Thursday, July 28, 2011

Project CIG: How Mayo Can Beat Cork on Sunday

Paddy Power is quoting Mayo as a 9/2 longshot against Cork on Sunday. That means if Mayo were to play Cork eleven times Mayo would win two and Cork would win the other nine. That price is probably a bit mean – it’s hard to see Mayo beating Cork at all, to say nothing of beating them twice.

But Paddy can’t go true price 9/1 or 10/1, because then you realise the difference between bookie odds and true probability. Why, even Pat Spillane himself would take Mayo at 10/1 if he were offered it. Yerra, just in case, like.

And that’s what Mayo must focus on this week. When the back room team sits down to analyse the game against Cork this Sunday they have to realise that not only have Mayo a puncher’s chance, the confluence of events means that one chance in ten may very well have arrived this weekend. For three reasons.

1: Complacency
It’s extremely difficult for any Cork team to take Mayo seriously at the best of times. Why would they? It’s very difficult for Cork to take anyone seriously, other than Tipperary in hurling and Kerry in football, but there’s no way they think anything other than shaking the jersey will be required against Mayo.

Connacht football is a national laughing stock – junk bond status, in Pat Spillane’s nice phrase – and Cork themselves have only to think back to the havoc they wreaked on Mayo in Croke Park in April ’10, fifteen months ago to realise what a stroll in the park it’ll be.

Sure the Mayo manager, whoever he is, probably has to cut the players’ dinners for them of an evening, as they can’t be trusted to work cutlery themselves without stabbing each other or lopping off a digit or a limb. Conor Counihan will rant all he wants but come on. Mayo? All those boys will be thinking about another crack at Kerry, and making up for the Munster Final.

Just like the Mayo players themselves couldn’t take London seriously, and were licking their lips at the prospect of a crack at Galway. Pretty much the same thing.

2: Injuries
Cork are cursed with injuries. There’s a lot of talk in modern Gaelic football about systems and training and thirty man panels and the divil knows what but while An Spailpín pays science due respect I can’t get it out of my head that if you don’t have the players your system won’t save you in the white heat of the Championship.

Cork have more strength in depth than any other team. We saw it in the League final earlier this year, when it seemed like each sub that came on was better than the man who went off. But a lot of that was illusory, as Cork’s growth coincided with Dublin’s falling away.

This Sunday, Goulding is gone. Sheehan is gone. Colm O’Neill is gone. Joe Brolly might be onto something about Canty. That’s a lot of holes.

Cork are still thick with superstars of course – the O’Connors, Paddy Kelly, and An Spailpín’s own favourite, the immortal Noel O’Leary, the pride of Cill na Martra. But Cork will miss Goulding and the rest. Nobody can lose that many first line players without Fate coming to collect at some stage. If Conor Counihan isn’t worried about his injury list, he ought to be.

3: Goals
For years Mayo have used the inside line as a source of third midfielders, or a place to send starting midfielders for a breather because those same starting midfielders were on the tiles the night before and are burning diesel badly.

Not this year. For the first time since the brief career of the unlucky John Casey, Mayo are dangerous inside. None of the three young men along the full-forward line are nationally known. No-one ever heard of Pavarotti either until he started to sing. O’Connor, Freeman and Jason Doherty can do damage if they get ball into them, not least as Cork’s full back line isn’t the rebels’ strongest unit.

The Cork half-backs are, to An Spailpín’s eye, the heart of the team. Kissane, Miskella and O’Leary. Warriors all. Bizarrely, however, the current Mayo half-forwards are an interesting match for them. The Mayo half-forwards have become quite the ground hogs this summer and if they can scrounge a few breaks and deliver it lively inside – rather than ponce off into a corner, soloing thoughtfully, say – well, who knows?

It’s a big ask of course, and the reward for victory over Cork is almost certain butchery at the hands of the Kingdom. But I wouldn’t mind that. I would even accept it as a price worth paying.

Mayo are a very young team and still a few piece short of the puzzle. But a beating from Kerry would help season them, and know what the highest level is like.

