Little chance for managers to experiment in condensed GAA season

Introducing fresh blood when you have no pre-season to do so is a risky business

Oisín Mullin burst onto the scene for Mayo last season. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Oisín Mullin burst onto the scene for Mayo last season. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

It was exactly 10 years on Saturday since the Dublin footballers, without a national title since 1995, came up short yet again, this time in an Allianz League final against Cork.

Leading by eight points after Diarmuid Connolly’s high and handsome 40th minute point, they went on to lose by one. A nine-point swing and more desolation. Would their wait ever end?

That lament clearly hasn’t aged well, similar to the query from one reporter after that loss to Cork that Dublin may have developed a mental block with getting over the line and winning serious silverware?

“Do you think I’m going to say ‘yes’ to that now, in fairness?” shot back then manager Pat Gilroy. “If I really believed that I should walk out the door now and never be in front of that team again.”

Dublin, of course, went on to win the All-Ireland later that year and have barely paused for breath since, winning 13 national titles in total since that Cork loss.

What Gilroy also mentioned that day, but which was shoved to the foot of all the reports about their latest big game no show, was that he’d used 31 different players in the course of that league campaign.

It was a big positive as far as Gilroy was concerned because he was still in the process of assembling a group after huge Championship defeats to Kerry (2009) and Meath (2010).

He did acknowledge that Dublin “got a clear lesson today that (Cork’s) squad proved to be stronger than our squad” but tinkering with different players throughout that eight-game spring campaign ultimately stood to Dublin.

Breakthrough win

A dozen of that league final team lined out against Kerry in the All-Ireland final breakthrough win that September. Two of the other three players - Philly McMahon and game breaker Kevin McManamon - were the first players to come on.

In contrast, the league final team against Cork had shown seven changes from the Dublin team which had exited the 2010 Championship against Cork at the All-Ireland semi-final stage.

So Gilroy used the 2011 league to assess all his options and nail down a summer team. The number of Dublin players used by Jim Gavin and, most recently, Dessie Farrell in league campaigns are even more remarkable.

In his last league campaign as manager, 2019, Gavin used 37 different players, the most of any Division 1 team that year. In 2020, Farrell went one better by handing game time to 38 different players in just seven games. Remember Craig Dias starting against Donegal? Or Eoin O’Brien against Tyrone? Or Emmet O’Conghaile against Meath.

In the league of experimentation, Dublin were joined by Galway last year on 38 with Meath on 36, Mayo on 35, Kerry and Tyrone on 32, Donegal on 30 and Monaghan, typically, using the fewest players with just 28.

That level of heavy experimentation is about to end because this year’s shortened football league guarantees counties just four games; three in their regionalised group and then either a semi-final or a relegation playoff.

There were no pre-season competitions this year either, further reducing the opportunities for new players to impress.

Dublin, again, have made great use of the O’Byrne Cup throughout the last decade, effectively using it to assess players who hadn’t made their main panel.

In 2017, a third string Dublin containing little known players like Niall Scully, Robbie McDaid and Brian Howard - all of whom featured in last December’s All-Ireland senior final win over Mayo - got their chance and took it, winning the January competition. They may have made it as senior stars either way but the shop window certainly helped.

Even challenge games aren’t an option this season and the great fear is that with so few opportunities to impress, and with promotion and relegation still major issues that will be at stake, managers will view experimentation as simply too much of a risk.

The chances are that many players who had hoped to make their breakthrough this year onto county squads, or to make the great leap from panel member to first team player, will miss out.

Increasing

The GAA is reportedly considering increasing the amount of substitutes that teams can make from five to eight.

That will address the situation somewhat though it is more an effort to ensure that the same players aren’t rolled out week after week, driving up their risk of injury, in what will be another condensed season.

In a letter from the Kerry GAA executive to the GAA’s Central Competitions Control Committee, they raised the substitutes issue on the basis that “...we don’t have any challenge games, we just felt the limit of five subs would be very onerous on players in terms of the load that they’d be exposed to”.

