Championship Preview: John Evans and the footballers of tomorrow

Never mind this September. Who’ll be football top dogs at the end of 2018? And does John Evans know something the rest of us don’t?

AT FIRST, it seemed such an un-Kerry thing to do.

Straight after his players had won the Division Two final, John Evans was talking them up rather than playing them down, the reverse of what his native county is renowned to do.

John O’Mahony, who in his own time as a manager of scratch Galway teams was known to describe first-round clashes with Leitrim as “50-50”, was just one observer who disapproved of the Roscommon manager’s public optimism. Settle, lads, he’d tut-tut: first take London, then worry about taking Dublin.

However, when you think some more about it, what Evans said was actually versed in the best of the Kerry mindset. Ambitious yet practical, practical yet ambitious. Start small yet dream big; create the right vision and right vibes. The whole idea of the Roscommon project was “to get to the top”. As in reach and win All-Irelands.

It wasn’t going to happen this year, or even next. They’d need a couple of years consolidating themselves playing Division One. But after that? Sure it was possible.

“Look, lads,” he’d say to reporters after his team’s win over Down in Croke Park last month, “I’ve gone through every team. There are a lot of them and they will be losing a lot of star players over the next two, three, four years. [Meantime] we’ll be growing in stature.”

So, could he be right? What if we were to do “an Evans” and forensically study the likely line-ups and retirees of the current elite by the year 2018? What members of the top four of the last four years will be vulnerable with their existing age profile? What counties should leapfrog them? Is the future primrose and blue?

We got out the crystal ball...

Note: (Age = age on 2018 August Bank Holiday weekend)

Bold denotes has started an All-Ireland final or won an All-Star

KERRY

Likely big names moved on since 2015:

Aidan O’Mahony (38), Marc Ó Sé (38), Donncha Walsh (34), Kieran Donaghy (35), Colm Cooper (35), Paul Galvin (38), Bryan Sheehan (33), Kieran O’Leary (31), Darran O’Sullivan (32).

1. Shane Ryan (22)

2. Fionn Fitzgerald (28)

3. Jason Foley (21)

4. Brian O Beaglaoich (22)

5. Paul Murphy (27)

6. Peter Crowley (28)

7. Killian Young (31)

8. Mark O’Connor (21)

9. David Moran (30)

10. Michael Burns (22)

11. Johnny Buckley (29)

12.Tommy Walsh (29)

13. Killian Spillane (22)

14. Paul Geaney (27)

15. James O’Donoghue (28)

Prominent subs:

Barry O’Sullivan (MF, 21), Jonathan Lyne (HB/F, 28), Stephen O’Brien (HF, 27), Tom O’Sullivan (Dingle, CB, 22), Conor Geaney (23).

Evans was clearly thinking of his native county when he thought of all the big names that are likely to be departing in the coming years but as one of them, a certain Mr Donaghy, famously reminded Joe Brolly last September, the Kerry production line is still functioning impressively.

More than anything, they’re continuing to produce quality forwards: Killian Spillane, Conor Geaney, Michael Burns and Conor Keane are all skilled footballers and at least three of them should make the grade.

Elsewhere around the field they’ll be serviced well through the good underage work being done by the likes of Jack O’Connor and the academy that is now Pobalscoil Chorcha Dhuibhne.

For all Cork’s dominance in the U21 grade the past decade, Kerry’s future looks brighter than their neighbour’s.

CORK

Likely big names moved on since 2015:

Michael Shields (32), Daniel Goulding (32), Patrick Kelly (32), James Loughrey (31), Donncha O’Connor (37), Paul Kerrigan (31)

1. Ken O’Halloran (32)

2. Stephen Cronin (24)

3. Eoin Cadogan (31)

4. Kevin Crowley (23)

5. Conor Dorman (24)

6. Brian O’Driscoll (24)

7. John O’Rourke (26)

8. Ian Maguire (24)

9. Ruairi Deane (26)

10. Cathal Vaughan (24)

11. Ciaran Sheehan (27)

12. Mark Collins (28)

13. Brian Hurley (26)

14. Danile Ó Duinnín (21)

15. Colm O’Neill (29)

Prominent subs:

Thomas Clancy (Clonakilty, 26), Tomas Clancy (Fermoy, 27), Fintan Goold (MF/HF, 32), Dan MacEoin (FF, 25).