And through the winter as the team show their scars and talk about what it’s like to face the best, they could take comfort in the thought of Cork, crying by the Lee all through the winter as the Israelites wept by the rivers of Babylon. The thought of those tears should be reward aplenty, irrespective of what else the Championship has in store. Maigh Eo abú.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Role of the Pundit

Willie Joe, the eminence behind the Mayo GAA Blog, opined on Saturday that the opinion of the national GAA pundits doesn’t matter. “Such babble is simply noise, annoying and grating noise to many ears, but just noise nonetheless,” wrote that great and good man.

It is noise, of course. But it shouldn’t be. That’s the point. It shouldn’t be.

There are two types of people to whom punditry – pre and post match analysis of sporting contests, Gaelic football in our particular case – is aimed. The first is the general watcher who doesn’t follow the games and isn’t particularly knowledgeable but is watching because a child or a boyfriend is interested, or a neighbour is playing, or a team has gone deep in the Championship and the whole parish is now talking about nothing else.

The second is the actual fan, who goes to all games at all grades. He or she has maybe played at some level, or coached, or sells the club lotto on Saturday night. But that doesn’t mean that he or she has ever played in Croke Park before 50,000 people and knows what that extraordinary experience is like. He or she has watched Championships unfold year after year and likes to compare one year with another, one team with another, one player with another, one philosophy or experience with another.

In other words, punditry should reach out to everyone who watches the game, irrespective of the level of his or her own knowledge, experience or exposure. Neither of these needs is being met.

Part of it, of course, is because of our national refusal to ever take anything seriously. Sure it’s only a bit of craic. People think it’s a laugh to see Brolly and Pat Spillane getting stuck into each other.

If I want a laugh I’ll read the Program for Government. Football is serious, and due deference should be paid. Deference should be paid for those who don’t live and die by the game but are still interested for all the reasons listed above.

Deference should be paid for those who do live and die by the game and expect it to be analysed by those for whom the game has the same magnitude in their lives.

That’s the problem with the current level of punditry. It’s not that pundits are too harsh on players. It’s that they’re not harsh enough.

Pat Spillane rowed back on his (typically strident) criticism of Donegal in the very first game of the Championship after Donegal won their first Ulster title in nineteen years earlier this month. It’d be easier to respect Spillane if he said he still couldn’t stand it, matteradamn how many Anglo-Celts they win. At least he’d be consistent, instead of running with both hare and hounds. He’ll be back damning them again when – if – they lose again in the Championship, thus making you wonder if he only took a crack because he thought it was a free shot. There’s something kind of rotten about that sort of behaviour.

People think that controversy is better than the mind-numbing and stomach churning smugness of the BBC’s Match of the Day couch. But what’s currently served by RTÉ isn’t controversy. It’s lads acting the jackass. Lads who are just as capable of the BBC’s old pals act when the son of one of the guild is playing. For instance.

And it doesn’t have to be that way. There is a new generation of pundits now, men who call the game as they see it but who don’t rub players noses in it either. Anthony Tohill and Dara Ó Cinnéide on RTÉ, and Peter Canavan on TV3 are superb, to name but three. The sooner they take over from the washed out vaudeville of the current RTÉ front line panel the better off the game and the people will be.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The West Wind - Mayo win the Connacht Final

Just how bad was the weather at the Connacht Final yesterday? Take a look at this picture of the graveyard end goal ten minutes into the second half.

The net behind the goal is billowing like the sails of the Santa Maria as she sped Columbus to America. And it’s a net – it’s full of holes for the wind to pass through. That’s how windy it was all during the game in Hyde Park yesterday, without respite, and that’s not even mentioning the rain, relentless and unforgiving, arriving in great sheets sweeping in from the west.

But someone had to win and that someone was Mayo. It would be unwise to read too much into the victory, or attempt to analyse a football game where so very little football was played. On a day like yesterday’s, victory is a bar of soap, grasped more by luck than by skill.

