We start a ground-breaking season with a sense of possibility in the air. All around the country people are talking about the competitive nature of this year’s football championship.
There’s been a sharp focus on Ulster and expectations there with four counties in Division One, including the All-Ireland champions, but also on the balancing off of this year’s competition nationally.
Why? Largely because of Dublin’s demise. They were so far ahead and have come right back to the pack, which is the biggest dynamic in the levelling off when you consider how dominant they were. This has created a sense that everybody can get their teeth into it and a feeling in a lot of counties that they can have a big say in what happens.
Then there are a lot of counties, who, even if they don’t believe they can win it, believe they can do damage in their own province, particularly Ulster and Connacht, and maybe knock a big contender off course.
I said last week on Sky that I believe the team that kicks the ball in the Ulster championship has the best chance of winning it. Donegal play Armagh this weekend in what is a huge game.
Before the league started the general consensus would have been 60-40 in favour of Donegal, but by the end it had shifted to more like 50-50. After the developments of the last few days the balance has probably tilted again to an Armagh victory.
One of the platform beliefs across sports is that indiscipline shouldn’t pay. Well, that platform has been left looking pretty shaken. Donegal did the right thing in that they misbehaved, took their medicine and didn’t take up any more of the administrative system’s time – presumably on the understanding that other things would be dealt with but that hasn’t happened.
Armagh took the opposite approach. They lawyered up and fought everything and it’s turned out well for them. As might be imagined, there’s a lot of ill feeling in Donegal about the GAA’s disciplinary process.
Anyone looking at the Letterkenny scenes would have assumed that Rian O'Neill had a case to answer. He's one of the game's emerging stars and it's easy to see how Armagh might seek to build a team around him in the future in the same way as Donegal built one around Michael Murphy.
The news that because of a mistake in the process, he had been cleared to play had gone down very badly in Donegal, even before it emerged that two of the three other players had been cleared on appeal.
If you’re Neil McGee or young McFadden Ferry sitting in the stand, watching the game on Sunday, you’d be very, very cross. It has created an atmosphere around the game – as if it really needed that – and you’d expect there to be fireworks on the back of it.
There are wider implications. There was a melee up in Armagh and Tyrone were dealt with very aggressively, with a lot of men getting the road. The incidents in Letterkenny were far more serious with punches and elbows thrown. Compared to the first match, there’s virtually no one suspended.
Last week, Conor McKenna was sent off for doing not much more than being the third man in. We don’t know how he’ll fare but you can see from a Donegal and Tyrone point of view how there’s a disparity in how things are dealt with. That sense of unfairness becomes an issue when the teams are all competing in the same championship.
It’s a recipe for resentment.
On its merits, Ulster looks a cracking championship in prospect. The final will bring together the survivors of the Donegal-Armagh side of the draw with the Tyrone-Derry-Monaghan side. That’s without even looking at Cavan, the 2020 champions, or Antrim, who I think are a really improved team, well coached by Enda McGinley.
This Sunday, Donegal are a team very heavily oriented to the possession game and Armagh pivot more to a kicking game, which carries a goal threat with it, and that worries me from a Donegal perspective.
Creating those opportunities to kick the ball, knowing when the right time is to kick the ball, making use of long kick-outs, which are the source of most goals anyway and implementing scenarios where you isolate opposition defenders, one v one inside. Back that up with a strong running game and you have a winning formula.
I feel that defensive set-ups can’t have it both ways. All the teams around the country are ‘man to man’ – in inverted commas because it’s only a half-and-half approach. They’re waiting for that moment to drop into a defensive structure and I believe that managers have to force their opponents’ hands a lot more.
To be fair to Fermanagh, last weekend that is what they were able to do against Tyrone in the first half. If you’re man-to-man you can drag people around the pitch so it’s not going to be easy to do this and also give defensive cover to a full-back line.
What Fermanagh did in the first half was to deploy lots of bodies outside the 45 and they were then overloading particular flanks of their attack. This forced Tyrone to push out and mark them and the more they did that, the more space was created between the 45 and the two full forwards, young Daragh McGurn and Seán Quigley inside.
Tyrone did deploy a plus-one at the back and he covered the space in front of the two Fermanagh attackers. However, Fermanagh were able to play over him on the diagonal and create one-v-one situations inside.
This forced Tyrone into a decision and they started to drop the occasional body back but Fermanagh then used the overloads outside the 45 to initiate their running game. I think that’s the way to go.
It was extremely clever from Kieran Donnelly but Fermanagh didn't quite have the players to execute what would have been a great tactical coup.
You can’t have it both ways and shouldn’t be allowed to. Yet, all through the national league that’s what teams have been able to do: half-and-half with man-to-man marking and providing a defensive screen. Teams that get the attacking balance right will have a huge say in this championship in my opinion.
If Ulster is the most competitive province, Munster is the least and it’s impossible to see Kerry not winning, especially as lightning struck them just two years ago.
The big question coming out of Leinster is can Kildare have a breakthrough year at Dublin’s expense? There’s no doubt they have progressed in the past 12 months. They look a county re-energised and for me, that energy is fuelled by pride in the jersey and standards, all of which is coming from their coaching staff.
Will it be enough to get them over the line in 2022? The honest answer is that we don’t know because we don’t know where Dublin are at.
Connacht is the second most competitive province and provides a heavyweight bout between Galway and Mayo this weekend. Both had good league campaigns up until the final but they will each believe that they can win the province and have a very big say in the All-Ireland series.
And that’s not mentioning the team that actually did win Division Two, Roscommon. Their self-belief will be as strong as Galway and Mayo – in Connacht anyway.
Mayo are in transition in the sense that they used to have an incredibly strong kicking game for a number of years under James Horan. They were a team not afraid to kick the ball or test their forwards and expect them to get out in front and win possession.
There’s no doubt at this stage that they have morphed into what is very much a running game. Maybe that’s based on the personnel, who are better carriers of the ball because they are a very physically imposing team. But given that Horan has proved he can get other teams to play that different style, he might be able to combine the two approaches, which would be interesting and significant.
Remember Pádraic Joyce’s first season as manager just before the pandemic struck, and how well Galway kicked the ball. If they could find that balance as well, they too would ask questions of anybody regardless of what happens on Sunday.
Over the past number of years, I feel there has been too much possession-based, lateral football without a lot of penetration. I sense that we might be about to see a shift in that philosophy and style of play depending on who wins this year’s final.
Teams and their coaches are always prone to be influenced by the previous year’s All-Ireland champions and if we do indeed see a team win with a more expansive kicking game, that could be enough to send the game spiralling off in another direction.
The three dominant styles are possession, running and kicking. If a team could recalibrate to vary their style by maybe blending all three, that might well mark a shift in how football is played.
The team that came closest to this blend last year was Tyrone. For me, Mayo are a running team; Dublin and Donegal, possession-based and Armagh a mixture between possession and kicking. Which approach can be most effectively adapted will be fascinating to see.
The team that almost grabs the game by the scruff of the neck and puts themselves out there by playing more aggressive, transitional football, wants to get to the ball and make contact and has the fortitude to look up and kick it a certain percentage of time, I think would have a great chance of making an impact.
It’s why Kerry are so well placed even if I don’t agree that they are overwhelming favourites. They have been drilled as a possession team but with their DNA, a kicking game comes naturally and they also have the best forward in the country and therefore a reason to kick the ball.
They are well placed to do it in 2022 but not everything goes in a straight line.