Kevin McStay: Usual suspects remain as championship action appears on horizon

Galway’s performances in the league turned heads but Mayo’s cycle could be done

Ciarán Kilkenny takes a shot during the  All-Ireland SFC  replay at Croke Park last September. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Ciarán Kilkenny takes a shot during the All-Ireland SFC replay at Croke Park last September. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

The term ‘usual suspects’ was originally intended as irony but in this year’s football ratings, it means what it says. It’s hard to believe that we have now reached the scheduled All-Ireland football final weekend and at the same time haven’t seen the counties kick a ball in six months.

Looking back at the league just as the tempo was rising, it is (given the weather, literally) frozen in time.

Even had some interesting derby fixtures – Dublin-Meath, Donegal-Tyrone and Galway-Mayo – been played I don’t think we’d have seen much to radically change established views.

What did it tell us? There is a strong correlation between success in league and championship and not just in terms of winning All-Irelands. There have been five ‘doubles’ in the last decade and nine times the league winners have been in the last four.

Accepting that, I don’t think we saw much during this year’s abruptly terminated campaign apart from the usual suspects positioning themselves. In that bunch there are question marks though over Mayo, who are flirting with Division Two but their championship pedigree allows me put them in a group of six.

Dublin and Kerry are, as they were going into the league, still out in front with Tyrone, Donegal, Galway and Mayo essentially level in the chasing pack. The jury may be out on the exact rankings but does anybody expect it to change even after all we’ve been through in the meantime?

The focus on Division Two isn’t as sharp now that the relegated counties are no longer threatened with being banished to Tier 2 but it’s important for Roscommon and Armagh to get back to the top division and they were due to play next when everything was abandoned.

With the rearranged fixtures coming right before the championship starts, league form and morale is going to be more important than usual and in that context, Down and Cork will expect to have confirmed their exits from Division Three – important for two storied and traditional counties even with the threat of Tier 2 off the table.

For something that was expected to be a major talking point going into the league, I thought the new rules were very disappointing. The much discussed forward mark has not been an issue, even if to this eye it remains very clunky and underwhelming.

Pádraig Joyce has already impressed in his first year in charge of the Galway footballers. Photograph: Brian Reilly-Troy/Inpho
Pádraig Joyce has already impressed in his first year in charge of the Galway footballers. Photograph: Brian Reilly-Troy/Inpho

They are mostly not high marks at all but caught on the chest. There are very few spectacular overhead catches, which was part of the mythology behind the idea. It’s also costing goals because the average player is stopping to get a handy point in the middle of what could be a goal-scoring opportunity rather than develop the move.

I don’t think it will have any major influence on the intercounty season any more than it has on the club championships to date, which is presumably an anti-climax for the standing committee on the playing rules (SCPR), who put it together.

The sin bin, which I was sceptical about, actually works quite well. I felt that requiring the offending player to be replaced until the end of the game was more of a deterrent than removal for 10 minutes.

The SCPR though had produced data that the spell down to 14 men was costing teams by nearly three points to one. From my observation, certainly it’s hurting teams and I know managers don’t want to coach a 14-man – and in some cases 13-man – team and are now very aware of this.

I like the 20-metre kick-out rule because it removes a patch of available real estate and definitely, so many more kick-outs are going towards the centre of the field because teams are in difficulties trying to find a short ball when the opposition pushes up.

Overall it’s hard to see the changes having an influence on who comes out on top.

Who’s that likely to be? Dublin and Kerry have a drawn All-Ireland from 2020 to prove that they’re neck-and-neck. Dublin might have won the replay comfortably but Kerry should have won the first day.

Galway are making noises. Mayo were having a tired league campaign and their cycle could be done. I’m not 100 per cent sure of that but it looks that way. Donegal look dangerous and Tyrone, even if they have come up short against Dublin in recent years, have always been competitive otherwise.

One thing I am sure about is that the aura of invincibility around Dublin has dimmed. That emerged in the early part of the league and I’ve no doubt it will still be an issue in the last two rounds of the league.

Obviously they don’t have Jim Gavin and his management was the keystone or the Jesus nut as they call it. We just don’t know how Dessie Farrell will cope in a pretty unenviable position but in the meantime Dublin have also lost a consistent footballer of the year candidate in Jack McCaffrey and Paul Clarke, who provided some continuity with the Gavin era.

Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea in action during the Allianz Football League Division 1 game against Dublin at Elvery’s MacHale Park in Castlebar. Photograph: Evan Logan/Inpho
Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea in action during the Allianz Football League Division 1 game against Dublin at Elvery’s MacHale Park in Castlebar. Photograph: Evan Logan/Inpho

They had their own reasons for leaving and we know life gets in the way of sport but the truth is they’ve lost some big personalities. They’ll walk Leinster but what they don’t have is the revving-up period of the Super 8s or the old-style quarter-finals or the life cover of the qualifiers.

So they win Leinster and two weeks later, it’s battle-hardened Ulster champions in an All-Ireland semi-final and I can’t see either of the likely candidates, Donegal or Tyrone, being as intimidated as previously. Dublin will need to move up the gears quickly.

Kerry traditionally have no confidence issues playing Dublin despite currently running an unparalleled losing streak in championship against them. They also know they’re getting closer.

The most interesting county among the usual suspects has been Galway but anyone from Mayo has a slightly different view of them. We’ve been their neighbours forever. Yes, I think they’ve moved up but with the important caveat that there’s no championship form yet and in fairness to Pádraic Joyce, it’s his first year and so there couldn’t be.

They look good but the coming championship is week-on-week and it’s knockout. Venues may well be an interesting consideration. Will there be a central ground in each province? My own sense is that this is the best way of doing things in these uncertain times and in Connacht the rumours are that it will be Castlebar.

Even on their worst day, Mayo or Galway can knock the other out of the championship. Therefore I wouldn’t go as strong on Galway as other people. If they were to put away Roscommon or Mayo convincingly, yes you would sit up because once Galway get up and running and have momentum, the All-Ireland series in Croke Park has not historically been an issue for them.

They’ve probably been the most impressive of all the teams in the league but they haven’t any championship credentials because the odd time excepted, they simply haven’t performed at the top level. And it’s the reason why Mayo are included even though they’ve been having a poor league – they have performed.

Also, look at their last two league matches. They were topping the table going into March but say they were to lose both games against Mayo and Dublin – quite possible even though both are at home – how would they be fixed then?

While we’re waiting for the shop window, there’s been plenty going on in the storeroom. The club championships have by and large been well received with the obvious defect of having no crowds but the standard and enthusiasm has been very good.

It’s a pity that the revised calendar has no room for provincial or All-Ireland championships at this level because I think that they’re the games that get wider engagement from the public. Could that have been accommodated? Probably not but it detracts from the club scene.

On the broader horizon, the impact of Covid on the GAA has led to mood swings. I’ve been on and off radio and podcasts over the past few months and it has reminded me of the military officer in charge of a big parade. Rehearsing it one day in changeable weather, he’s letting out a shout of ‘Greatcoats on!’ and then 10 minutes later ‘Greatcoats off!’

Every time the Government announces something we’re either jumping up and down with enthusiasm or collapsing into despondency. We don’t seem to accept that the situation is hugely dynamic and fluid. I think the GAA for the most part have got a lot right.

They started by activating and energising the local communities at a time when a national effort was required. They might have stumbled on what has been the success of the split season but they have also remained flexible. The arranging and stewarding of matches in really difficult circumstances has been superb.

They have fielded criticism that they failed to grasp the opportunity presented by experimenting with championship formats. I disagree with that because there has been enough uncertainty this year and with All-Irelands before Christmas, enough change.

That’s not to say there haven’t been missteps. I was very disappointed with the response to Ronan Glynn, which was mealy-mouthed, but I acknowledge that there has been a row-back on that.

Sometimes there’s a sense that we in the GAA project ourselves as special: the national game and the only ones doing anything and we merit different treatment. We need to be careful around that. There are other sports in this country and that statement hit a discordant, populist note.

That was, to be fair, more the exception. Otherwise the GAA has been sure-footed enough. The huge positive has been the conversation around the split season, which has opened up and it’s an idea with potential.

We’re all involved in reflecting on what’s important in our lives and what new practices we’ll be taking away from all of this. Giving the clubs time to themselves has proven beyond doubt to be the best scenario. Players are there and not hassled into going off with the county to meetings or training. As long as it’s captured well in rule with appropriate sanction, I think it can hold its place in the future.

In the more immediate term, the championship is coming into view. Seven weeks, run along 2000 rules, which will test teams with injury and suspension and for whoever gets the momentum right, a Christmas All-Ireland for one of the usual suspects.

Perhaps it’s strange after all we’ve been through that the football landscape has changed so little but another Dublin-Kerry final remains the best gambler’s shot.

There’s a lot to look forward to.

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