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Can Derry win the All-Ireland? Have the GAA ruined the calendar? Do Dublin deliver dinners? Three football greats consider the big questions

Darragh Ó Sé, Dean Rock and Michael Murphy - all highly influential and now all Irish Times columnists - chat about the state of play before the provincial championships kick off this weekend

A Kerry man, a Donegal man and a Dublin man walk into a room. The Kerry man proceeds to talk up the Dubs, the Dublin man proceeds to talk down the Leinster Championship and the Donegal man just wants to know why we can’t play the provincials in February and the All-Ireland final in August.

It’s midweek and long-standing Irish Times Gaelic football columnist Darragh Ó Sé is in Trinity City hotel in Dublin city centre hotel with Dean Rock and Michael Murphy, who are coming on-board as our new columnists for the 2024 Championship. They are three of the most influential footballers in the history of the game – of the 27 All-Irelands from 1997 to 2023, 15 were won by someone in this room.

Irish Times reporters Seán Moran and Gordon Manning were there to throw the ball in.

Seán Moran: What are you looking forward to in this year’s championship?

Darragh Ó Sé: The one thing I’d like to see is who can basically cut the gap to Dublin. Even after last weekend I still think they are the team to catch. Jim McGuinness is back in Donegal, which will be interesting and we’ll be looking to see what level Kerry can get to. On the basis of the league final, Derry have a good chance of getting close to them, but from what I’ve seen so far I’m afraid the Dubs could still run away with the bloody thing.


Michael Murphy: I had Derry as challengers anyway but after last Sunday they’re going to have to carry the burden of genuine contenders over the next four months in every game they go out to play. It will be interesting to see how they cope. On the other hand, Dublin will have learned a lot about themselves and the challenge of Derry. The Division 1 final has added hugely to Derry’s confidence but I also think it could really refocus Dublin.

Dean Rock: From a Dublin perspective, it’s probably more looking forward to the group stages of the All-Ireland series. The Leinster Championship is what the Leinster Championship is. After the league final Dublin probably won’t get another test until those group stages. Kerry will be knocking on the door again, Derry as well, obviously but it’s hard to see anybody else coming out of the pack. Mayo, Galway, they all probably have one or two big performances in them but I suppose the bigger teams probably have the luxury now whereby they might be able to slip up once in the group stages and still be able to recover and come back.

For me, the Leinster Championship is dead in the water.

—  Dean Rock
Seán Moran: Any concerns about Dublin peaking too early this year?

Dean Rock: I don’t think so because there are a lot of players still to come back in, I think that’s the encouraging thing. [Dublin selector] Shane O’Hanlon’s death has had a massive impact on the squad, such a profound effect, and they have responded in the right manner.

Gordon Manning: Do you think it will get to a stage with the Ulster Championship where the teams will just prioritise the All-Ireland series as such and use the provincial championship as something else?

Michael Murphy: There is that big a rivalry between the teams up there that I don’t think it will get to a place where teams will pull up the handbrake for an Ulster Championship game, I just don’t see that.

We’ve added in a new structure with the All-Ireland series or Super 16, whatever you want to call it, but we haven’t taken anything out. So, let’s run our provincial championships at the start of the year.

Gordon Manning: Should provincials be run in February?

Michael Murphy: Yeah, exactly. Wouldn’t it be better to tease the whole thing out more?

And learn from other sports too. They play that league basis and then go to their knockouts at the end of it. The good thing about the league is that everybody will get the same number of games, so the attrition that each team comes through will be exactly the same, whereas at the moment that level of games could be completely different.

Gordon Manning: What was the mood in the dressingroom after winning seven, eight, nine Leinster titles?

Dean Rock: There was just so much competition within the squad that lads just wanted to go out and perform for themselves, you didn’t want to have a poor performance that was ultimately going to take you out of the team. But in terms of celebrating Leinster titles, they weren’t in any way celebrated.

It was just an excuse for a night out for a few beers. But when I was younger going to Croke Park to watch games there were pitch invasions at the end of Leinster finals. To be quite honest, I don’t even know how many Leinster Championships I have won, which is obviously not a good thing.

For me, and I am only speaking for me, the Leinster Championship is dead in the water.

Darragh Ó Sé: You’d expect Cork will beat Limerick this weekend and you’ll have a Cork-Kerry championship game in April. What the GAA have done basically is they have made a winter sport out of our national games. The best games of the year are on during the winter – take out the final or semis maybe. All our intercounty sport was over at the end of July last year and it will be the same again this year. The rest of the summer is left after you, that was the one part of the calendar we owned and we are giving it away. Why would you do that?

Seán Moran: Do you see no benefit in terms of the clubs?

Darragh Ó Sé: I don’t because you look at any player who is successful, the Kilmacud lads and the Cliffords are playing games straight through, anybody successful is being punished.

