When Jack O’Connor arrived back in Kerry in the autumn of 2021, he went to David Clifford with a directive about marrying his talent and power to add to his arsenal and increase his potential for even greater destruction. O’Connor was clear and concise in his instructions, which he recalled in detail after the All-Ireland final in July.
“I said, ‘David you’re 6ft3in, 15 and half stone and it’s one of the weapons we’ll try and develop this year with you’,” recalled O’Connor. “I’ve always liked that in an inside forward to be an aerial threat.”
Clifford certainly was. In the final, Clifford scored two points from marks. In his last four championship matches in Croke Park (including the 2021 semi-final against Tyrone), Clifford scored 0-7 from that source.
O’Connor has always used that aerial tactic wisely, especially in All-Ireland finals, ranging from Johnny Crowley in the 2004 decider, to Kieran Donaghy in the 2006 final and Clifford last year.
Despite all of their talent - and desire to kick the ball – the standout statistic from Kerry in the 2022 All-Ireland final was how little they turned over possession; Kerry only turned the ball over 10 times, and conceded just 0-2 off that possession.
Five of those turnovers were from balls kicked into their forward line, but Kerry still won 12 of the 18 balls they kicked in that afternoon, mining 0-6 from that possession, three of which were marks.
O’Connor has always favoured the kicking game, but striking that balance – especially around turnovers – is the key conundrum for most teams in the modern game. Kerry are lucky that they have targets in their inside line but, if the advanced mark wasn’t in place, would they kick the ball as often as they want, or would like?
For all the criticism of the advanced mark, kicking has increased by 20% since the rule was introduced in 2018.
Not every team has a Clifford but Armagh showed last summer how beneficial the tactic can be. The potential profit from kicking long into the full-forward line was also evident during the provincial club championships.
On the otherhand, there are still big concerns around the mark, especially from referees. There is also a desire to see the advanced mark simplified. But the league will provide plenty of evidence as to how much teams want to return long kicking to their game.
On Newstalk’s ‘Off the Ball’ Saturday panel last weekend, John Duggan asked former Derry player Conleth Gilligan about what Derry needed to do to improve on last year’s incredible progress. Gilligan distilled his response into one basic answer – finding more scoring power to take the pressure off Shane McGuigan.
That requirement is obvious but Rory Gallagher won’t have necessarily distilled that solution into hoping to magically discover more scoring forwards. Donegal, when Gallagher was coaching the side, didn’t exactly find another X-factor forward from 2011 during their 2012 All-Ireland winning season. The side were just stronger, faster and more physically and athletically equipped to evolve into the more fluent and lethal counter-attacking side they became.
That will surely be Gallagher’s starting point but the manager is in his fourth season now and Derry have improved and evolved with each season. Last year showed their lust for goals, especially early goals, along with their desire to commit so many bodies forward to attacking plays.
The next stage now will be making Derry an even stronger and more athletic force, which has already been an early focus. Derry did minimal work on the field prior to, and during, the McKenna Cup. They were heavily zoned in on S&C work and rehab, making sure everyone is right for their attempt to secure Division 1 football this spring.
Derry only had 21 fit players fit for the McKenna up semi-final, and 22 fit for the final. And they still whipped Tyrone last weekend. Derry scored three goals in that game, but could have had five.
Gallagher has been effusive in his praise of Lachlann Murray, an Ulster minor winner in 2021, while Eoin McEvoy, who captained St Mary’s Magherafelt to the McRory Cup last year, is another quality young player with the ability to nail down a place this season.
Brendan Rogers played midfield during the McKenna Cup, where he excelled against Clare last year, so Gallagher may be looking at that option, with McEvoy moving into the full-back line. On the otherhand, the recent deployment of Rogers may have just been a means of compensating for Conor Glass being involved with Glen.
The Glen players will need a longer break than what Gallagher gave the Slaughtneil players after last year’s All-Ireland club hurling semi-final, but Glass clearly needs a sabbatical - suffering from tonsillitis against Moycullen and Glen during January, he was a pale shadow of the player Derry need him to be.
Anton Tohill plays midfield for Swatragh but Gallagher tried him as a Plan B option at full-forward against Fermanagh and Down and when he came on against Tyrone in the McKenna Cup. It’s unknown if that’s a viable long-term option but Gallagher will keep trying to get Derry to the place he feels they can arrive at.
On the day that Mayo played Galway in the FBD League two weeks ago, a completely different Mayo squad travelled up the country to play Westmeath in a challenge match earlier that morning. That wasn’t an unusual act for a county squad but being able to do so on the same day underlined the huge volume of players Mayo have at their disposal.
En route to winning a first FBD title in 11 years, Kevin McStay and his management got to see 36 different players, while the net was cast wider again in their games behind closed doors.
Roscommon also had an experimental side on the pitch for the FBD final but the result was loaded with positives for Mayo; only nine of Mayo’s 24 players who featured were regular starters during last year’s championship. The work done during a hard pre-season was also evident while Ryan O’Donoghue is back after missing last year’s championship through injury. Tommy Conroy will also return to action soon after tearing his cruciate this time last year.
