Pat Spillane: Sam Maguire race is wide open and Mayo are in with a real shot
Kevin McStay’s troops have reason to believe but Dublin are sorely lacking an impact bench
AFTER three weekends of helter-skelter action in the Allianz Football League everybody gets a well-earned breather today.
There is a paradox about the competition: huge crowds are coming out to see games, even though many feature really boring football, dictated by negative tactics.
However, with no previews (thank God) to write, I can address three questions I get asked all the time.
Can Kerry retain Sam? Are the Dubs on the way back? And, could this be Mayo’s year?
Can Kerry retain Sam?
EVEN though Jack O’Connor made it crystal clear the League wasn’t a priority, it hasn’t stopped the Kerry fans from engaging in an emotional yo-yo show.
The dire performance against Donegal – the Kingdom scored 0-3 in the last 50 minutes – provoked a kind of mini-crisis in the fan base. Then after demolishing Monaghan in round 2 everybody was in seventh heaven.
The talk on the street was all about the new talent emerging. To tell you the truth, Monaghan were so poor in the second half I’d have backed myself to score a few points, even though I’m 67.
The bubble burst after a woeful performance against Mayo, when players showed a lack of pride in the jersey. Then, again, if you travel up and down in the one day to Castlebar, what do you expect?
The hype was regenerated after the Armagh game, primarily because Kerry won a tight game of attrition.
After last Sunday’s loss to Tyrone – the fourth in a row on Tyrone soil – Kerry’s supporters are in despair again.
What’s gone wrong?
Kerry were late back training, and haven’t yet caught up with the pack in terms of fitness.
Secondly, key players – like Gavin White, Brian O’Beaglaoich, Mike Breen, Diarmuid O’Connor, Stephen O’Brien, Paul Geaney and Joe O’Connor – are all absent through injury, the latter will miss the 2023 season with a serious knee injury.
But, as I have written here before, I have still to make up my mind about this Kerry team.
It was the first time I ever saw an All-Ireland-winning Kerry team fail to put in even one 70-minute performance on their way to winning the title.
Whisper it – they might not be as good as I thought they were.
Apart from the Clifford brothers, the two best players in the 2022 Kerry club and county championships were David Moran – now retired – and Paul Geaney, who is past his peak.
Centrefield is a disaster zone. Moran is proving to be irreplaceable, and teams have copped on that Kerry are vulnerable here.
Expect more of what we witnessed in Omagh. Teams will press up on Kerry’s kick-outs, forcing Shane Ryan to go long – so hitting the ball into a sector where Kerry are weak.
When the going gets tough, I don’t see enough leaders.
Tyrone man-marked our three key players (Padraig Hampsey on David Clifford, Conor Meyler on Paudie Clifford and Peter Harte on Seanie O’Shea) and eventually subdued them.
When this happens Kerry look very ordinary. And God forbid if anything were to happen to David Clifford. Unless he is on song, Kerry will not retain Sam.
To me, David and Paudie (Clifford) look a bit jaded and could do with an extended break – which, of course, is out of the question.
Apart from Adrian Spillane and, to a lesser extent Donal O’Sullivan, no other player looks capable of convincing the team management they should be in the starting XV.
The All-Ireland champions are always targeted, with opponents spending a lot of time sussing out what makes them tick.
As I said earlier, opponents will deploy a high press on Kerry’s kick-out, double-mark David Clifford and attempt to disrupt Kerry’s defensive system, by luring sweeper Tadhg Morley into a marking role.
Furthermore, Kerry have always struggled against blanket defences.
Ponderous build-ups, a reluctance to shoot, bringing the ball into contact, where they are turned over, and an overall lack of imagination when faced with a massed defence are all traits of Kerry’s play.
Their starting forwards scored 0-4 from play against Armagh – and in the second half against Tyrone, the forwards managed 0-1 from play.
Verdict: It would be daft to write them off, but they have a hell of a lot of improving to do.
And if I was a gambler I wouldn’t be putting a cent on them to retain Sam.
Are the Dubs back?
THE phrase I’ve used most often to describe Dublin’s performances this spring is ‘fluting around.’ Though not playing well, they are doing enough to win – at least until they encountered Derry.
Honestly, I’m not sure whether they are aiming to peak for the latter stages of the All-Ireland series and have tailored their preparations towards that goal or they’re simply not good enough anymore.
Every fanatical Dub I meet tells me that once Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion are unleashed again they will be unbeatable. Maybe so. But it is not a given the pair will be as effective as they were when they last played.
On the plus side, they are virtually certain to be promoted in the League.
Goalkeeper David O’Hanlon and Daire Newcombe look promising – though Dublin they have already a first-class goalkeeper in Evan Comerford.