Seán Moran: That’s only a small percentage of players?

Michael Murphy: It doesn’t potentially have to go back to the end of September, even to the end of August would make a big difference.

Gordon Manning: Would you all agree that an August All-Ireland would be better?

Dean Rock: An extra four weeks would be huge, huge.

Darragh Ó Sé: Of course it would be. Club teams don’t come back until September anyway. You have that time, why not use that month.

Michael Murphy: Injuries and the whole promotion of it too, I think there is a thirst out there among the public for games, but we just need a small bit of space.

Seán Moran: Little time for teams to train properly going from one fixture to another?

Michael Murphy: That is the big thing for the developing teams. Like, there has been a lot made of Jim coming back to Donegal and I’d say the lack of time between games is the big challenge for them.

I do believe for Donegal it will probably be year two to year three because time on the training pitch preparing is, I can only imagine, now null and void. You get November, December, January, but what you are doing there is physically getting ready.

There couldn’t be much training going on now between league, Super 16s and the All-Ireland series. Getting time to prepare, you used to get that four-week block between a quarter-final of Ulster and a semi-final of Ulster and they used to big weeks of preparations. That’s not there now.

Darragh Ó Sé: We got our arses handed to us by the Dubs at Croke Park during the league. Would Jack have liked another crack at the Dubs in a league final? Not a hope. So ideally then you finish up in a good enough position but can head off to the sun to get your training done, get back and get your house in order. I think the fact the Munster Championship is weak is giving Jack a chance to get his house in order.

Michael Murphy: If you look at the Donegal-Derry game, the loser of that game is going to have a five- to six-week block of training afterwards before they are out again. Is that better for teams to do that or to stay in Ulster?

Gordon Manning: Are you surprised by Dublin’s hunger and desire – that it still appears to be there?

Dean Rock: I didn’t know what to expect from the year, I thought it would actually be a really difficult and challenging year, it might still turn out to be that way, who knows? But the last five games in the group stages of the league have been hugely encouraging compared to the first two. They will also take a lot of learnings from the league final. They have so many options.

Michael Murphy: Isn’t it funny on that one, last year during the league we were speaking about that being a potential weakness of the Dubs, that none of these young lads are really grabbing this jersey. Now, here we are 12 months later and we are saying almost the opposite – if that’s the case then credit has to go to Dessie Farrell, the environment or the opportunities he is providing to those lads.

Dean Rock: He’s very diligent in terms of his coaching. They are getting proper one-to-one coaching, shown areas where they can improve, they are all smart lads. They are in there for a reason, so they are obviously taking the information and going back out on the pitch and replicating what they are being asked to do.

Darragh Ó Sé: You look at the likes of the experienced guys – [Brian] Fenton, [Stephen] Cluxton and James McCarthy coming back now as well. What I found coming to the end of my career was that you know if you are on a good thing here. How many players can sit around the dressingroom right now and say, ‘we’ve a very good chance of winning an All-Ireland this year and getting another medal’?

Dessie Farrell has the easiest job in the world. You talk about what is the hardest job in the GAA – go up and try Leitrim, that’s a tough job. With Dublin, everything is laid out for you, like you said you have one-to-one coaches. These guys are getting their dinners delivered to the house!

Dean Rock: Jeez [shakes his head]. No, we don’t! Last year’s All-Ireland was huge in terms of, in the group maybe there was a little bit of doubt in terms of, ‘Could we ever win another one again?’ I think you are seeing a little bit of the bounce back of winning that.

Darragh Ó Sé: I agree with you and I figured if ever there was a great chance to get the Dubs it was last year’s final because there was that uncertainty there. But when they got over that bump in the road, you are chasing shadows then after that because a win like that just brings such belief, especially with younger players. There were small margins there. Derry could have beaten us in the semi-final and, funnily, I think that, in those conditions, they would have been better equipped to beat Dublin than we were the same day.

Dean Rock: But even in the league game this year, Kerry still had a lot of chances. Dublin played incredibly for 25 minutes – I think they scored 2-8 out of 12 attacks. They probably might not be able to do that again. Clifford had two goal chances, blazed one over the bar. I still think Kerry are well equipped to have a real cut off Dublin. They maybe mightn’t have been at a stage fitness wise and in terms of team cohesion, but the scoreline was somewhat misleading. I don’t think there is much between them.

Darragh Ó Sé: Where I think Dublin have been really killing teams in the league is how they push up on the kickouts and the tackling they are doing on that. So, if a team is to beat Dublin you have to be able to compete in the air with kickouts. You have to be comfortable with putting the ball down on your goal and putting it out 70 yards and having a 50-50 chance of winning that ball. That’s how Derry beat them at the weekend and how Mayo beat them in Castlebar. Three kickouts went out and Mayo got two points off the last three kickouts, simply because Paddy Durcan was f***ed, he couldn’t break any more tackles. There was nobody looking for it.

