Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Football 2011 Preview: The Either/Or Championship?

Will 2011 be the Either/Or Championship? A glance at the odds before the slow fuse is lit this weekend in Ballybofey suggests that the Championship will be won by either Cork or Kerry and everyone else is just making up the numbers.

Cork are 5/2 best price, Kerry threes, Dublin fours, Tyrone eights and then it’s a remarkable 14/1 the field. It’s hard to remember a year when the Championship seemed so striated between haves and have-nots.

Are the oddsmakers wrong? It’s hard to make that case. Cork are clearly the best team in country now, as their victory against Dublin in the League final proved. This current Cork team haven’t an iconic player like Corkery or Tompkins or JBM in his day – although An Spailpín must confess a huge regard for Noel O’Leary, without whose shutting down of Martin Clarke Cork wouldn’t have won last September – but they enjoy a depth of talent that cannot be matched by any other county. Michael Collins’ question of who’ll take his place if they take him away is regularly answered by the men who sit on the bench for the Rebel County.

Kerry are Cork’s biggest threat, for two reasons. Firstly, because they are everybody’s biggest threat, being Kerry, and secondly because they can get under Cork’s skin and into Cork’s heads like no other team can. When doubt whispers in Cork ears at times of crisis, he speaks in a Kerry accent and prefaces his remarks with “yerra.”

Against Kerry’s return is the fact that the team is aging and young players are not coming through. Which doesn’t mean they won’t of course. God only knows what’s springing down from a mountain somewhere down there now, with a kitbag slung over the shoulder and the rich tradition flowing in his veins. It would be a fool of astonishing proportions to underestimate Kerry at any time.

Dublin’s loss against Cork in that League final might be the best thing to happen to them. If it hasn’t killed them it will make them stronger; this is the nature of things. Dublin have some very talented players currently with Bernard Brogan being as good as there is in the country right now, but the mental frailties remain and there are some players who may crumble midst shot and shell in high summer. But again, it’s looking like a thin year and someone has to win it – Dublin have strong reasons to hope.

After that, the deluge. Tyrone are in an impossible position, and we can only hope that they find some sort of resolution in getting on with their lives, playing football and doing what they’ve always done in the light of another tragedy that’s descended on them. God be good to them as they do their best for home and hearth.

Down and Donegal remain as enigmatic as ever. Donegal have Michael Murphy, and they will live and die by him. There are worse men to pin your hopes on. Down aren’t as reliant on Martin Clarke, or at least they shouldn’t be. Maybe if that penny drops, that Clarke can’t do it all on his own, they’ll be stronger. It’s always hard to know how Down will go in any given year. I suspect they seldom know themselves.

Leinster is a province in trouble. Dara Ó Cinnéide wrote some years ago that Meath is the bellweather county for the GAA’s future – a rural county that’s quickly becoming urbanised. Ó Cinnéide thought that if the GAA could capture that urban youth then the Association’s future in 21st Century Ireland is secure. So far, the signs aren’t promising.

It’s hard to know what to make of Kildare and Laois, who have been worse and better than expected so far this year. The sad conclusion is that it’s unlikely either are up to much. Things are grim in Leinster.

In the blessed West, Sligo don’t seem to have got over last year’s Connacht Final while Roscommon have successfully restored their tradition. Leitrim will be hoping the return of Emlyn Mulligan will extend their summer while Galway have seen a winter of discontent made potentially glorious summer by their remarkable and kind of frightening Under-21 All-Ireland Champions. Galway have been saying for years that they don’t have players. They’re waiting in the long grass, just the way they like it.

Mayo? Mayo preview tomorrow.