Right now the championship resembles the novice punter trying to find his way around Cheltenham. He’s on virgin ground, gathering up a few tips or whatever, only with no real clue or understanding yet about form.
I’ve been asked a few times by now if Dublin are still my pick for this year, and the answer is yes. It’s hard to draw a line of form under any team at the moment, with the exception of Galway. I just think Dublin still have more scope for improvement than any other squad.
Some people are already complaining about the new round-robin system. That attendances are down. No one can complain about the amount of football that’s being played, there were 16 games with 32 teams out last weekend. Teams need to pick up the points, so no one is holding back either.
Things are also about to happen fast and for some teams it will be over quick. Depending on Sunday week’s final permutations, teams could be out three weekends on the bounce. If they come through the preliminary quarter-final, it’s straight into the proper quarterfinals.
Now, because this system is new to everyone, all the teams are feeling their way through it. The top teams all know they’re going to be in the mix for the quarterfinals. But some of them are looking around and thinking would it be better for us to have an extra game, or would the weekend off be better?
It means the form lines are all a little confusing. It’s really only going to be next year, or the year after, before teams might realise the extra game is actually an advantage, or a disadvantage. There’s no hard or fast rule here. Teams are just going with the flow.
Look again at Kerry, for example. Cork, as they had to, showed up in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, but as I said before a moral victory is no good to them. Kerry were there for the taking, Cork left the chance behind, and they’ll be regretting that. Kerry just fell over the line, mainly thanks again to the amazing exploits of the Clifford brothers.
It means Kerry will likely be back in Killarney for the preliminary quarter-final. They need to find form, and the only way teams find form is in games. There were some green shoots against Cork, Seánie O’Shea in the first half, Tom O’Sullivan and Tadhg Morley showing a little more form. Another home game in Killarney would suit them just fine, to find a little more confidence too.
Mayo kept tipping and tapping away against Louth, but struggled to kick points the way they did against Kerry. Sure, Matthew Ruane kicked a great point, Paddy Durcan later on too, but they didn’t get the same spread of scorers, or range of kickers, as the last day.
That’s still their Achilles heel and could come back to haunt them. They don’t have the consistent range of kickers that Dublin or Galway have right now.
Scoring 20 points against Westmeath, Galway showed that consistency again, with Damien Comer back among them. What I also like about Galway is that they can mix it up. If you want to play defensive, they can be defensive. If you want to get physical, they can stand up too, with plenty of big men around the field. They can adapt in real-time to whatever challenge is thrown in front of them.
Davy Burke is certainly belting a great tune out of Roscommon at the moment, topping Group Three on scoring difference, everyone enjoying their football. Enda Smith is in great form, everyone is playing to their strengths, and there’s total buy-in too. After their performance in the first round against Dublin, I think a few more teams smell blood. We’ve still a good bit to go before anyone might taste it.
For me, it’s just hard to ignore the quality of players Dublin have. They’ll want to get Jack McCaffrey back fit as soon as they can, because he is crucial. But if you take Dublin with their full complement of players, the likes of McCaffrey, Paul Mannion, Con O’Callaghan, James McCarthy, John Small, Mick Fitzsimons, they still have more scope to flex their muscles when it counts.
They were without Ciarán Kilkenny and Cormac Costello the last day, but Brian Howard and Colm Basquel stepped up, Brian Fenton is finding a bit more form, and I don’t think Dessie Farrell is overly worried. The thing that really matters about this round-robin is getting out the far side.
Dublin are also expected to win every time they go out, everyone is looking for chinks in their armour. Some people are saying they look tired, are going through the motions, but it’s paralysis by analysis. The Stephen Cluxton move has shone even more spotlight on them, everything they do is dissected, but we’re still talking about one of the greatest teams of all time, if not the greatest.
Like the heavyweight boxer coming back for one last title, if they can rustle up some semblance of that old form, they’ll be hard to beat.
For this body of players, it’s not about medals either. They’re counting All-Ireland medals on two hands, not one, and sometimes being written off like this is the insult that spurs the big response.
Dublin have also been rotating players, mixing the team up with every game, more than any other team, and that will stand to them. Compare that to Kerry, who are far more restricted, no wiser than they were at the start of the year.
With Tyrone, Kerry and Mayo, you know the players you need to target. When you’re playing Dublin, you still need to target more players than any other team. Dublin will always be hard to beat for the simple reason that they have some of the best kickers in the game, and we saw that again at the weekend, players kicking points from 40 yards.
When David Clifford kicks one, everyone stands back in awe, but plenty of Dublin players can kick those points too. Being able to score like that can scupper opposition plans very quickly, and Dublin still have more of those players than any other team right now.
Maybe the way Dublin are playing at the moment has given everyone a bit more hope. No matter what happens in the last round, they’ll be back in Croke Park the next day, and have the personnel to manage the extra game if that comes their way too.
It all means we’ll have a few kitchen sink games, teams throwing everything at it, maybe showing a bit more form too.