Darragh Ó Sé: Too many strings to Dubs' bow for Donegal
Beauty of Super 8s is that every team is stepping onto virgin ground in terms of format
Dublin’s Dean Rock kicking a free against Laois in the Leinster Final. The challenge for Dublin is to keep tuned up, that’s the hardest job when you’re on top of the playing tree. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Winning is everything on the first weekend of the new Super 8s, and that applies across the board to all four matches even if the reasons are not the same for every county.
Arguably the two biggest games are the clashes of the provincial champions Donegal and Dublin in Croke Park on Saturday, and Kerry and Galway the following day. Yet for Roscommon, Tyrone, Monaghan and Kildare the importance of jumping from the blocks in a three-game sprint is massive given what looms in terms of fixtures down the track.
People give out about the size of county training panels, but when you examine the demands that will be placed on the eight squads in the coming weeks, big is beautiful, especially when combined with depth of quality. In that respect no one can compete with Dublin.
Donegal are first to square up to the All-Ireland champions, and they must do so without Paddy McBrearty, whose championship has been cruelly cut short by a serious knee injury. He’s a huge loss. Players go through cycles, have a good season and then maybe go through a lull for a year or two, but it’s hard to think of a more in-form player.
He had taken over the mantle that Michael Murphy – who continues to be exceptional – had been carrying in terms of setting the standard for the team. In the league game against Dublin where he kicked seven points, including three from play, he was outstanding, a real handful, and it’s a pity that he will be absent this weekend.
Donegal have re-energised and rebuilt. They are playing a different and successful brand of football, but I think their panel is too small to cope with the Dubs. They will give it a good rattle for a long spell in the game, but the Dubs have too many strings to their bow for Donegal at the moment.
The challenge for Jim Gavin and his Dublin team is more mental than it is physical. It’s not their fault that they are the best team in the country, it’s not their fault that they are standard bearers for everyone else; that’s just the way it is. Gavin’s biggest challenge is to keep those Dublin fellas ticking over.
The reality is that he will oversee way more competitive games behind closed doors, the A v B games at Dublin training, than he will in preparing his team to face other counties. That’s not just confined to Leinster; even in the Super 8s they are not going to come across the quality they have in their own ranks in most matches.
Donegal are one of the better teams in the championship, but I don’t think they have that depth. They have good quality players, and they have strong players in key positions, but from 55 minutes onwards, when Dublin start to stretch you as they increase the pace, bolstered by fresh legs from the bench, that’s really when they can really take you apart.
Look over the last couple of years and the amount of games that Dublin have won in the last 10 minutes, even in what we’ll call “over-time”, from 70 minutes, that’s when they really harm you.
The challenge for Dublin is to keep tuned up, that’s the hardest job when you’re on top of the playing tree.
There is a correlation with Kerry in the sense that no one is sure where the remaining counties stand in terms of current form when weighed strictly against the teams they have beaten. The big question they’re asking in Kerry this week is that we know how good the Dubs are because they have proved it against Mayo, Kerry, Donegal, against all the strongest teams, that they are the best team in the country for the last four or five years, and there is no question about that, but how good are Kerry?
If you were a bookie looking at form you’d be scratching your head a little. Kerry beat Clare by 22 points in Munster. Clare were a Division Two side. Clare went off and did quite well against Armagh, and might have won it until Armagh rallied at the end. It provided a form-line of sorts.
Kerry then give Cork a right old hosing, which provokes a thought that maybe Kerry are not getting the credit they deserve in beating what’s in front of them. What else can they do?
Then you factor in the hammering Cork received from Tyrone the last day and it throws the whole formbook out the window. From a Kerry perspective we all have doubts in our minds: how good are Kerry, how bad are Cork?
That goes for Dublin too; they face that challenge every time they take to the pitch. They’re beating teams by big scores in most of their matches and are wondering afterwards, where they are in relation to the form they’ll need further down the road in the championship. To be fair to Dublin I think they have a fair idea in that respect.
From a Kerry point of view, with a young team heading up to take on Galway in Croke Park, it’s a new challenge. The beauty of the Super 8s, and it’s an exciting concept, is that every team is stepping onto virgin ground in terms of a championship format.
Look at the permutations for Kerry. Everyone is playing in Croke Park this weekend. Let’s say that they lose to Galway, they are then faced with a mammoth task of going up to play Monaghan in Clones; the wheels could come off very easily. If you lost to Galway, lost to Monaghan you could have a dead rubber of a game in Killarney in the last match.
Kerry have to beat Galway, and they won’t be a pushover. Asked questions in Connacht, Galway came through tight matches with flying colours. They are a big, strong physical team. Kerry are younger. Are they capable of beating Galway? I think they are. They have the craft, and playing in Croke Park appeals to Kerry, although it will suit Galway too.
It is probably the game of the weekend from a competitive perspective, and I expect it to be a high scoring one. Galway are going to be defensive in the way they set up, Kerry have to be patient in trying to break them down.
Physically Galway have come on – look at the likes of Tomas Flynn. A couple of years ago some of their players were just out of minor and under-21, and hadn’t fully developed or filled out, but they’re different now. They are 14 or 15 stone, big units, and they are able to use that as well.
Galway went to the League final and acquitted themselves well against Dublin. Kerry beat Dublin in the league final the year before, so you can use this game as a measuring tool. It’s a big challenge for Kerry because they are not exactly sure where they are yet. They’re still finding their way. If Kerry play well and beat Galway then you have a fair idea of where they are at in terms of form. This will put the championship in context for both teams.
The nature of sport and the format means that you may lose one of the best two or three teams in the country over the next few weeks. I don’t think it will be Dublin, but it could be anyone else.
Let’s call a spade a spade, you’re dealing with blacks cards, yellow cards, red cards, injuries and suspensions, and all these things will have a huge bearing on who makes it to the semi-finals. It’s a bit like the World Cup, we have reached the business-end of the tournament. You can lose a game but there is huge pressure not to, especially on the first weekend.
You have Monaghan, a rejuvenated Kildare, Roscommon and Tyrone in the mix as well. All these teams won’t want to cede any ground. In real terms this is the first weekend of the championship. Is it the end of the world if you lose your first game? No, in mathematical terms, but practically it’s a huge setback. The prize of winning your first game is huge. It makes for great entertainment this weekend, the potential for good quality football against the backdrop of the pressure to win.
If a team doesn’t win the pressure is multiplied tenfold the following weekend. Teams only have one week to turn this around mentally and physically. There is no physical work that you can do between these games.
Factor in the heat, the travel, the bumps and bruises, the rehab in trying to get the body right, it’s a tall order. Kerry return from Croke Park on Sunday, and then they’re back up to Clones the following weekend. You have only five days before you’re back up the road.
I remember back in 2002, and we were on the road coming through the back door. Games were coming hot and heavy and can be enjoyable because the training isn’t as heavy. Playing week to week is doable if the preparation is right.
The prize for Kerry in getting Galway’s scalp under their belt is huge; that dividend applies to every successful team that wins in terms of confidence and momentum going forward.
I don’t think there is a danger of the Dubs being caught. Donegal have made huge strides this year, but I think it is a bridge too far. Dublin have too much quality at the minute.
The fate for the rest is less certain.