Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Championship Preview 2009

The Championship begins on May 10th when the ball is thrown in between Mayo and New York, and it can’t come soon enough. In these grim times the GAA is about last thing we have to remind the Irish of what’s best about ourselves.

Naturally, it being our one shining star, we do our best to crush the best things about it at every opportunity, just as the panda rolls over her young. She doesn’t really mean it, but they’re dead just the same.

The latest manifestation of this urge to self-destruction is the deeply depressing defeat of the new rules – which weren’t new at all, of course – at Congress at Easter. Séamus Mallon once described the Good Friday Agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners,” and it’s hard not to echo that great man’s frustration at the lazy and indolent resistance to cleaning up the game.

The so-called new rules were a watered down version of the sin-bin that was introduced in 2005 League. The sin-bin was a perfect solution to persistent, niggly fouling, and much more effective than what was introduced this year. So naturally the managers whined at every opportunity, saying that this man didn’t deserve a yellow, or that man didn’t deserve a yellow.

Well, yes they did, because the new rule said that the bin was what you got for being an unrepentant sleeveen. An Spailpín has often mournfully wondered if the sin-bin could have been successfully introduced if they had concurrently introduced a blue card, say, thus depriving the managers of that shield that their man “didn’t deserve a yellow.”

Too late now, of course. The bin failed and the sending-off with substitution failed, and the reason why is this: too many people like the system they way it is. They don’t think the game is about protecting flair players. They see it as a game where the only thing that matters is winning, and if that means raining punches into a man’s kidneys and then protesting that you were only playing the ball ref, feck’s sake, you were only playing the ball, then so be it. Congress has sown the wind in voting down the rule reform – let’s hope they don’t reap the whirlwind come high summer.

Jack O’Connor was one of those who opposed the rule reform. Jack is some ticket. This is the same Jack O’Connor who wrote in his essential memoir that before Kerry could face the 2006 Championship he himself had to “actually learn how to coach the tackle. Genuinely I don’t know how to do that. Tacking is something that was never heard of in Kerry, beyond telling a fella to go out there and not foul the man.” (Keys to the Kingdom, p 7, Penguin Books, 2008).

An Spailpín Fánach is happy to report that while St Patrick never did make it to the Kingdom the tackle most certainly has, and the re-appointment of O’Connor is an indication that Kerry mean business this year, aching as they do to finally put down Tyrone once and for all.

Tyrone are more than willing to face Kerry again, of course, and the prospect of the counties meeting again on All-Ireland day is one to savour and dread in equal measure. Savour, because it’s the defining rivalry of football this decade; dread, because there is a lot of bitterness between the teams, and that can lead to things getting ugly. Ugly has no role in Gaelic games. However, your hopelessly romantic Spailpín has alternative matchup that I contend would be just as good.

To An Spailpín’s mind the best game of the year last year was the operatic contest in monsoon conditions in Croke Park between Galway and Kerry, and a rematch of that would grace any All-Ireland final. Kerry need no build up, but Galway deserve to be hailed as the purists’ choice for football right now, and they have a man who could be the best footballer in Ireland, Michael Meehan, coming right into his pomp. A Galway-Kerry final would be a game to savour.

Unfortunately, neither Galway nor Kerry are that attractively priced for those who enjoy a little punt on football. Kerry will almost certainly win the All-Ireland again, as talent, will and tradition combine to tremendous effect in the green and gold, but their price is not encouraging and you would need a few more points with Galway to make up for the midfield issues unresolved there since Kevin Walsh and Seán Ó Domhnaill retired, waters who weren’t missed until the well ran dry.

Cork are a popular fancy and always produce teams of big, strong footballers, but Kerry have the Indian sign on them and it’s hard to discount that. Advocates of Cork will point to the Munster wins but it’s hard indeed not to believe that Kerry only start taking things seriously when the pilgrims have descended from the Reek.

Anybody seeking riches from outside the Big Three of Kerry, Tyrone and Galway must look to Ulster to find value. Kevin Egan, that Faithful Gael, made the point recently that Championship winners who come from nowhere are rare in recent times, and doubly so since the introduction of the Qualifiers further comforted the strong and afflicted the weak.

But if you must insist on finding such a team, you need to find one that is sufficiently under the radar to have a nice fat price, and sufficiently big time not to freeze on the great stage. And then you consider the Under-21 Final being played later this week, the rich lessons of history, and the penny drops as you sweep down to the sea to put a sneaky shilling each way on Down at 66/1. 66/1 to go all the way is real value here, for those who cannot in conscience back short-priced Kerry.

Mayo? This time tomorrow An Spailpín hopes to discuss in this space what their prospects are like in Year III of the Second Coming. See you then.

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