching to do. Their management team need to seriously consider their personnel now: question marks remain about Aidan O’Shea, his best position and what he offers from various positions.
I saw Mayo play 65 minutes in the league against Monaghan when O’Shea received an early black card; then they looked to move the ball through the hands at pace with plenty of support play. Perhaps for the first time the question is not where to start him, but indeed whether to start him or not?
The personnel to carry out intricate game plans and the tactical take on future games are way down the order of importance now for Mayo, Cork and even the reprieved Armagh.
The most important thing is for the respective managers to know they have control of the changing room - that no one on the squad feels he is bigger or better than the team. In a scenario where a team has lost a game the first person players look at is the manager and his set-up.
When you lose, everything is wrong and it’s human nature to look for someone to point finger at. This is magnified in the sporting arena (perhaps going back to your club, where everyone tells you to forget about that county stuff).
Even with winning teams, those questions are asked. When I played with an Armagh team who couldn’t cross the line, we promised when Joe Kernan came in for 2002 that we’d do whatever it was going to take, no questions asked.
I can honestly say we did that and probably a little bit more. A manager’s best opportunity is in his first year in charge - having won that All Ireland you’d think the following year would have been even easier for Joe and his management to sell their ideas.
In some respects it was, but there was also a lot more criticism from those who weren’t regulars on the team and a lot more questioning of training, preparation and tactics. This is as much a problem in trying to retain All-Ireland than mental or physical fatigue or over-celebrating.
The big players in the changing room will dictate the direction for the beaten teams and determine how quickly they recover; they don’t waiver from the plan laid out by the manager, whether they are truly behind it or not.
Take the European Championships: see what Gareth Bale’s influence has done for Wales, how positive he is in a team full of lesser mortals.
Contrast that to Ronaldo’s antics with Portugal, the constant waving of arms and flabbergasted expressions; he may well be the best around but he’s also sucking the energy out of his team-mates. In a team sport he is destined for failure.
It only takes one or two voices of dissent within a changing room to turn the mood or influence the younger guys on the squad. I’ve seen that with the teams I played for, but thankfully it was usually nipped in the bud fairly sharpish.
My impression is that there are quite a few influencers in both Cork and Mayo. With both teams staring down the barrel it is time to shut up, suck it up, buy into the manager’s philosophy - whatever that is - and perform in a manly way.
In situations like this you find out what you have or, more importantly, who you have. Mayo, Cork and Armagh in turn have looked leaderless, so this would be a great time for new leaders to stand up.
Stand up tall like a Robbie Brady or a Dustin Johnson. Your county needs you.
Geezer must give youth a fling in re-fixture
When I first heard about the possibility of a Laois-Armagh re-fixture, I didn’t think it would materialise. I thought it would be papered over and sorted out at board level. I wasn’t so sure Armagh would take up a second chance. A “thanks but no thanks”.
Just because they have doesn’t mean things are any less uncertain. The team Armagh fielded against Cavan is decimated at this stage.
The injuries to James Morgan, Ciarán McKeever, and Mark Shields have complicated matters and I seriously wonder if Armagh will have a full panel of 26 for the game next Saturday. They’ll be struggling for it, that’s for sure.
It’s obviously time for Kieran McGeeney to give youth a bit of a swing. Because of injuries and unavailability, he will have to look outside the panel.
He won’t have taken in too many league games and some of the U21s have already come into the set-up. There has been a development squad running alongside the senior one but that would have been eaten into as well.
The majority of people in Armagh feel it should have been better left alone but now that we have a second chance to fulfil the fixture, it should be considered seriously.
However, I don’t know if it will do anything for the season. We have no choice but to give it a go and give Laois a proper test. I wouldn’t be too optimistic for Armagh’s chances but now it’s just a case of getting on with it.
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