OpinionPat Spillane

Pat Spillane vows to ride horse naked if one of these counties doesn't win All Ireland in 2017

Who will get their hands on Sam in 2017?
Who will get their hands on Sam in 2017?

I don’t make New Year resolutions, but I will make a solemn promise today.

If any team other than Dublin, Kerry, Mayo or Tyrone wins the Sam Maguire Cup in 2017, I will ride a horse naked through the victorious county.

Needless to say I don’t expect to have to fulfil that promise. 

But today I want to examine the credentials of the only four teams who have a chance of securing the big prize next September.

DUBLIN, 5/4 to win Sam

For any Kerry GAA fanatic it was tough going having to read so many articles from Dublin-based journalists eulogising the team since last September.

The general gist of the pieces was that this was the best Dublin team of all time – which is probably correct – and suggesting they could go on to be the greatest football team of all time.

As George Hook might say, ‘hold it there and back up the caravan’. I admire the Dubs, but I wouldn’t subscribe to that theory just yet. 

Of course the Dubs have a lot going for them. Winning builds momentum and becomes a habit. 

Having gone through 2016 unbeaten in league or championship they start the new season full of confidence. 

They have strength in depth, pace, and athleticism. They play with the composure and confidence that comes from being champions and in Jim Gavin they have a brilliant but ruthless manager.  

Playing in an uncompetitive Leinster championship means they can freewheel through the summer and don’t have to think about peaking until August.

But their greatest quality – which is the hallmark of a truly outstanding side – is that they are adaptable.

Regardless of what system opponents use they are able to cope and they can play any number of ways themselves.

They can eke out wins in close games and they can also win big games even when they are not firing on all cylinders.

So what could possibly go wrong?

Since the Sam Maguire Cup was first presented in 1928, Galway (1964-1966) are the only county other than Kerry to win three All-Ireland titles on the spin. 

Kerry achieved two four in a rows (1929-1932) and (1978-1981) and one hat-trick (1984-1986), but significantly no county has done the treble since the introduction of the back door in 2001.

So, mentally, the Dubs face a big challenge and the pressure will mount as they get nearer and nearer to reaching the summit.

Last year they were flat for most of the championship, failing to reach the high notes – particularly in attack – they hit in 2015. 

All the statistics support my contention that much of their attacking play was too lateral last season.

Their conversion rate from shots was less than 30 per cent, while more than 30 per cent of their scores came from frees.

They failed to score a goal in two of their six championship games – which compares unfavourably to their record in 2015, when they hit the net in all but one of their championship games.

Furthermore, their scoring averages dropped from just over 27 points per game in 2015 to just over 20 last year. 

Finally, two of their marquee forwards, Bernard Brogan and Paul Flynn are in decline and I’m far from convinced that Ciarán Kilkenny’s role (below) as playmaker plays to Dublin’s strengths. 

VERDICT:  Jim Gavin has to decide whether to stick or twist. In other words does he start younger players like Cormac Costello, Paul Mannion, Con O’Callaghan and  Colm Basquel. Ultimately they need to rediscover their 2015 form or they will be caught.

 

MAYO, 4/1

The statistics suggest that they are the second-best team in the country – after all, they only lost the All-Ireland final replay by a point. However, I rate them as third behind Dublin and Kerry. 

So is there anything to suggest that the long-awaited breakthrough will come in 2017?

The explosive revelations in the interview with former joint managers Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly opened up a can of worms and reflected poorly on the players. 

However, current boss Stephen  Rochford could turn this controversy to his advantage by creating a siege mentality in the squad – in other words an ‘us against the world’ approach. 

Mayo are the only team in the country that matches Dublin in terms of physicality and athleticism.  

Defensively they tick all the right boxes – despite conceding two own goals in the drawn final and the goalkeeping fiasco in the replay.

The fact that they conceded an average of just 12 points per game underlined that they successfully bedded down their new sweeper system. 

The new management team came late to the scene at the end of 2015 so they have had more time to plan their strategy for the new season.   

Maybe their biggest plus is that, unlike everyone else, they have absolutely no fear of the Dubs.

