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This could be the year Kingdom get to reign

Kerry have no fear of Dublin and the loss of key players has weakened Farrell's squad

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David Clifford of Kerry in action against Brendan McCole of Donegal during the Allianz Football League match at Austin Stack Park last weekend

David Clifford of Kerry in action against Brendan McCole of Donegal during the Allianz Football League match at Austin Stack Park last weekend

SPORTSFILE

David Clifford of Kerry in action against Brendan McCole of Donegal during the Allianz Football League match at Austin Stack Park last weekend

Who would have thought 2020 would turn out like this! A championship preview in October with an All-Ireland final on a weekend before Christmas in late December. A weekend that most people who are fond of a tipple cannot remember most years, but this year might be different!

I couldn't help myself thinking this week about how Covid-19 would have impacted on the inter-county game back 15 or 20 years ago. Following lockdown, the only link you would have had with your county team-mates and management would have centred around your prized possession - your Nokia phone.

With players told to stay at home for three months, it would have been some crack. No Zoom calls, no GPS monitoring, no dieticians and certainly no strength and condition programmes.

Putting on a Covid stone, 15 or 20 years ago, would not necessarily have been through your S&C program. Any hope for inter-county managers back then was a reliance on the players' self-discipline - and that would have been a challenge in some dressing rooms.

Things were bad enough when players used to have an off-season from October to December. Lads would waddle back into the dressing room in January, with a look of trepidation on their faces as to what would lie ahead in the coming weeks. You could smell the fear in the room ahead of that first training session.

It would take some lads months to get into shape. The make-up of a GAA inter-county player - and what it takes to pull on that beloved jersey - has changed so much over time.

Every year the bar is pushed and standards have increased.

The commitment given by county players right around the country is second to none, and in the weeks ahead, we, as supporters, should appreciate the joy and pleasure they will give the whole GAA community, particularly with the risks that are present in the current environment.

No one can argue that the current circumstances leave this championship wide open. Dublin will be favourites as they push to break more records by bringing home Sam for the sixth year in a row. If you were looking for reasons for and against Dublin's chances going into this year's championship, there is no doubt that there are many factors which are not lining up in their favour.

We all know that Dublin have the quality players, they have the required leadership and, most of all, they have a culture of winning and resilience that has made them the team they are. They also have an easier pathway to a final, and a crucial few weeks to iron out some rustiness.

Nevertheless, there are challenges. A six-month lay-off, the Covid factor, a new manager, a new defensive coach and the loss of Darren Daly (an influential figure off the field in working with the defence along with Declan Darcy) will all contribute to a very different environment.

Dublin have won some All-Irelands on very small margins and the loss of match-winners Jack McCaffrey and Diarmuid Connolly cannot be understated. Key players, who have been the difference in winning tight games in recent years, are now gone and let's be frank - they are probably irreplaceable.

It is a tough start for Dessie Farrell. He was always the obvious successor to Jim Gavin, based on his achievements at underage level. Whatever happens in the weeks ahead, the narrative will always come under the shadow of Gavin's reign of success.

Little time

The reality is that Farrell has had little time to prepare or stamp his footballing philosophy on this Dublin team. If he can unearth new talent like Paddy Small, Seán Bugler or Cian Murphy, then they could be carried by the wealth of experience on the field.

You I get a sense that Dublin's main competitors feel they are vulnerable. All goods things come to an end and they are only queuing up for an opportunity. The big guns probably feel if ever there was a year for a quick snatch-and-grab All-Ireland, this is their opportunity.

Kerry remain the key threat and they are developing a group of players who will not rest easy until they bring Sam back to the Kingdom. As night follows day, it is going to happen, rest assured.

Kerry have produced teams and quality players in every generation that have been good enough to deliver All-Irelands. Peter Keane is now in the early stages of developing a senior team which had Dublin on the rack in the last year's drawn All-Ireland final. The development of this team is on the back of the county winning five All-Ireland minor titles in a row. Think about that for a second.

Kerry, the aristocrats of GAA football, have dominated the GAA footballing landscape, winning 37 All-Irelands, and now they have a bunch of talented kids waiting in the wings for their chance.

Already we have seen the talents of David Clifford, Seán O'Shea, Gavin White, Tom O'Sullivan, Diarmuid O'Connor and Killian Spillane break into the team, with many more waiting for their chance.

Keane, to his credit, has been impressive in how he has approached the job. He showed no fear of Dublin last year and was willing to be brave in his approach, by mixing up his game plans over the two All-Ireland finals. Kerry will be better this year and recent form indicates that they are coming for the Dubs.

Hoping to ambush Kerry if they win the Munster title will be the winners of the Connacht championship. If you're looking for entertainment over the next few weeks, Connacht is the place to go. Mayo are like a dying wasp but they could have one more sting. The Galway honeymoon is over and Pádraic Joyce has big decisions to face on his starting team and how they set up.

Anthony Cunningham and his Roscommon team are quietly happy to hide in the long grass. Roscommon are back in Division 1 for a reason and while All-Ireland success may be beyond them, they have the capability of taking out Mayo or Galway on their day.

Based on current form, Mayo look refreshed and should come through as Connacht champions. James Horan finally has some depth in his squad that can support another assault on the title and, more importantly, his squad is relatively free from injury. Oisín Mullen, Mark Moran, Eoghan Mc Laughlin and Tommy Conroy have all looked comfortable in recent league games. You cannot but only admire Mayo's ballsy approach to games. A team always looking to play on the front foot with a strong attacking philosophy. However, winning All-Irelands is not about pleasing the traditionalists and the concession of soft goals could trip them up if they cannot adapt to their opposition. If Mayo get momentum, they can beat anyone in the country. Could the curse of 2020 be to their benefit?

If Dublin are to fall on their sword, it could come from the key threats in Ulster in an All-Ireland semi-final. A straight knockout Ulster championship certainly is one to look forward to. No safety and no scope for a poor performance. Can Tyrone develop a consistency in their performance, with Conor McKenna leading the line? Will Donegal's guile, pace and well thought-out game plan be too much for Mickey Harte?

I am on record saying how much potential I think this Donegal team has. It is an opinion that could be on the scrap heap by mid-afternoon this Sunday if Tyrone play to their potential. I still think Donegal have a better all-around structure and will have more balance from defence to attack and if they come through Sunday it is hard to see them being stopped in Ulster.

There is no doubt the next six or seven weeks will be different. Without the colour, tension and atmosphere that supporters bring, it will certainly not be same. However, for GAA supporters around the country, it will gives us all a massive boost and I, for one, cannot wait for it to start. Our players should be praised for their commitment and sacrifice in these times. It is time to get on the couch and enjoy the action.

Provincial Winners: Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Donegal

All Ireland Champions: Kerry

Player of the Year: David Clifford


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