Okay, throw in the ball

Take five Irish Examiner staffers and four of the paper’s analysts, stir vigorously and watch it come quickly to the boil. No simmering here as we look ahead to Championship 2011

TONY LEEN, sports editor: The first thing to start with is always a Kerry moan. When did everyone suddenly decide that this is Colm Cooper’s s time, that he is the man of the generation and the saviour of gaelic football? Spillane was at it again on Sunday night. Why is 2011 different to another other year since 2002?

PADDY HEANEY, columnist: I think it is now universally accepted that Colm Cooper is the best footballer in Ireland, and has been for some time. He is the GAA’s Lionel Messi. But the Gooch has yet to receive the Footballer of the Year Award. This is an oversight that no longer makes any sense.

JOHN FOGARTY, GAA correspondent: The story of the year will be Colm Cooper’s coronation as footballer of the year. Long overdue and I think we’re going to see him establish himself as the defining footballer of his generation.

KIERAN SHANNON, columnist: Gooch has always led by example but his captaincy with the Crokes this past season showed he’s become more of a vocal leader, and you can see the Kerry lads really rallying and responding to him. There might have been the odd dip in a given year, like say 2003 and 2006, but he’s the most consistent and best forward I’ve ever seen.

TONY LEEN: But some of us blinkered folk feel he should be left alone, like he’s still some kid who’s going to crash and burn soon. Have counties devised a way to mark him and on that point, is any GAA forward truly unmarkable in this day and age of blanket coverage and nefarious defence mechanisms?

PADDY HEANEY: Gooch could be contained if he played for a standard county. A defender could be moved off a non-scoring half-forward to double team him, or a sweeper could be employed. The difference with Kerry is that you cannot afford to ignore Kieran Donaghy or Declan O’Sullivan or Darran O’Sullivan or Donncha Walsh.

DIARMUID O’FLYNN, staff GAA writer: Who’s the better forward right now, Gooch or Bernard Brogan?

EAMONN FITZMAURICE, columnist: Gooch. I feel Brogan will find it tougher this summer. Teams will focus on him and I will be interested to see if he can be as effective. Gooch is dealing with that claustrophobic attention for eight years and can still affect and win games.

TONY LEEN: Anyone else think the provincial championships in football have a particular relevance this year in Leinster, Munster and Ulster — all for different reasons I accept. Cork-Kerry psychological, Dublin psychological, Ulster for one-upmanship with Down, Donegal, Tyrone?

FINTAN O’TOOLE, staff GAA writer: One area of intrigue with Cork and Kerry, assuming they do progress to meet in the provincial final, is the whole Killarney factor. Cork have not won a senior championship match there since 1995 while Aidan Walsh and Ciaran Sheehan are the only players from the current squad to have won a championship game in Fitzgerald Stadium — the 2007 Munster minor final.

BRENDAN O’BRIEN: Munster bears less relevance simply because the Cork-Kerry rivalry takes on an entire new dimension in Croke Park. The rest are all intriguing in their own right but, again, they won’t matter much come August.

JOHN FOGARTY: Munster is where it’s at this year. Cork’s confidence is booming and you feel that is the only thing that was holding them back these past few years. But there’s a renewed focus in Kerry and there’s a sense this is the last hurrah for many of them.

KIERAN SHANNON: It’s certainly less relevant who loses the Munster final because they’ve three weeks to get over it. The Connacht and Ulster runners-up won’t have that luxury. There’s no good reason why that is still in place after the experiences of Monaghan and Sligo last year.

BRENDAN O’BRIEN, staff writer: Good point on the losing provincial finalists. The provincial championships are stretched out to ridiculous lengths and then we have games shoehorned into each other at the end of July and start of August. It’s a joke.

PADDY HEANEY: Ulster will tell us if Tyrone are equipped to make an assault on Sam, and if Donegal and Down are equipped to beat one of the established powers.

JOHN FOGARTY: Yeah, there’s still a possibility Tyrone can gatecrash the party. Age not on their side and Mickey Harte really is sticking too much with the tried, or should I say, tired and trusted.

PADDY HEANEY: In Leinster pay a thought for poor Dublin. If they don’t win that provincial title, it will viewed as further evidence of their brittle mental fortitude. If they win Leinster, it means nothing.

FINTAN O’TOOLE: August in Croke Park will be the true barometer on which to judge Dublin. A Leinster title is not vital in their development but a league title would have been a greater boost. However in the case of Kildare, a strong assault for provincial honours is a must.

JOHN FOGARTY: Kildare have to do the proverbial or get off the pot. McGeeney has no silverware to show for all his trojan work.

KIERAN SHANNON: Not so sure Dublin can afford to lose in Leinster. Last year it was no harm because it offered some novelty but you almost must remember they were fortunate enough to never leave Croke Park. This year the qualifiers could take them up north. Also, on the back of throwing away the league final, they could do with some silverware.