However, the Holmes-Connelly interview revealed a dangerous level of player power which is not conducive to winning an All-Ireland. 

The whole episode will heap even more pressure on the underperforming players to deliver an All-Ireland.  

Even though they surrendered their provincial title to Galway last year, overall Mayo had a relatively straightforward run to the final – including two home games in the qualifiers and a semi-final date against underdogs Tipperary. They might not be as fortunate this year.

Furthermore, even though Dublin produced flat performances in the two All-Ireland deciders, Mayo still couldn’t beat them. 

They are short at least two quality forwards; both Andy Moran and Alan Dillon are past their peak and their replacement bench is weak – three of their substitutes failed to touch the ball in the drawn All-Ireland.

They also need to finally settle on a clearly defined role for Aidan O’Shea, who in return needs to deliver when it matters.

The mental baggage that comes with the county’s record 10 All-Ireland final defeats weighs heavily on the players’ shoulders and after their bizarre decision to drop keeper David Clarke (below) for the replay the management team has to get their act together as well.

VERDICT: Frankly, I just cannot see them winning the All-Ireland this year. In fact, I believe they should concentrate on securing a National League title.

KERRY, 4/1

I wrote extensively about Kerry a couple of weeks ago, but I’ll just reiterate a couple of the main points I made then.

I believe they are the second-best team in the country.

They tick so many boxes: experience, belief, strong substitutes bench, lots of young talent coming through and no shortage of scoring forwards. 

With Eamonn Fitzmaurice (below) staying on for another two years they have continuity on the management side. Last year they worked on getting their defensive system right – they didn’t concede a goal in three of their five championship games. At the other end of the field they scored nine goals in five matches and averaged a healthy 24 points per game.

In the 2000s, Tyrone were Kerry’s bogey team. Now it is the Dubs. They have lost their last four big games in Croke Park to the All-Ireland title holders during Fitzmaurice’s reign.

The additional football mileage in the legs of the older Kerry players came back to haunt them as they failed to match Dublin’s athleticism at the business end of these games and were overwhelmed.  

However, they need to adjust their tactics as well. This year their obsession with stopping the Dubs resulted in them not playing to their own strengths. 

They took Dublin on in the last few minutes of the first-half of the All-Ireland semi-final and scored 2-4 without reply.  But then they retreated back into their shell in the opening quarter of the second-half and allowed Dublin back into the game. 

The reality is that Fitzmaurice has been outwitted by Jim Gavin and this needs to change. I was struck by comments made by former Kilkenny star Tommy Walsh about Brian Cody in an interview over the Christmas.

Walsh suggested that Cody’s greatest strength was his lack of sentimentality. Fitzmaurice needs to emulate Cody in this department, get rid of some of his longest serving players and introduce fresh blood.

VERDICT:  Right now I don’t think Kerry will win the 2017 All-Ireland, but I do give them a chance provided Fitzmaurice culls the older players and the team play on the front foot and play the ball with the foot at pace.

TYRONE, 7/1

According to a lot of observers, Tyrone are the dark horses for the 2017 All-Ireland. Indeed, Mickey Harte recently suggested that his team could have beaten Dublin had they reached the final last year. Frankly, I’m a doubting Thomas when it comes to Tyrone.

Granted they only lost one game in league and championship in 2016. They are now back playing in Division 1, while Harte appears to have rediscovered his managerial mojo.

Their defensive system is one of the best in the business – last year they conceded an average of just 14 points per game in the championship and their ability to counter-attack at speed is only bettered by the Dubs. The problem, though, is that they don’t counter-attack often enough.

Their Achilles heel is their attack. For the most part their forwards are lightweight and they don’t have enough ball winners, while they also lack a centre forward and a target man – the forwards scored one point from play against Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Most worryingly, they lack a reliable free-taker.  

They are also over-dependent on Sean Cavanagh (below) for inspiration, their game plan is too conservative and they have become obsessed by getting the defensive system right.

VERDICT:  Overall the jury is still out on their All-Ireland prospects. I believe they have been overhyped on the basis of winning a mediocre Ulster championship last year.