They’ll continue to be All Ireland quarter-finalists with a stream of fine half-backs coming along and approaching their prime circa 2018, but they’ll need a serious bolt of inspiration — be it in terms of a non-obvious managerial appointment post-Cuthbert or something like a returning Ciaran Sheehan from the AFL — to make the leap to winning in September.

Championship Preview: John Evans and the footballers of tomorrow

Minors Conor Geaney (right, Kerry), and Dan Ó Duinnin of Cork. Both tipped for future stardom with their respective counties. 

MAYO

Likely big names moved on since 2015:

David Clarke (34), Chris Barrett (31), Keith Higgins (33), Tom Cunniffe (32), Ger Cafferkey (31), Seamus O’Shea (31), Alan Dillon (36), Andy Moran (35), Barry Moran (33), Mickey Conroy (33).

1. Rob Hennelly (28)

2. Michael Hall (23)

3. David Kenny (24)

4. Kevin Keane (28)

5. Lee Keegan (28)

6. Stephen Coen (23)

7. Donie Vaughan (29)

8. Aidan O’Shea (28)

9. Tom Parsons (29)

10. Kevin McLoughlin (29)

11. Diarmuid O’Connor (23)

12. Conor Loftus (23)

13. Evan Regan (25)

14. Cillian O’Connor (26)

15. Jason Doherty (28)

Prominent subs:

Colm Boyle (HB, 32), Patrick Durcan (HB, 24), Sean Regan (HB, 24), Matthew Ruane (MF, 23), Conor O’Shea (MF/FF, 26), Tommy ‘Goals’ Conroy (FF, 23).

When Evans was speaking about top teams losing a lot of top players, you can bet Roscommon’s provincial neighbours were foremost to his mind. Mayo have got extraordinary service out of their U21 All-Ireland winning team of 2006 — 10 of the side that featured in that win over Cork in Ennis were still on the senior panel last year — but by 2018 most, if not all of them, will have moved on.

They should still be very competitive though: three members of the 2012 All-Ireland senior final backline will still be in their 20s. So too instantly-recognisable names like Aidan O’Shea, Kevin McLoughlin and Jason Doherty. Cillian O’Connor will still only be 26. Early days but this year’s U21 full back David Kenny looks the kind that could fill in for Ger Cafferkey down the line.

If the 2013 All-Ireland minor team are managed properly in the interim — that side, for all its flair, has been devastated by injuries since that breakthrough win — and if the senior side itself is managed properly, the county still looks like it’ll be playing well into August, maybe even September. An All-Ireland before the end of the decade is still on.

GALWAY

Likely big names moved on since 2015:

Finian Hanley (33), Gary Sice (33)

1. Tom Healy (23)

2. Cathal Sweeney (27)

3. Dave Cunnane (25)

4. Liam Silke (24)

5. Johnny Duane (26)

6. James Shaughnessy (26)

7. Paul Varley (26)

8. Tom Flynn (26)

9. Fiontán Ó Currain (26)

10. Michael Day (24)

11. Shane Walsh (26)

12. Peadar Óg Ó Griofa (26)

13. Danny Cummins (28)

14. Damien Comer (24)

15. Paul Conroy (29)

Prominent subs:

Adrian Varley (FF, 26), Michael Lundy (HF, 29)

It’s a cliché to say the talent is always in Galway but it’s approaching such a critical mass it’s particularly true now. By 2018 the age profile of the team should be reaching a point where September football is realistic. Either in Kevin Walsh’s time or that of his successor — don’t be a surprised if whoever of Stephen Rochford or James Horan don’t get the Mayo job next time it’s up land up in Galway alongside a native like Alan Flynn — Galway should be seriously challenging before the decade is out.