Gay Sheerin was harsh in his criticism of Roscommon on MWR afterwards, but that could be because his great heart was breaking, and that’s understandable. It seemed like it was more than a football game to Roscommon, and that’s a heavy burden. Fergal O’Donnell’s best policy may be to focus on the many positives from the game, put it behind them and get ready for the next day. There is no better man to do that than O’Donnell.

He could do worse than borrow a page from Wexford’s book in 1996, and have the squad assemble next weekend to watch Tyrone play Armagh for the right to play Roscommon and go on to Croke Park. Put a blackboard next to the screen and anytime any Roscommon panel member sees a reason why Roscommon can beat Armagh or Tyrone, up he goes and writes it on the board. After seventy minutes, Roscommon will be ready for action again.

As for James Horan, yesterday was vindication. His appointment came about in peculiar circumstances – to the say the least – but a Nestor Cup in your first year as manager of a team that contains youths so callow that they must follow Cúchulainn in smearing their chins with blackberries so the men of Erin will think them men, not boys; well, that’s pretty good.

And of course it’s not over yet. The quarter-final awaits, and whomever Mayo will play will find it hard to take Mayo seriously. That suits Mayo just fine. If Mayo win the quarter-final, there will be another reason to do down Mayo and that will continue until Mayo win an All-Ireland.

Maintaining perspective is one of the hardest things to do in life. This blather about Mayo’s sixty-year wait is just that; blather. John Maughan made football in August commonplace for Mayo support. Before that, there was only silence and the Galway hurlers.

The past twenty years have been the best years to support Mayo since the 1950s, and the county’s inability to give itself credit for those great years is one of the reasons why the final step was never taken. But it is by no means as far away as people would have you believe.

It may happen this year; if you’re good enough you’re old enough, and stranger things have happened in the history of the Association.

It may happen next year; Horan’s is a young team and there are fault lines in it that may be exposed later, even among those who don’t need the blackberried chins to be taken for men.

Or it may take longer than that, in which case; what’s another year, after all? All that matters is that Mayo are playing to the level of their ability and things look bright for the next couple of years. Everyone in Mayo can live with that. Maigh Eo abú.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Connacht Final. Kind of a Big Deal

Sunday’s Connacht Final is a big deal and a sideshow all at the same time. Whoever goes home with the Nestor Cup on the front dash of the bus will be licking their chops at the prospect of a trip to Headquarters. Who loses will either run up a white flag or else realise that they can be right back to where the Connacht Champions are in seventy short minutes. But it’s not a given that shoe will drop and it’s fairly certain that nobody will want to take the chance if they can help it.

Fergal O’Donnell cannot be praised enough for all he’s done with Roscommon. To develop minors is a challenge. To integrate those into a shell of a team that’s been destroyed by various events over the past decade is a challenge.

But to do both those things, win a Connacht Final and now be in a position to dominate Connacht and challenge for national honours – because that’s what we’re talking about here – is nothing short of breath-taking. The man can’t be praised enough for what he’s done in his county’s hour of need.

Roscommon can win if they can shut down the O’Sheas, not let Mayo score heartbreaking goals and deliver ball to the boys that can use it – Shine, Kilbride and the rest. If that happens Roscommon return to Croke Park one year wiser from their loss to Cork and, of the teams left in the qualifiers, it’s only Cork they should fear. If they can go one step further, Roscommon are seventy minutes away from the All-Ireland final. That makes for one hell of a summer, and one that doesn’t have to end there either.

Mayo can win by doing the opposite of course – the O’Sheas dominating midfield, starving the Roscommon frontline while serving up the sort of ball that can make the Mayo inside lin the toast of the heather county.

Everything after that is a bonus for Mayo. Winning a quarter-final would be wonderful – and, like Roscommon, Cork are the only team in the qualifiers whom Mayo should fear – but age is against them. It’s a steep learning curve for manager and players. Of course, there is still that voice ag cúl an chinn that whispers: good enough, old enough. It’s no harm to listen to that voice every now again. What use a summer where dreaming is banned?