Every time you mention Cork, they fall flat

—  Darragh Ó Sé

I mean, I see these stats the whole time about kickouts. The Kerry stats are our goalie is retaining 96 per cent. It’s easy having 96 per cent if you are kicking it across the table. The way Dublin push up on kickouts, if you can kick the ball long, that’s a huge advantage, kick the ball 60-70 yards and trust those guys, trust the kick out, then you are taking all the play out of it. You are one kick away from a score then, and it’s either a score or a free. You saw Derry in the league final.

Dean Rock: It’s risk-reward.

Darragh Ó Sé: That’s the way you have to go at it.

DR: You can take out eight of Dublin’s players with a long kick, essentially.

Gordon Manning: Then you’re going 50-50 with Brian Fenton?

Darragh Ó Sé: Yeah, but the only thing about that is that it’s all very well to say that Fenton is exceptional in the air. But test him out, knock on his door. What are you going to say – we can’t kick out because Fenton’s there? Derry didn’t.

Michael Murphy: I always thought that the amount of time teams would spend preparing for the Dubs – to stop them. You need to go and beat them. Teams spend 2½ weeks of a three-week block trying to stop them and leave half a week for what they are going to do themselves.

Seán Moran: What’s the view of the current state of football?

Darragh Ó Sé: As a midfielder, my gripe is short kickouts and the lack of fielding.

The one skill that has died away is catching. The mark probably helped that a small bit.

Michael Murphy: The game does evolve. Even 10 years ago and we’re talking 2013, 2014, there was a real heavy blanket defence, defend, defend, zonal blanket defence.

Darragh Ó Sé: We won’t blame you for that, Michael.

Michael Murphy: Plenty of the rest of yiz adopted it! We’re seeing large chunks of players behind the ball now but we’re also seeing more man-to-man, maybe with the use of ‘plus-one’. There were no high presses back then – maybe Dublin did a bit – but now we’re hearing at club games: ‘high press, high press, push up on the kick out’ so the game does evolve.

There was a feeling for a while that – going back to the blanket – you could thwart teams on the scoreboard. If we look at it now, teams have found a way around it. The quality of the tackling and backdoor cuts, playing with width and making angled runs means teams are getting away shots a lot more.

Dean Rock: Teams are nearly mastering those defensive systems like the blanket so hopefully they become null and void because if you allow the likes of Dublin and Kerry get on the ball, they’re going to score whereas if you press out and go a little more man-to-man that can be more effective. Everyone prepares for the blanket and trains against 16 or 17 so that they’re ready for it when it happens.

Gordon Manning: What do you think of Jim McGuinness going back in Donegal?

Michael Murphy: There was great excitement after the shocker of a year last year. It’s well documented that things were at a real, low ebb. Being honest, Jim had no need to do it so fair play to him for coming back and putting the head on the block. It gave the whole place a great lift. Places are packed out for games and it’s great for the younger generation of player who’s there at the moment.

Other than Patrick [McBrearty], who was there in 2011 for three years with him, Hughie [McFadden] for one year and Ryan McHugh for two, none of the rest might even have met him. It’s a boost for everyone.

Seán Moran: Any teams you think might register sufficient improvement to impact on the championship more than usual?

Dean Rock: Cork could make an impact and maybe Galway, if they got all their players back available.

Darragh Ó Sé: Cork were the team I was going to mention but every time you mention them, they fall flat. I’ve seen them underage in the past few years, particularly at under-20 and Kerry could have a six out of 10 team and Cork would be eight out of 10. Yet Kerry would knock more out of that team than Cork for whatever reason.

Michael Murphy: It’s hard not to draw comparisons between them and Kildare: big resources and playing pool, underage talent and success.

Gordon Manning: Michael, you’re with the Donegal under-15s? Thoughts on underage?

Michael Murphy: The part from 17 to 18 – I think 17 is good; going back to 18 is bang in the middle of Leaving Cert – I think it’s the wrong call.

Darragh Ó Sé: But the Leaving Cert is a two-year game. You’re doing it at 17 as well.

Michael Murphy: Not as many. Whatever you want to do from that down, I’ve no strong opinions but from there up there’s something missing. Whether you move 20 to 21 again.

Dean Rock: Playing at under-21 gives an extra year to play at that level. It was great for us. We trained with the senor team and then you were released to play under-21 but there was still a massive emphasis and importance placed on it. It put you in the shop window.

Sigerson isn’t what it was either. They’ve made a b*ll*cks of that competition as well.

We might need the room a little longer!

You can read the thoughts of Darragh Ó Sé, Dean Rock and Michael Murphy in The Irish Times throughout the championship. Michael’s column will appear every Tuesday, Darragh’s thoughts can be read on Wednesday while Dean’s column will appear every Saturday.