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Tuesday 12 December 2017

Double vision test for Vin's

Crossmaglen have set the elusive benchmark

Ger Brennan, St Vincent's, in action against Gareth Dillon and Adrian Kelly, right, Portlaoise. AIB Leinster GAA Football Senior Club Championship, Quarter-Final, Portlaoise v St Vincent's, O'Moore Park, Portlaoise, Co. Laois. Picture credit: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE
Ger Brennan, St Vincent's, in action against Gareth Dillon and Adrian Kelly, right, Portlaoise. AIB Leinster GAA Football Senior Club Championship, Quarter-Final, Portlaoise v St Vincent's, O'Moore Park, Portlaoise, Co. Laois. Picture credit: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE

LAST Sunday, after a surprisingly fraught hour for his team against Garrycastle, Ger Brennan was asked about the obstacles you face in trying to defend an All-Ireland club SFC title.

His answer, in a nutshell, was that you must focus on each challenge and avoid getting "caught up in the bigger picture, which can be overpowering in terms of your mental energy."

As ever, from a dressing-room perspective, the St Vincent's skipper was talking eminent sense. But that won't stop the rest of us speculating on the prospects of the Dublin champions travelling all the way to next March and ultimately going back-to-back.

Rhode, their ravenous Leinster final opponents on December 14, will relish such speculative talk but - so far at least - Vincent's have coped reasonably well with the challenges of retaining their crown in Dublin (a graveyard of champions for so many) and preserving their provincial mantle.

Here's the thing, though: less than a handful of clubs have gone the full distance to retain the Andy Merrigan Cup. UCD, not your typical club, did it in the mid-'70s, St Finbarr's of Cork at the start of the '80s ... but no one with the exception of Crossmaglen Rangers has gone back-to-back since then.

And Cross' are so exceptional that they've done it twice. We spoke to their two managerial masterminds - Joe Kernan led the Armagh kingpins to their first three All-Irelands, in 1997, '99 and 2000, while one of his on-field generals, Tony McEntee, was joint-boss of the team that triumphed in 2011 and '12 before eventually faltering at the following year's semi-final fence.

PITFALLS

Both men reckon Vincent's have the raw materials to emulate Cross', while highlighting several potential pitfalls.

Kernan first. The former Armagh manager harks back to how his players, having won their first All-Ireland in '97, were "devastated" after losing an Ulster semi-final later that year.

"I remember saying to the boys, it doesn't matter where you are in the world, on the 17th of March make sure you watch the All-Ireland club final. And if you're hurting as much then, as you are today, we'll be back," he recalls.

"And we came back the following year and we won the All-Ireland (against Ballina), but we played very badly in the final. Now, there was Cross' people coming out of the ground that day and said we were desperate. But we were after winning an All-Ireland," he reminds.

"Before we left Croke Park, I stood up on the bus and I said 'Boys, we won today but I'm sure you're like me, you wouldn't be happy to be remembered for a performance like that. And the only way we could rectify this is enjoy ourselves tonight and be back here this time next year and show how good we really are' ... and unbelievably, we were back the following year, played Na Fianna, and we gave an exhibition."

Having swopped his jersey for a bainisteoir's bib, McEntee helped Crossmaglen to the summit in 2011 (against St Brigid's Roscommon) and 2012 (against Garrycastle). Even within Ulster, during that second campaign, he spied danger signs that they could be caught; but the post-Christmas period is "the biggest problem" for all clubs, especially defending champions.

"Once you take that break, it's so hard to get the legs back going again in January. The weather's poor, it's much colder, the next game is February, and it's such a long period of time. To keep motivation going within the team, to try and get their fitness levels back up - that aspect is very difficult," McEntee explains.

"It's actually even more difficult in the second year, because a lot of these players simply won't get breaks."

According to Kernan, a good manager can sow the seeds for a successful defence but it won't matter if you don't have the leaders to "back it up". He had them; what about the current holders?

HURT

"St Vincent's have those men. There is a resemblance (to Crossmaglen), but they have to perform. They dug themselves out of a hole at the weekend," he points out, adding: "Even the wee bit of hurt, losing with Dublin this year, will drive them on. If Dublin had won another All-Ireland this year, St Vincent's mightn't have had the hunger."

As manager of St Brigid's of Blanchardstown this year, McEntee knows plenty about St Vincent's and "absolutely" believes they have a good chance of going the distance. However, he also cautions that their main strength - six "really good" forwards - could become a problem if the day comes when the team suffers from missed chances, wavering concentration and/or fatigue, adding: "It's at that point that all your cracks are exposed."

Such days are a perennial risk for every defending club kingpin. As McEntee concludes: "So there's only so much you can expect of everybody, and after a while that begins to waver. And in Vincent's case, from going so long, they'll have a load of chinks in their armour. They'll not admit it. They'll say that everybody's focussed and we want to go back-to-back and all that sort of stuff; but somewhere in there, there's somebody saying 'I wish I could just get a night out here' … or 'I need a break, I can't wait until Christmas comes.' And that's the very time that you get caught out."

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