The letter also suggested that the “extra number of subs could only be made during a water break or at half-time, so that they wouldn’t impede on the play or timing of the game”.

Speaking ahead of the resumption of inter-county training last Monday, former All-Ireland winning Galway hurling manager Micheál Donoghue suggested that the GAA should allow unlimited substitutes for the league.

He too had injury prevention in mind though said it was important “that management are afforded the opportunity to use as many players as possible”.

Interestingly, unlimited substitutes in underage grades are among the proposals following a strategic review in Louth.

That review has been headed up by former county senior footballer Derek Crilly who said the proposal of unlimited substitutions at certain underage grades “would be just in the league to begin with but in the long-term looking at coming to a system where everybody must be guaranteed game time, maybe 30 minutes at U-13, 15 minutes at U-15 to help with the retention rate and make sure kids are given the opportunity to play”.

Senior intercounty teams were permitted unlimited changes during last year’s O’Byrne Cup and Dublin manager Farrell made 23 of them in a single game against Longford.

What’s certain is that opportunities to impress ahead of the Championship will be limited in the coming weeks for intercounty players.

James Horan used last year’s league to blood newcomers Oisín Mullin and Ryan O’Donoghue, the duo making six and five starts respectively in their seven-match campaign. They were still there in the team on All-Ireland final day with Mullin eventually winning the Young Player of the Year award. Tommy Conroy and Eoghan McLaughlin - relative greenhorns too - who featured heavily in last year’s league, were the other nominees for Young Player of the Year.

The lack of opportunity to experiment and to assess will hit new managers hardest and it is no coincidence that there are just five new management teams in intercounty football - Mickey Harte (Louth), Tony McEntee (Sligo), Brian Dooher/Feargal Logan (Tyrone), Enda McGinley (Antrim) and Shane Ronayne (Waterford) - and only one in top flight hurling - Séamas Plunkett (Laois) - for 2021.

Tony McEntee (left) will lead Sligo this year. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
Tony McEntee (left) will lead Sligo this year. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

To put that in context, ahead of the 2020 season, there were 16 managers facing into their first campaigns with new counties, 12 in football and four in hurling.

In Sligo, new manager McEntee, appointed late last November, is still in the process of trying to cut down his panel having only just got to see them in the flesh last week.

Whipped into shape

Sligo are in Division 4 north of the league and while they start off with a home game against Leitrim on May 16th, their remaining two group games are both away. At the end of that mini-league, McEntee’s challenge is to have his adopted group whipped into shape and ready to take on Connacht title holders Mayo in a provincial quarter-final.

“The key priorities for me as a new manager in Sligo will be different to those of a manager in, say, his second, third or fourth year with a group,” said the former Mayo coach. “For me it’s about familiarisation with players first and foremost. I got the job in November so that’s obviously been very difficult to do so far. The second thing then is to implement some sort of playing style and the third piece is to identify my panel.”

Niall Carew, appointed Carlow manager mid-way through 2020, is only slightly better off having at least presided over games late last year.

“If you were coming in now to play your first league match, that’s very hard on new management, at least we had a few trial games leading into the second portion of the league campaign last year,” Carew said on KCLR’s Clash Act podcast. “We had a league game against Sligo and then a championship match against Offaly. So I’ve a fair handle on where we’re at but you’d certainly like an O’Byrne Cup to give other players opportunities and things like that.”

National League of experimentation in 2020

Players used by Div 1 football teams

(All 7 games)

38 - Dublin, Galway

36 - Meath

35 - Mayo

32 - Kerry, Tyrone

30 - Donegal

28 - Monaghan

Players used by Div 1 hurling teams

(All 5 games, apart from finalists Limerick & Clare who played 6)

34 - Kilkenny

32 - Galway, Limerick

31 - Waterford, Tipperary, Clare

30 - Carlow, Dublin

29 - Westmeath

28 - Cork, Wexford, Laois

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