ROSCOMMON

Likely big names moved on since 2015:

No one major

1. Shane Mannion (24)

2. Niall Carty (26)

3. Sean Mullooly (24)

4. Neil Collins (28)

5. Ronan Stack (27)

6. Niall Daly (27)

7. Ciaran Cafferkey (26)

8. Thomas Corcoran (24)

9. Cathal Compton (24)

10. Donie Smith (25)

11. Cian Murtagh (24)

12. Ultan Harney (24)

13. Cian Connolly (24)

14. Donal Murtagh (24)

15. Enda Smyth (24)

Prominent subs:

Senan Kilbride (FF, 32), Donie Shine (CF/FF, 30), Cathal Cregg (HB, 30)

You can definitely see what Evans is on about. Outside of Dublin and possibly Kerry no other county is producing such exciting young forwards. In terms of winning it all, 2018 may be too soon for them, but by then you’d expect to have won at least one Connacht, featured in consecutive All-Ireland quarter-finals and contested possibly even a semi-final. It was another county Evans worked in, Tipperary, that aspired to contesting a senior final by or in 2020. We still think that’s a bit beyond Tipp. It’s not beyond the Rossies.

DUBLIN

Likely big names moved on since 2015:

Alan Brogan (35), Denis Bastick (37), Tomas Brady (30), Ger Brennan (33), Eoghan O’Gara (32)

1. Stephen Cluxton (36)

2. Davy Byrne (Olaf’s, 24)

3. Rory O’Carroll (28)

4. Johnny Cooper (28)

5. James McCarthy (28)

6. John Small (25)

7. Jack McCaffrey (24)

8. Brian Fenton (25)

9. Shane Carthy (24)

10. Paul Flynn (32)

11. Dean Rock (29)

12. Ciaran Kilkenny (25)

13. Conor McHugh (24)

14. Diarmuid Connolly (31)

15. Cormac Costello (24)

Prominent subs:

Lorcan Molloy (GK, 24), Philly McMahon (FB, 30), Eric Lowndes (HB, 24), Cian O’Sullivan (FB/HB, 31), Michael Darragh Macauley (MF, 31), Emmet Ó Conghaile (MF, 25), Paul Mannion (FF, 24), Killian O’Gara (FF, 24), Bernard Brogan (FF, 34), Kevin McManamon (FF, 31), Paddy Andrews (FF, 29).

Stephen Cluxton has played in an All Ireland semi-final each of the past five seasons and as long as he wants to he’ll see to it Dublin are playing in the next five as well; he’ll turn 37 in September 2018. Should he have enough before, you’d have to say Dublin are still in rude health. Lorcan Molloy may not be a Cluxton — who is? — but he’s a fine goalkeeper with All-Ireland minor and U21 medals in his pocket and will get serious gametime in the next couple of leagues. Davy Byrne (Olaf’s), who got gametime in the 2015 league, can play anywhere in the backline except possibly full-back. There’s a surplus of quality halfbacks while around the middle of the field Shane Carthy and Brian Fenton have the mobility, foot-passing and scoring capacity to offset any slippage from the 2013 midfield tandem/2018 veteran duo of O’Sullivan and Macauley. Upfront Na Fianna’s Conor McHugh and Eoghan O’Gara’s brother Killian will score goals, especially in Croke Park. Should they be struggling to do the business, just look at the firepower on the bench. The running machine and production line just keeps throttling on.

Whatever about better, no team will be deeper in 2018 and beyond.