JOHN FOGARTY: Dublin have to go the right way about it this year, through the front door. They still have seven or eight players to come into the panel that weren’t available for the league final. More importantly, they are players who have individual talent such as Alan Brogan, Paul Griffin and David Henry.

DIARMUID O’FLYNN: On a separate issue, given Galway’s entry into Leinster making for two more balanced provincial hurling championships, for how long more will Ulster — and Leinster to a lesser extent — tolerate the imbalance in the football provincial championships?

BRENDAN O’BRIEN: It’s an old chestnut but no less relevant for that. The championship must be the most unbalanced and complicated mess of a competition in team sports and yet there doesn’t seem to be any appetite to do anything about it.

PADDY HEANEY: I understand the flaws of the provincial Championships. But the National League isn’t unbalanced and Kerry have still won more Leagues than any other county. This also holds true for Cork this year.

TONY LEEN: Taking up Diarmuid’s debate on hurling v football, the big ball heads have been giving out for years about the predictability of the hurling championship. And now we’re in May and no one can see beyond Cork, Kerry, Dublin, and maybe Tyrone?

FINTAN O’TOOLE: But has there been a year over the last decade where we’ve had a large number of counties with genuine All-Ireland ambitions at the start of the season? I don’t think so.

BRENDAN O’BRIEN: That’s still four sides who, by general agreement, seem to be in with a shout. It’s great to see the hurling opening up but how many realistic contenders will there be for Liam this September?

KIERAN SHANNON: The beauty and diversity of the football championship is that while there are probably only four teams capable of going the whole way, there are another 12 teams who could trip those four up. Look at who Tyrone have lost to over the years — Sligo, Laois, Down, Meath. Of the top four teams you mentioned for the football, at least one of them won’t make it to the All Ireland semi-finals.

FINTAN O’TOOLE: The edge football has, is that it holds a greater capacity for surprise as Down proved in their run to last year’s final.

JOHN FOGARTY: Down’s run combined with all the provincial winners losing their respective All-Ireland quarter-finals will have the big teams forewarned and forearmed. We’re looking at a more predictable championship this year.

PADDY HEANEY: How many teams can realistically win the Champions League? How many teams will be fancied to win next year’s La Liga, Serie A or the Scottish Premier League? The fact that three or four teams have a good chance is pretty good, and it’s a vast improvement from previous decades when it was a one-horse race.

EAMONN FITZMAURICE: Most sports have only a couple of realistic winners at the start of each season so I don’t think there is any problem with that.

TONY LEEN: But there’s an argument that there are more imponderables in hurling this summer — can Tipp repeat? Are Kilkenny finished? Is Dublin the real deal? Is Cork hurling a busted flush? Is this finally Waterford’s time? And that’s not even mentioning the perennial ‘what will Galway do this year’ question.

ENDA McEVOY, columnist: Are we talking perhaps six serious contenders for MacCarthy Cup glory this year? And I’m including Cork in that out of good manners.

DIARMUID O’FLYNN: Agree with that — Tipperary, Kilkenny, Dublin/Waterford, Galway/Cork, then several others capable of at least one big surprise.

JOHN FOGARTY: You can’t write off Cork, you never can, but they don’t appear to have the firepower needed. Some great defenders, yes, but too much still rests on a group who aren’t what they used to be.

PADDY HEANEY: I am the only one here who knows anything about the ancient game. Lads, catch a grip. If King Henry gets the knee mended then Kilkenny will not be stopped.

DIARMUID O’FLYNN: It’s going to take more than Henry this year — they need all the big guns back to full fitness, and that’s looking more and more like too big an ask.

ENDA McEVOY: Last four in the hurling: Tipp, Waterford, Kilkenny and Galway or Dublin. Anyone disagree?

FINTAN O’TOOLE: Agree, but after their league heroics, I wonder will anything other than an All-Ireland semi-final match Dublin’s rising expectations.

ENDA McEVOY: Probably not, but isn’t it great that they now have serious expectations? Re Limerick, I think they could hurl well without taking a big scalp.

DIARMUID O’FLYNN: Limerick could knock someone out, as could Cork, if it all comes together for them.

KIERAN SHANNON: Whoever wins that Waterford-Limerick Munster semi-final will be dangerous.

DIARMUID O’FLYNN: The way Waterford have been shaping up through the league, you’d have to fancy them to win that, and then make it very difficult for Tipp in the Munster final (presuming Cork or Clare don’t trip them up!).

JOHN FOGARTY: Waterford aren’t relying on the handful of stars anymore. I see them as the biggest threat to Tipperary. I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if the make-up of the Munster final (Tipp v Waterford) turns out to be the same for the All-Ireland final.

ENDA McEVOY: Waterford would kick on from winning that semi-final. Limerick don’t have the resources to.

