Spillane: It's tough to look past Dublin, Kerry, Donegal and Mayo for this year's All-Ireland
THIS time last year I was reasonably optimistic about the future of Gaelic football.
The majority of the top teams had abandoned the blanket defence and all its unsightly accoutrements such as sweepers, swarm defenders, 13 players behind the ball and lateral hand passing.
The introduction of the black card at the start of last year seemed to accelerate the move towards positive football. Sadly, like the Arab Spring, the renaissance in Gaelic football proved a mirage.
Donegal’s shock win over Dublin in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final changed the mood music in football and we have reaped a grim harvest ever since.
So defensive tactics are all the rage again and as a result we witnessed some truly awful games in Division 1 of the league this spring.
Even Dublin, by far the most attack-minded team in the country, are now paying more attention to their defensive formations.
It would be foolhardy to expect counties to simply abandon the blanket defence just because we’re now in championship mode.
However, in their demolition of Cork in the league final Dublin demonstrated one of the most effective ways to beat the blanket. Attack opponents high up the field, force turnovers in their half of the field and don’t let them build moves from the back.
Of course, this is easier said than done and I don’t expect to see many free-flowing, high scoring matches in the 2015 All-Ireland series.
While counties begin the race for Sam full of optimism, the reality is that at most four counties: Dublin, Kerry, Mayo and Donegal, have any chance of winning the title. Even among this quartet, Dublin and Kerry are well ahead of the other pair.
Mind you, despite all my reservations, come the August bank holiday weekend all eyes will be on Croke Park when the real battle for Sam begins.
Once upon a time this was the second most competitive and best provincial series after Ulster. Sadly this is no longer the case. It has been on the decline in the last decade and has become boring, predictable and utterly one-sided.
Dublin have won nine of the last 10 championships in the province. In last year’s series they had an average winning margin of over 14 points in their three games.
Indeed, the average winning margin of all games in the series was more than 10 points — which underlines just how lop-sided it has
I don’t expect it will be any different this year. The winners of last night’s game between Offaly and Longford face the ‘bogey’ prize of a quarter-final clash against Dublin.
The winners (ie Dublin) are likely to face a declining Kildare in the semi-final.
The only possibility of an upset on this side of the draw is that Laois — who will surely eliminate Carlow in the first round — will beat Kildare.
The other half of the draw is even less appealing.
Meath are the only county with any form in this section of the draw which includes three counties, Westmeath, Louth and Wexford, who were relegated and Wicklow, who finished second last in Division 4.
So Dublin and Meath are likely to clash in their fourth consecutive Leinster final with Dublin to coast to their fifth title on the spin and their tenth in 11 years.
At the end of it all they will be none the wiser as to their real worth, though, in terms of re-capturing the All-Ireland.
This is by far the toughest, most competitive and hardest provincial championship to win — and predict!
Think about this: Defending title holders Donegal are going to have to win four difficult matches against Tyrone, Armagh, Down or Derry and probably Monaghan just to retain their provincial crown.
Just for good measure, the draw is completely unbalanced with the top-half containing Monaghan, Cavan, Fermanagh and Antrim which is bluntly not within a mile of being as competitive as the bottom half which is effectively a Group of Death.
Monaghan, the 2013 title holders, look like the team most likely to benefit from this which explains why they are the favourites to lift the Anglo Celt trophy.
They ought to arrive in the final the fresher team but I still think Donegal are the best bet to retain their title.
I expect an intriguing championship in the west! Four of the teams (Mayo, Galway, Sligo and Leitrim) have new managers which adds a bit of freshness and enthusiasm to the series.
Furthermore, given the continued rise of the Roscommon footballers, who will play in Division 1 next season, the championship is no longer the preserve of the big two who have traditionally dominated the series.
Given that Roscommon has Division 4 (London) and a Division 3 (Sligo) teams standing in the way of a Connacht Final appearance I would anticipate John Evans’s side reaching the decider.
Galway will have the benefit of two matches before playing Mayo in the semi-final. But playing the likes of New York and Leitrim is hardly the ideal preparation for facing Mayo who are bidding to win five titles in a row.
I think Mayo’s experience of Division 1 football will stand to them — they’re just one small step ahead of the chasing posse.
It is virtually certain that it will be another Kerry v Cork July final showdown in Fitzgerald Stadium. But there could be twists along the way. Remember last year Clare were leading Kerry at half time and Tipperary were ahead of Cork near the end — and should have beaten them — in the semi-final?
Cork’s banana skin this year could be in Ennis where they are likely to face Clare — I expect them to beat Limerick in the first round.
Tipperary ought to reach the semi-final again but despite their improvement and the star quality of their U-21 players I simply cannot see them beating Kerry.
Cork have now endured three big-match meltdowns in the last 12 months — last season’s league semi-final and Munster Final and this year’s league final. I don’t think they will have recovered from that triple blow in time for the Munster Final.
And the Rebels also have a woeful record at Fitzgerald Stadium — they haven’t won a championship game there since 1995 so the Kingdom ought to prevail again.