Extending squad depth had to be a priority for McStay given how much of an issue injuries were for James Horan last year. Having 25 players who can comfortably start in the championship has been aided by the return of some big names, but offset by the departures of Lee Keegan and Oisin Mullen.
Deciding on defensive structure, and then bedding it in, will be another key target during the league, as will getting Mayo’s top guns firing again. A fully fit O’Donoghue, Conroy and Cillian O’Connor still presents Mayo with their best chance of success.
Last September, the GAA Joe Twitter handle posted a four-second video clip of the Ricky Gervais’s character, David Brent, from ‘The Office’ a mockumentary sitcom following the day-to-day lives of office employees of a fictional paper company.
The reaction of Gervais was posed beside the heading: ‘Division Two counties when they hear Paul Mannion and Jack McCaffrey are back’. The clip showed Gervais giving a look of disdain before loudly declaring: ‘Oh, f***ing hell.’ The return of McCaffrey and Mannion for 2023 has completely altered the dynamic around Dublin, with some bookies slashing their 2023 All-Ireland final odds as soon as they heard of their return last September.
Of course, it’s not that simple, especially when Mannion and McCaffrey haven’t really featured for Dublin since 2019. Mannion had only 30 minutes of training behind him before last Sunday’s All-Ireland club final, after missing the previous five months with injury. He clearly wasn’t sharp. Well marshalled by Ryan Dougan, Mannion’s highest dividend from his 15 possessions was being fouled for a free.
Mannion will re-hone that sharpness and touch with more game-time. McCaffrey’s game is primarily built on searing pace and energy so rediscovering that explosiveness may be even trickier after nearly three-and-a-half years away from the elite level. Still, their presence back in the squad is just as important for their leadership than class considering the huge volume of experience Dublin have lost in recent years.
Most of those retirements were a natural part of the cycle with age and excessive mileage but the loss of Mannion and McCaffrey was always harder to take considering how much more the public felt they still had to give. But now they’re back. And tracking their reintegration and progress in the coming months will be one of the most fascinating subplots around watching Dublin during the league.
Success defines and frames everything. For all the talk about Jack O’Connor’s smart recruitment of Paddy Tally last year, it was conveniently forgotten that the first manager down south to recruit Tally was Kevin Walsh, who brought him on board with Galway for the 2018 season. Galway reached that year’s league final and All-Ireland semi-final, while they also beat Kerry in the Super 8s, which torpedoed Kerry’s summer.
Tally’s appointment though, fed the frenzy of the team becoming even more defensive, which wasn’t an accurate reflection of what Tally brought to Galway. They were harder to beat in 2018, but Galway’s transition play from defence to attack was far better than in previous years.
That thinking framed a huge part of the reasoning behind O’Connor’s recruitment of Tally. Kerry never had a history of bringing in outside coaches but O’Connor showed the humility to seek help in an area where Kerry needed it.
John Cleary and the Cork county board made a similar brave move by bringing in Walsh as coach for the 2023 season. Cork have had outside coaches in recent years in Billy Sheehan and Cian O’Neill but Walsh’s status as a double All-Ireland winner with Galway as a player does elevate his profile now in Cork.
Cleary and the players will certainly benefit from his huge wealth of experience both as a player and manager, along with his technical and tactical coaching acumen and knowledge. For a start, Cork should be harder to beat. But they need to be.
Before Leitrim played London in last year’s Connacht championship, the players arrived in Ruislip on the Saturday not long after landing in the airport. The players had planned to go through some shooting drills ahead of their game the following day but a standoff ensued and they were told they weren’t allowed to use the main pitch, and that they had to use the training pitch instead.
That was not which had been agreed beforehand and Leitrim weren’t backing down, going through their shooting routine on the main pitch.
Leitrim weren’t taking any chances beforehand after being beaten by London in the league in Bekan two months earlier, which dented their chances of securing promotion from Division 4. There were stages of that campaign when Leitrim, London and Sligo looked well placed to go up, but none of them did.
Division 4 is always a bearpit but the narrative is different this year with Leitrim London and Sligo looking to generate serious momentum over the spring as they target a potential place in the last 16 once the Connacht championship begins.
With Leitrim, London, Sligo and New York on the same side of the draw, those four have a better chance of playing in the Sam Maguire round robin than any other side in Division 3, outside of Westmeath, who are guaranteed entry as last year’s Tailteann Cup winners.
The two bottom ranked counties in the top 16 will be those promoted from Division 3. Yet if counties from outside the top 16 reach a provincial final, those slots will soon disappear. With the top team in Division 3 determined by whoever wins the divisional final, the runners-up position will be taken by one of London, Leitrim, Sligo or New York - unless the Division 3 runners-up qualify for a provincial final.
The matter will be further complicated if Westmeath don’t get promoted from Division 3, which will mean the winners of that division probably won’t be contesting the Sam Maguire – unless they reach a provincial final.
Complicated – but all very easily defined for Leitrim, London, New York and Sligo.