Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Football Championship 2014 Preview

How good are Dublin right now? They’re so good that it’s actually frightening to list their advantages. Send the children out to play, pull the curtains, maybe take a strong drink for your nerves. Here we go.

Firstly, Dublin are in the extraordinary position of being both greater than the sum of their parts, and of having parts that are pretty dang good in the first place. Diarmuid Connolly can win games on his own. Michael Darragh MacAuley, the ultimate twenty-first century footballer, can win games on his own. No inter-county player has ever improved as much as Eoghan O’Gara has between now and when he first burst onto the scene. And so on, and so on.

Secondly, Dublin have home advantage in every game they play. If anything, it’s a double advantage in that their home (and don’t talk about Parnell Park – when was the last time Dublin played a Championship game in Parnell Park?) is the most sacred turf in the entire Gaelic Athletic Association.

Thirdly, the Leinster Championship is currently the worst it’s ever been. It’s 9/1 the field for someone other than Dublin to win the Delaney Cup this summer. If you took the pick of the other ten counties competing, could they keep it kicked out to Dublin? Probably not.

Fourthly, Dublin’s evisceration of Roscommon in this year’s Under-21 football final suggested that Dublin don’t so much have a pipeline of talent coming through as a torrential flood that will wash away all before it. Pat Spillane said on the TV last year that Dublin could dominate football for the next 25 years.

And at that, suddenly, a chink of light. For Dublin to dominate for the next 25 years means that Pat Spillane must be correct in his analysis, and such a thing simply cannot be.

Every dominant team looks unbeatable in its dominance. Until they are beaten, and then suddenly people say well, I was never sure about this, or they were never tested in terms of that, or one hundred and one other things. Barcelona in the soccer this year. The mighty cats of Kilkenny in the hurling last year. There are no unbeatable teams.

In his book Hurling: The Revolution Years, Denis Walsh recounts how Liam Griffin prepared his Wexford hurlers to play Offaly in the 1996 Leinster Final. Offaly were the Leinster kingpins at that time, having played in the last two All-Ireland Finals, winning one, while Wexford had lost sixteen finals in a row, between Leinster and the National League.

Liam Griffin, the Wexford manager, knew that you can’t just pretend those beatings didn’t happen. He hired a psychologist, Niamh Fitzpatrick, to see what she could do to fight the negativity that hung in the air. And it was her idea to ask every member of the Wexford panel to name a reason why Wexford could beat Offaly on Sunday in the team meeting after Wednesday training.

For the first five minutes, there was absolute silence in the room. It was a very long five minutes for Fitzpatrick, who worried that if her idea backfired, it would ruin the team and they’d be butchered.

And then, someone spoke. Fitzpatrick wrote the idea down on a flipchart. Someone else spoke. That idea went down too. By the end of the night, the flipchart had thirty ideas on it, thirty ways by which Wexford could beat Offaly. Liam Dunne went home and told his mother that night that Sunday would be dressed in purple and gold. And so it came to pass.

Are Dublin unbeatable? No, they’re not. It’s just a question of pinpointing what Dublin’s key strengths are, and neutralising them. Easier said than done, of course, but very far from impossible.

Dublin’s empire is built Stephen Cluxton’s precision kickouts, as they guarantee Dublin a constant flow of position. That flow of possession has to be stopped, by whatever means necessary within the rules and the spirit of the game.

Next, a team has to think about MacAuley, Dublin’s fulcrum. MacAuley is central processing unit of Dublin’s imperium. He is Mr Everywhere. Everything goes through him. He’s got to be stopped. And stopping him will hurt, so teams have to be ready to pay that price. Because once MacAuley starts to struggle, the entire team will start to struggle with him.

And then there’s Diarmuid Connolly, the best of a genuinely superb set of forwards. If Connolly gets warmed up he is the best footballer in Ireland, and therefore he cannot be allowed to warm up in the first place.

If your correspondent were to choose any Mayoman of past or present to mark Connolly, I would choose Anthony “Larry” Finnerty. This seems odd, as Finnerty spent his whole career as a corner forward. But when taking on a super-power you have do as Wexford did, and think outside the box.

Finnerty was never a back and probably couldn’t mark a bingo board, but he is one of the wittiest men ever to play Gaelic football. Finnerty’s job would be to keep Connolly apprised of how he’s doing in this particular game, and of other matters pertaining to the city and the world in a constant flow of repartee. This will bring extra pressure on the other five defenders of course, but shutting Connolly down will be worth it.

And as well as all this, of course, your own players have to play like gods – all the above does is reduce Dublin from the Olympian to the merely excellent. But events can build their own momentum, and once the camel gets his nose into the tent, you’d be surprised how quickly the rest of him arrives in afterwards.

So, if not Dublin, who? Is the team that beats Dublin the automatic All-Ireland winner? Yes, of course, if it happens in the final. Not necessarily, if it happens earlier. A team could be spent having beaten Dublin, while all the others up their game, seeing daylight where there was once only the jeering of the Hill. Which means that we can divide up the contenders into those who could beat Dublin and take advantage, those who could beat Dublin only to get beat themselves, and those who could inside track it, and seize a chance left by Dublin’s exit.

There has never been a better team at picking up All-Irelands than Kerry, but whether the current Kerry could beat Dublin – and they want to beat Dublin very, very much – is open to question. Kerry are in a better position to replace the Gooch than any other team and they have an excellent midfield, but the backs are raw and that could cost them. Kerry are never to be ruled out, however.

Cork or Donegal could beat Dublin in theory, but it’s not that likely. Cork need a little seasoning while Donegal are on the slide – it was an impossible dream that the McGuinness lustre would last.

Monaghan could beat Dublin but might not win the All-Ireland. Derry can’t beat Dublin but could win the All-Ireland. Tyrone are the best value bet, having the confidence recent All-Irelands brings, the youth coming onstream and the best manager of his generation, if not the best ever. A lot depends on their up-and-coming players, of course, but if it’s in them, Mickey Harte will find it.

And Mayo? Well. Tune in tomorrow, friends.