AS we know well now, the League model, with teams of equal standard facing off regularly, just works. What didn’t we know? What are the talking points of 2020 thus far? The physical conditioning of the players continues to astound, there will always be refereeing (and umpiring) controversies, fly keepers are becoming more ambitious and the value of reliable free-takers is fundamental.
Before a ball was kicked, we all understood the added significance of Division 2 this year. The carrot of promotion to the top flight is offset by the spectre of relegation to Division 3 and, more than likely, Tier 2 football for the summer.
Some big teams are now locked in that relegation battle and a prospect nobody wants to countenance. Jack O’Connor would certainly not have envisaged the position Kildare find themselves in after Round 4. His experience will be telling now as holding the nerve will be vital for players and management alike. The three remaining games suddenly have a championship feel about them for Kildare, Fermanagh and Clare, with scoring difference between these sides standing at a solitary point. They will probably need to win two of the last three to guarantee safety which, with confidence low, must seem like a big ask. Speaking of Tier 2, Limerick and Wexford are building nicely in Division 4. If they maintain that upward curve and momentum into the summer and embrace the inaugural championship they could be front runners.
The sin bin is working. The black card had certainly reduced cynical play — particularly the third man tackle — but it punished the man rather than the team. Late in games players were more than willing to take a black card for the cause, protect a lead and get replaced by a fresh colleague. The sin bin punishes the team and is much more penal. In almost every game I’ve seen where a player has been sent to the bin, it has been a significant factor. The team with the numerical advantage have made it count on the scoreboard. In Killarney on Sunday, Cillian O’Sullivan and Donal Keogan both visited the bin for Meath. Kerry outscored Meath 1-6 to 0-1 during those periods. There is still inconsistent application of the black card but at least teams are now being genuinely punished for cynical play.
As predicted before its introduction, a negative impact of the sin bin would be the propensity of teams with a player in the bin to waste time during the 10 minutes. The most unethical one is the exploitation of the head injury rule. In an ideal world, players and teams would never bring the game into disrepute like this, but in the ultra-competitive world of inter-county football unfortunately that is not the case. As the rules stand, referees are in a no-win situation. If a player claims to have a head injury, the referee has no choice but to take it at face value and stop the game to allow treatment.
I feel a simple tweak here could eradicate this. Simply apply the blood injury rule to head injuries. If a player goes down with a head injury one medic can immediately enter the pitch to assist the player. Crucially though play continues. At the next break in play if the player is genuinely injured he immediately leaves the field and the head injury assessment is carried out off the pitch. He can be replaced by a team-mate providing the team still has a substitution left. (Obviously for a serious injury head, the status quo would be maintained.) Feigning head injuries for time-wasting purposes would disappear. This would also help reduce the fractured nature of injury time where sometimes (and sometimes not) up to 10 minutes extra can end up being played
regardless of what was initially put on the board.
Considering he only got the gig in mid-December, the transition from Jim Gavin to Dessie Farrell has been pretty seamless, on the results front at least. There hasn’t been a noticeable change in style. Yet. That will come later in the year with some Farrell tweaks. In the short term, they have plenty to be working on in terms of slow starts in all games, creating less goal chances and giving up more goal chances than usual.
The main feature so far has been blooding plenty of players. Evan Comerford has continued with his fine development and other up and comers have impressed, chief among them Seán Bugler, Aaron Byrne, Colm Basquel and Conor McHugh. We have also seen lesser known players such as Liam Flatman, Dan O’Brien and Dara Mullin get game time and exposure. Scarily for everyone else they are still missing some serious artillery most notably their three player of the year nominees from last season Stephen Cluxton, Jack McCaffrey and Con O’Callaghan.
We have also been given a little look into the ruthless side of Farrell’s character. Eric Lowndes — an experienced campaigner — had a bad outing against Kerry the first night in Croke Park, first sin-binned, then sent off at a crucial stage. We haven’t seen him since.
Cork are motoring along nicely. If there was ever a good time for Ronan McCarthy to have been in Division 3 this was it. He is trying to build something away from the bright lights. Of course, he would learn more about their true worth in Division 1 but he wants to ready his players for that test bit by bit. Many of them are simply not ready and some others have residual mental scars that need healing. They are building confidence while being well tested against Offaly and Tipperary in particular, Crucially, they are coming up with the answers.
Coaching can be a funny business. Following the win against Down, Cork would have been happy with the defensive aspect of their game but would have felt that they were not creating or converting enough goal chances. In the interlude, they appear to have concentrated on remedying this and focused on scoring goals, with three against Tipperary. However with the focus on attacking play they were more open at the back, conceding 21 points on Saturday— a huge score. This is one of the areas where the top teams separate themselves from the rest. They are capable of embedding an aspect of their game that has been rehearsed in training without constant need of revisiting it. The group are growing rather than repeating lessons then. Cork will continue to improve and absorb these lessons and they are looking good for Division 2 and a guaranteed cut at Sam Maguire later in the season.
While every county in the country is trying to add to their championship options, a smaller number of counties are undergoing major rebuilds, chief among them Mayo. During the Russian Civil War when the sailors at Kronstadt rose out against Lenin and the Bolsheviks having previously been amongst their most ardent supporters, it shocked Lenin into action. First and foremost he ruthlessly put down the rebellion but admitted ‘It illuminated reality like a flash of lightning’. He also changed policies afterwards. Similarly the period after half-time in last years All-Ireland semi-final must have illuminated reality for James Horan. He is casting the net widely again this spring. His problem appears to be that he isn’t unearthing a few top notch forwards. Hard running wing backs and effective half forwards are in plentiful supply while free-scoring corner-forward wizards don’t seem to exist in Mayo. The rebuild continues next weekend with a must-win game against Kerry in Castlebar. It will be interesting to see if he sticks or if he twists.
Another manager who went back for more is Seamus McEnaney. He is recycling players that have been knocking around for a few years to great effect. He is rejuvenating them by repositioning them. Two good examples of this are Ryan Wylie and Conor McCarthy. Wylie is thriving at centre back and McCarthy is scoring freely. Monaghan are playing great football, attacking and defending in numbers and will be an item for the rest of the year.
They also have the vital ingredients of a marquee forward in Conor McManus and a reliable goalkeeper with a fantastic kickout who makes very few mistakes.
How James Horan would like to have either or both.