DONEGAL

Likely big names moved on since 2015:

Paul Durcan (34), Karl Lacey (33), Eamon McGee (34), Frank McGlynn (32), Anthony Thompson (32), Neil Gallagher (35), Christy Toye (35), Colm McFadden (35)

1. Danny Rogers (22)

2. Ryan McHugh (24)

3. Neil McGee (32)

4. Conor Parke (24)

5. Mark McHugh (27)

6. Leo McLoone (28)

7. Eamonn Doherty (26)

8. Hugh McFadden (24)

9. Michael Carroll (21)

10. Stephen McBrearty (22)

11. Odhrán Mac Niollais (26)

12. Willie Gillespie (22)

13. Darach O’Connor (23)

14. Michael Murphy (28)

15. Paddy McBrearty (25)

Subs:

Cian Mulligan (B, 22), Paddy McGrath (FB, 29), Martin McElhinney (MF, 30), Eoin McHugh (F, 24), John Campbell (FF, 22).

There’ll have been a serious turnover in this squad; just bear in mind 10 of the team that started in the win against Tyrone the last day out also featured in the 2008 first-round defeat to Derry. Age, children, injuries, mileage will invariably take their toll, meaning the likelihood is that only a couple of members of their current goalkeeper and back-line unit are likely to still be around in three years’ time — for the sake of argument we’ve selected Neil McGee as the most likely surviving veteran. There’s more than hope for Donegal going forward though. They’ve reached the past three Ulster U21 finals and last year’s All-Ireland minor final. The likes of Paddy McBrearty and Odhrán MacNiollais will be approaching their prime circa 2018. Michael Murphy will still be only 28. The one downside is that a lot of their better emerging players are rather light and small — the three McHughs, Darach O’Connor who started last year’s All-Ireland — but there’s a mindset and calibre of player there to ensure Donegal will remain a regular All Ireland quarter-final presence.

Championship Preview: John Evans and the footballers of tomorrow

Tyrone’s Mattie Donnelly is already a starting senior, as is Donegal’s Ryan McHugh.

TYRONE

Likely big names moved on since 2015:

Justin McMahon (33), Joe McMahon (35), Sean Cavanagh (35), Colm Cavanagh (32)

1. Neil Morgan (27)

2. Cathal McCarron (30)

3. Padraig Hampsey (24)

4. Aidan McCrory (28)

5. Kieran McGeary (24)

6. Mattie Donnelly (27)

7. Rory Brennan (24)

8. Cathal McShane (24)

9. Padraig McNulty (26)

10. Richie Donnelly (25)

11. Peter Harte (27)

12. Mark Bradley (24)

13. Lee Brennan (24)

14. Kyle Coney (28)

15. Conor McAliskey (28)

Blend in that U21 All-Ireland winning team with the side who pushed Donegal hard last Sunday and there’ll be both an edge and a flair about Tyrone that has been absent the past four seasons. Should certainly get back to winning an Ulster title before the decade’s out.

 

THE REST AND THE BOTTOM LINE

Monaghan should remain highly competitive, even if Dick Clerkin will retire some day alongside Paul Finlay and possibly Dessie Mone (33 in 2018). If they’re to win another Ulster or contest an All-Ireland final it’ll need to be before then though.For all the Ulster U21 winning teams Cavan have produced in recent years, they don’t seem to be producing any forwards of the calibre of a McBrearty or Murphy. Until then, Donegal will have it over them and most teams in Ulster.

Instead the most competitive province of the lot looks like being Connacht. The province hasn’t had three teams in the All-Ireland quarter-final round since 2002 but it should happen again sometime around 2017 and 2018 and any one of the three could reach a final by 2019 or 2020. The side with the best manager will see to that.

But waiting for them will very likely be Dublin. Kildare in a couple of years’ time will be back rattling the Dubs in Leinster — but beating them is another thing. Dublin won’t win every All-Ireland between now and then, but if they handle the Galvin handover as smoothly as the transition from Gilroy went they’re on course to win three in every five. Kerry still look best placed of the rest to foil them. For all the change there’ll be, a lot looks like staying the same.

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