While the blood will course through the winners’ veins, the losers should allow themselves one night’s sulking, and no more. On Monday, they are only one game away from being in exactly the same position that the Connacht Champions are in, and they must get that truth into their heads quickly.

Everything that went wrong in the Connacht Final can be righted by one game, and then you’ve exactly the same chance as the Connacht Champions. It would not be great to draw the Munster Champions in the quarters, just as it would not be great to draw the Munster losers, but there you go. The odds are on your side either way and, if it’s a matter of a semi-final, Goliath might just wonder for a moment when he sees David marching from the West, thoughtfully swinging his slingshot and eying up the big man.

FOCAL SCOIR: Nobody really knows what’s going to happen over Roscommon Hospital and any protests to do with it at the Connacht Final. The people of Roscommon have clearly been led up the garden path on the matter and are right to be annoyed – more so because of the lies than the closure of the hospital itself, even. Everybody understands the country is broke but being lied to is hard to take. For all that, it would be a crying shame if the game were disrupted or fans were delayed or anything bad were to happen. I hope Mayo and Roscommon and the Galway minors can celebrate the west on Sunday, and it won’t be the last day out for any of us.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Government Honeymoon - Keeled Out and Gasping on a Hospital Trolley Somewhere in Rural Ireland

Charlie Flanagan, Fine Gael TD for Laois-Offaly, sent this tweet at 8:15 last night: “I can’t accept Labour proposals for Portlaoise hospital. No discussions with staff or trade unions. Not govt policy. Policy on the hoof!”

This could just be kite-flying or shape-throwing of course. But the last week has seen the government lose no small amount of lustre over Roscommon Hospital and if every government TD is going to go overboard over a parish pump issue like so many Jackie Healy-Raes then we’ll all be back in the polling booths within a year.

An Spailpín hasn’t received a review copy of Kevin Rafter’s book about how Enda Kenny became Taoiseach but there was an extract in the Sunday Times yesterday week. It talked about candidate selection and five point plans and the incandescent genius of Mark Mortell, but it did not mention Newstalk and neither did it mention the single most important event of the last campaign, the event that proved that Fine Gael could not be beaten.

Enda Kenny refused to appear on a party leader’s debate with Vincent Browne on TV3 and Fine Gael rose in the polls that weekend. The message was clear; nothing that happens in the next fortnight matters a damn. Fianna Fáil are going to get it good and there’s nothing that can happen to stop that.

The theory that Fine Gael had to fight off a Labour challenge is a bottle of smoke. The Labour challenge may have existed at dinner parties in Ranelagh and Sandymount but on the ground the candidates weren’t there. Rethreads of single issues campaigners or local ward bosses who just want to get elected irrespective of party or ideology – of whom Mae Sexton of Longford is surely the ne plus ultra – were never going to get elected.

But what really gave lie to the notion of competition between Labour and Fine Gael was how quickly Eamon Gilmore put coalition on the agenda, a year or eighteen months after insulting Enda Kenny on the Late Late Show, remarking that Kenny would make a good Taoiseach but a better Tanaiste. The grandees of the Labour Party – Gilmore, Rabbitte, Quinn, Burton – aren’t getting any younger and this was their last chance at power. Simple as that.

So what had been billed as the most pivotal election in Ireland since 1918 quickly became politics as usual. The financial crisis presented the country and Enda Kenny with a unique chance to change the political landscape forever, but Kenny didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t see it and settled for more of the same.

And now the chickens are coming home to roost. The media have given Enda Kenny’s Premiership the softest ride in political history, through either a misguided attempt at wearing the green jersey (and any time you hear about this mythical green jersey you may safely bet someone is planning to hang you), guilt at their remarkable coverage of 21st Century Ireland or terror at losing their own jobs as the Irish media industry collapses even more quickly the construction industry.

No matter. Irish politics is stuck on a permanent loop. Enda Kenny, not content with having an election delivered him on a plate, went out and promised the devil and all for votes anyway.

