You might have seen the 1993 movie, or at least heard someone use the phrase — “Groundhog Day”.
It’s the one with Bill Murray as a weather man caught in a continuous, repetitive 24-hour loop, where he wakes every morning to re-live the same day over and over again. It tells the story of a small traditional holiday in the United States where townspeople gather early in the morning of February 2 every year to watch a groundhog emerge from his burrow — ‘Punxsutawney Phil’ being the most famous.
Legend has it, that if it is dull and overcast when Phil emerges, then winter is officially over, and fine weather is only around the corner. But, if it’s sunny when he pops out for his early morning stroll, then the yarn goes that the groundhog will see his own shadow and scurry back into his burrow, thus predicting a long bleak extended winter still to come.
Dublin against Kerry in Croke Park tomorrow night is our version of that sleepy groundhog popping out for his first ramble of the year. It is the opening weekend’s showpiece event, but the start of the Allianz Leagues in general have turned into our annual groundhog day of sorts… it has become our very own predictor of what to expect of the year ahead. This period has always been a difficult time for players and management, as they try to find just the right blend between early season heavy training and keeping enough energy in the legs to compete in games with a short turn-around on heavy turf.
Down and Donegal will open up proceeding on Saturday evening in what should have the purists salivating at the thought of it… I jest of course. Defensive systems won’t disappear in 2016, and these two will start as they mean to continue. I enjoy watching both of these play ball, but bad weather, poor light and early season fitness may make this one pretty ugly.
Dublin on the other hand were cute enough to take their big team holiday back in November, thus allowing them plenty of time to work out the bad petrol from their system and start to refill some of the tank with about six to eight weeks of work. The Kerry boys have barely had a chance to unpack their flip flops and sunglasses and have a meagre fortnight of graft behind them. Advantage to the champions.
In Kerry, like a lot of Division One teams this year, there has been dramatic change in management and coaching structures. Cian O’Neill has left for the top job in Kildare, and it remains to be seen what impact that will have. His qualifications and knowledge of the physiological requirements of football, and how best to prepare teams accordingly is unquestioned, but as a Kerry man, I like the idea of Eamon Fitzmaurice having an even greater hands-on coaching role this with this group.
Dublin will continue to set the benchmark in 2016. For Jim Gavin, this league is less about winning and more about finding a couple of guys who will make an impact in the championship. Whatever way they want to paint it, Rory O’Carroll is a monumental loss at full back, and Alan Brogan’s absence from the bench in tight games will also sting. I’m sure, looking down the line, that the likes of Kieran Donaghy, or Tommy Walsh, Michael Murphy, or Aidan O’Shea will find a lot more joy at the edge of that Dublin square this season than the last few.
Philly McMahon will do a decent job on one of those, but his absence will be felt elsewhere. It may not prove fatal, because of their scoring power, but Dublin have a chink in their defensive armour now, and it’s something teams will try to target.
Speaking of targets; the ‘Mutineers’ of Mayo travel to Pairc Ui Rinn on Sunday with a huge neon flashing bullseye on their back. This season, they are the team that everybody is secretly hoping will fail — just so their detractors can stand proudly on their soap box and exclaim; “good enough for ye — what goes around comes around”.
I didn’t have a problem with their decision to exercise the power within their dressing room and oust their former management team if they felt so strongly about it. It was a bold, courageous move, but it would have been better for all concerned if it was done with a greater level of diplomacy and discretion. It’s the big one for Mayo this year, or bust. And whether they explode into action on Sunday or not, I don’t think we’ll see a squad more highly motivated that this Mayo crew this season.
And what can we expect from their first-round opponents Cork this year? In truth, people have very little idea. Is Peadar Healy the guy to re-energise a talented group of players who have tasted success in league football in recent years, or did their psyche take so much of a battering last season that it will need a few years to get freshness back into that squad? We don’t know. But the Rebels are an unpredictable hard sell right now, and the players will know they didn’t do themselves justice last year. They have enough quality to regain confidence with a few good wins, but whatever about repaying their supporters, the Cork players owe themselves a season of redemption, and that means performing in, and closing out, big games.
It will also be fascinating to see what Kevin McStay and Fergal O’Donnell can conjure up to help the Rossies survive the rarefied air up of the top flight. They face a tasty introduction to life running with the top dogs with the visiting Monaghan bringing their battle tested intensity and game plan to the Hyde on the opening day. Unfortunately for Roscommon, the tests won’t get any easier as the season unfolds. Like most people, I’m delighted the season is back and as always, the league is about what individual players, teams, and coaches can emerge from the shadows and show us something different. Nobody wants to see Punxsutawney Phil scuttling back into his burrow with his tail between his legs after this weekend.
Football is back, all we need now is the weather to match.
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