They dismantled Cork’s blanket defence with ruthless efficiency and were even better in the first half against Derry – composed, patient and timing their runs to perfection. But then it fell apart in the second half.
Indeed, in all their games they have struggled at times, which suggests a deeper malaise. Too many of their starting players, particularly in defence, have a lot of football mileage in their legs.
Can Mick Fitzsimons, James McCarthy and David Byrne survive for another season? Their famed defensive system, featuring rotating sweepers, is not being used at the moment.
Their transition play is too slow and too cautious, possibly a relic of bad habits which began in the latter years of Jim Gavin’s reign.
Their reluctance to go for goals, when the opportunities arise, is striking. They failed to score a goal against Derry, Clare and Cork.
Even though he is not at his best Con O’Callaghan is their top scorer from play with 0-10, while Ciaran Kilkenny has scored only 0-4 from play. Dean Rock is struggling for pace.
With the exception of O’Hanlon and Newcombe, no other new faces have emerged. They have what I would describe as a ‘no-impact’ bench.
Their invincible tag is long gone. Opponents can smell weaknesses as Derry did last weekend.
Verdict: Leinster is now, by far, the weakest province, so they won’t be tested until the latter stages of the All-Ireland series
Could this be Mayo’s year?
AT the moment – and I stress at this moment – there are far more positives than negatives. But, in football terms, March is light years away from June and July.
Kevin McStay has assembled a brilliant management team in contrast to James Horan’s backroom teams.
They have the two key attributes required for Championship success – pace and athleticism. Players such as David McBrien, Tommy Conroy, Bob Touhy, Enda Hession and Sam Callinan have buckets of pace.
And they have powerful runners such as Jordan Flynn, Fionn McDonagh, Mattie Ruane and Paddy Durcan in the middle third, while the work-rate of Diarmuid O’Connor and Jack Carney has caught the eye.
Moving Aidan O’Shea into the full forward line could be the equivalent of discovering the final piece of the jigsaw.
While their running game remains in rude health they are, at last, developing a decent kicking game as well. Overall, their panel is stronger, with serious competition for places.
But don’t pop the champagne corks yet. We don’t know whether Mayo’s excellent form is a combination of getting a bounce from the new management and a huge amount of pre-season training, or if there is substance to it.
Granted they top Division 1 but, remember, they drew two games and were hanging on against an average Roscommon side last weekend.
And one wonders will they miss experienced heads such as Lee Keegan and Oisín Mullin in the white heat of Championship battle.
Verdict: On balance their fans can be optimistic.
The other contenders
The bottom line is the 2023 All-Ireland series is more open than it has been for more than a decade. I believe Kerry, Galway, Mayo, Dublin, Armagh, Derry and Tyrone all have a chance while Cork are my wild-card choice.
Tyrone got their mojo back against Kerry – though, until the visitors conceded a bizarre own goal, they looked quite ordinary.
The Tyrone bench is quite weak overall with the exception of Ruairí Canavan.
Galway tick all the boxes but I’m still not convinced about them.
I wonder how their defence will cope later in the season without Liam Silke and Kieran Molloy and their over-dependence on Shane Walsh – and to a lesser extent Damien Comer – could catch up with them.
Derry are the form team, even if they are playing in Division 2. Together with Cavan they are the only county with a 100 per cent record in the League.
Switching Brendan Rogers to midfield gives them an extra line breaker in a key area, while Eoin McEvoy has been revelation at full back.
I have three reservations about them. Firstly, one wonders have they peaked too soon.
Secondly, I remain unconvinced that their energy-sapping high tempo game plan can be replicated in Croke Park in the latter stages of the All-Ireland series, given that they have only 29 players in their squad.
But, for me, their Achilles Heel is a lack of marquee forwards. Shane McGuigan is a class performer, but he blows hot and cold and, though Paul Cassidy has improved, the top defences will fancy their chances of closing Derry down.
In terms of physicality, athleticism and defensive organisation, Armagh tick all the boxes needed to win an All-Ireland.
Though I was critical of how they approached the Kerry game, they restricted the All-Ireland champions to just 12 scores and no goals, and held David Clifford and Seanie O’Shea scoreless.
Their issues are at the other end of the field. Apart from Rian O’Neill, they don’t have a marquee forward – and they have yet to decide on where they should play O’Neill to get the best out of him.
Finally, I’m convinced that the top teams are monitoring Ethan Raftery’s forward forays with a view to setting a trap for him if they meet in the Championship.
It only takes one lapse of concentration and Armagh could concede a silly goal because their goalkeeper is on walkabout.
But, all told, I believe the 2023 All-Ireland title is up for grabs with no clear favourite.
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