In the coming months Kenny has to keep a lid on spending, keep the EU sweet and the indigenous Unions sweeter, and all the while reform the Irish political system from within, which is a bigger task than doing away with the Seanad or imposing gender quotas as a further block to talent. Oh, and the impeding train wreck that is the Gay Mitchell Presidential candidacy will have to be handled as well. After all that, the booing that Enda will get from the locals at the Connacht Final in Hyde Park might seems as an angels' choir in his memory. God help him, and his poor nation.

Monday, July 04, 2011

We the Citizens: Let's Hope for the Best

Some citizens, yesterdayWe the Citizens are trying. They have that in their favour. An Spailpín was disappointed but not particularly surprised when the Mr Haversham of Irish journalism attacked We the Citizens from his lonesome eyrie on one of the back pages of the Sunday Independent some weeks ago. Anything that gets the people talking about where the country is going is, by definition, a good thing. Just because it’s not a march on the Winter Palace doesn’t mean it’s pointless.

And it’s thrilling, genuinely thrilling, that We the Citizens have gone as far as they have with their idea, as opposed to the pathetic rubbish we got from Fintan O’Toole and the Democracy Not Just Yet fiasco. Seeing O’Toole and Eamon Dunphy squirm under Elaine Byrne’s clear contempt for their retreat from involvement in the last election on RTÉ’s Eleventh Hour program was one of the highlights of the campaign.

But for all that, there must be something concrete to show for all this, and this is where the worry sets in.

We the Citizens have spent the past month or six weeks holding meetings around the country to gauge the public mood, and then followed these up with a focus group that met last weekend in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. An Spailpín wasn’t in the Royal Hospital but I did attend the We the Citizens meeting in Blanchardstown.

As such, seeing the results of these meetings and focus groups is instructive and depressing in equal parts. For instance, Doctor Byrne remarked in her Sunday Times piece yesterday that a narrow majority of the focus group was in favour of gender quotas in elections, and this is headline news on the We the Citizens website.

That majority figure is 51%. 51% is technically a majority, but it is a split-down-the-middle number to any reasonably minded person. Or anyone that hadn’t decided how he or she would like the vote to go in the first place.

We the Citizens' vote in favour for the retention of the voting system is another source of concern. Anyone I’ve ever met who’s been involved in politics has told me the hardest fight of all is within the constituency party. Spending that level of energy fighting people whose views you share makes no sense. 74% of the We the Citizens focus group seem to think it’s worthwhile.

The whole shooting match will be debated later tonight on Prime Time, but An Spailpín is nervous. Prime Time hasn’t exactly been Athens in the time of Pericles when it comes to standards of public debate lately.

The house style on Prime Time (and the Frontline too) has been to start with twenty pointless minutes VT of some goon looking over the new Sean O’Casey bridge in Dublin or likewise landmark before turning to the camera and solemnly intoning: “Ireland. Joyce called her the old sow that eats her farrow. In the light of the loss of economic sovereignty, will we now have to actually consume our own children just to survive?” And so on and on and on and on.

Twenty minutes of this, twenty minutes of tu’pence ha’penny opinions from the floor, and then Miriam chairs a head to head between Elaine Byrne and Leo Varadkar. Byrne is bolshy and touchy. Varadkar displays his gift for condescension, which is considerable. Miriam tells them we have to leave it there, but join us next week for the very human story of a Haitian refugee who worked in a Magdalene Laundry in Two Mile Borris and now dreams of a better life as blackjack croupier for Doctor Quirkey.

Please God I’m wrong. This country needs top to bottom reform, and a level of citizenship that is much more in keeping with Kennedy’s famous demand that people ask not what your country can do for you but you for your country. Maybe this will be sparked on Prime Time tonight, and the country will never be the same again. I really hope so.

But my God, I really doubt it. The best hope is still that a Gorbachev will rise in Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil and reform the system that made him or her from within. This will come almost certainly at the cost of his or her own career, but it will be for the greater good of all. I just hope there’s somebody left on the island when that Irish Gorbachev rises.