FINTAN O’TOOLE: I think coming from Division 2 and having a chunk of their squad inactive last year will ultimately hinder Limerick. Kevin Downes and Declan Hannon are two of the best young hurlers in the country, but they’re a team for 2012-13, not 2011.

DIARMUID O’FLYNN: Yes but then watch Clare in 2012-13 also. For this year, a couple of good games from both of those would be encouraging. Antrim v Wexford isn’t a done deal either. They looked good in the win over Laois, and that was without some big-name players, a couple of whom will be back for that — Shane McNaughton and Cormac Donnelly.

TONY LEEN: Serious question for the crystal ball gazers — what will be the summer’s big issues? Let’s not all just be told-ya-so’s in September, offer advance warning now. Is it referees, Hawkeye, crowds, discipline.

EAMONN FITZMAURICE: The technology debate will definitely present itself again and again over the summer.

ENDA McEVOY: And refereeing inconsistencies, that other old chestnut.

FINTAN O’TOOLE: I’d agree with Eamonn, there’ll be more scoring controversies before the year is out. Perhaps not on the same scale as last year’s, but still some that will have a key bearing on matches.

DIARMUID O’FLYNN: Hopefully Hawkeye will be an issue, and for all the right reasons, that it will be adopted by the GAA. Crowds too — Leinster have really taken a few fine initiatives with group discounts.

EAMONN FITZMAURICE: I hope all out defence does not become the theme of the football championship. Early on it might be but I think as the summer progresses we will see more expansive styles particularly in Croke Park.

DIARMUID O’FLYNN: That’s what I love about Croke Park, the size of the pitch — it forces teams to play, and that’s in hurling and in football.

EAMONN FITZMAURICE: Many of the provincial venues are just too small and allow teams the opportunity to clog up the back. It is much harder to do that in headquarters even though Donegal did try hard in the Division 2 league final!

KIERAN SHANNON: The John Bannon motion being amended at Congress will have an impact. Players who should be suspended won’t be because a referee will have ‘already dealt with it’ by means of a yellow card. We’re back to 2005 now when Ryan McMenamin was able to mark Jayo within the month because the referee had already served him with a yellow card for jumping down on one of the McEntees with his knees.

JOHN FOGARTY: There is sure to be uproar when a referee hands a yellow card to a player when he should have deserved red because now the CCCC can’t do anything about it. The referee’s decision in that regard is final. Have no doubt, it will happen.

TONY LEEN: And what about the issue of newspapers paying for GAA interviews? It’s done on a nod and a wink at the moment, but are sports desks just hoping the issue won’t come up?

ENDA McEVOY: Wouldn’t have a problem with newspapers paying players for interviews, either in practice or in theory, but the issue would come with a bad or unhelpful interviewee. Then would you pay more to good interviewees than to quiet ones?

KIERAN SHANNON: Is there any other sportsperson that gets paid for sitdowns? I know dealing with the minority sports, they’re delighted whenever they get coverage, and GAA players, for as much as they might occasionally moan about it, will miss it some day too. Why pay a GAA player and not any other kind of athlete?

DIARMUID O’FLYNN: Totally disagree with this concept. Even at professional level, here and in the States, that doesn’t happen. With the Irish Voice, I interviewed American Footballers, basketballers, ice-hockey, baseball, all no charge. You’re charging the fans, basically.

EAMONN FITZMAURICE: Regardless of money, most players will be guarded during the course of the season. They don’t want to give hostages to fortune. I feel that if a newspaper thinks a top player would open up for a few quid, they’d consider it money well spent. The player’s manager might see it differently though if they were giving away too much.

FINTAN O’TOOLE: Prediction time to finish it off. All-Ireland winners in hurling and football. Surprise packages in hurling and football?

ENDA McEVOY: All-Ireland hurling champions, Tipperary.

DIARMUID O’FLYNN: Tipperary the hurling champions, Kilkenny still lurking around with Dublin or Waterford to be dark horses.

FINTAN O’TOOLE: I’ll go for Tipperary in hurling and Cork in football as All-Ireland winners. Galway hurlers and Donegal footballers as the surprises.

EAMONN FITZMAURICE: In football Kerry and in hurling Kilkenny. The surprise package in football will be Galway and

JOHN FOGARTY: Cooper has the leadership skills to lead Kerry to an All-Ireland title. Tipperary can retain the Liam MacCarthy providing they don’t fall into the habit of those who have gone before them and milked the one All-Ireland for all it’s worth.

TONY LEEN: One more push in Kilkenny, just to prove to themselves that they’re the best in hurling. And Dublin will eventually overcome themselves to win a football. Might even be this year.

KIERAN SHANNON: Would Galway be a surprise in hurling? If so, they’re my dark horses, but they’ll have to win Leinster. Kilkenny to win both Leinster and Liam though, I fear. In football, Kildare could be the best of the second-tier teams, but again they’ll have to win Leinster to seriously contend.

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