Monday, June 16, 2008

I don't like ( post leinster championship ) Monday's

When you are an aspirant writer and seek out information about how best to aid/curb your affliction, one of the tips that is offered is that you should aim to write every day as a discipline. So following the maxim, the next question is; should time be spent breaking down the delights of the Leinster championship semi-finals. The attractions of a darkened room, and a wet towel seem manifold in comparison. Or perhaps time could be spent more profitably railing against what an ungrateful little country we showed ourselves to be last Friday. But the misery of an already established blog site loves company so we shall sally forth into the breach. Please read on. I know it mightn't be edifying for those of a sunny disposition. But Monday mornings can often be like that.

One thing you won't get for this blogger is any guff about the importance of development work being put into the Leinster counties lagging behind. This solution is usually postulated by folk who have no idea what work good bad or indifferent is being undertaken at ground level, and are unaware, for example, and care less, that Laois have been seriously competitive at under- 21 level for five years or so. So let's get one thing clear for those who might be wanting to plan their early summer weekends for the foreseeable future. It's likely that any of the other Leinster counties playing Kilkenny in the next few years will be an utterly futile exercise. Maybe if the cats have an off day ( and scarily it's arguable that yesterday wasn't an "on day" ) a Wexford combination bolstered by the return of Stephen Nolan, Barry Lambert, Des Mythen and Richie Kehoe might catch them if they have a large dollop of luck. If the volume of fine young Dublin players coming on to their panel continues at the current rate, it is theoretical that they too could pull off an unlikely win against the head. But a handful of these tyros will have to come up to Dotsie O' Callaghan's level for that to be achieved. But Offaly; sorry no chance. The quality,or otherwise, of Dublin's young players in their early 20's reminds one of one of the straws grasped to re the Faithful; that they have a very young panel. But where, alas, is the evidence that players who are at a certain level at 21/22 will burst into the stratosphere at a later date. It's instructive that Ger Oakley whose lack of skill stood out amidst the golden generation is a dutiful leader for the current side. The very sad reality is that Offaly haven't produced a top quality new player since Kevin Martin nearly fifteen years ago. Brendan Murphy, Rory Hannify and Brian Carroll haven't been the harbingers of hope they promised to be, and the coltish Stephen Browne and Michael Cordial have disappeared off the map altogether. And why should any of this surprise us. For the twenty years of success the county had husbanding the resources of effectively 20,000 people ( the aforementioned Martin was a rare example of a diamond being mined in the football end of the county ) created a loaves and fishes type miracle that the redeemer would have been proud of, and the Central Statistics Office could have done a glowing report about. It almost does a dis-service to the extraordinary deeds of 1980-2000 to write stories about Offaly's crop not being harvested with appropriate diligence. The media is periodically awash with stories about former greats now putting their shoulders to the wheel ( the same is happening in Wexford ) to arrest the decline. But although it does them great credit, when R.T.E announced in their pre-match colour piece that Johnny Pilkington was coaching the Offaly minors, they neglected to point out that the team were uncompetitive in the Leinster Championship. Sadly for little acorns to grow they need more than big men. More likely the unlikely fate of natural selection that we can't hope to understand.

As for Wexford it was only in the last few years that it dawned on this writer that they are the most unfairly scorned G.A.A county in the land. Most of their column inches reflect on their dismal underage hurling record and reflect on how the success of the Liam Griffin era was squandered. What is little reflected on is that with the exception of a few clubs in the north around Rathnure, and a few in the south bordered Fethard, most of the clubs in the county are of the dual variety. Look at the Wexford Senior hurlers in any given year and you'll find that more than half of them have played football for the county at some grade. This is a reality that can't but dilute their hurling output, even if that isn't being maximised to the nth degree. The argument put forward by the likes of Martin Breheny that Kilkenny should be forced to put far greater resources into football is unworkable, but it is still worth reflecting on occasionally that bar the attractions of a sunny evening in Mount Juliet, hurling is the only game in town in that neck of the woods. John Meyler's rant when Richie Kehoe left the panel may have been unfair to the young man in question, and not the right message to be send out. But it was perhaps an understandable reaction when you are attempting to thrive in the shadow of a neighbouring behemoth. If there has been a greater team in the history of the game ( the record book might suggest Cork of the early 40's or Tipp of the early 60's ) it's hard to imagine there has been a stronger panel than the current Kilkenny one. And their exemplary shooting yesterday brought to mind, that the 2006 All-Ireland was won with the team hitting wides for fun in both the semi and the final.

The rain at half-time yesterday brought a pathos to proceedings and a literal damp squib. But maybe we should all take a leaf from the Dr. Stranglove sub-title and stop worrying about the Leinster Championship, and if not love it, then scorn not it's simplicity, and just abide it. A final thought; on observing all the moderate and one sided G.A.A fare on offer at the weekend, it struck one that a golden age that started with Down's football semi- final victory over the Kingdom in 1991, ended unbeknownest to us with another rare Kerry setback in Croker, in that terrific final against Tyrone in 2005. And on that cheery note have a good week.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


This blogger, amongst others, has pointed out the early similarities between Tipperary this year and 2001. Another occurred at the end of Sunday's game when Liam Sheedy was engaged in rapturous celebration, bringing to mind Nicky English's dance across the same pitch seven years ago, when his charges had prevailed over Clare by a point. The difference then was that game was a straight knock out affair and English's assiduously compiled formation was in danger of being derailed, perhaps permanently. Judging by Sheedy's celebration perhaps he saw the game deep down in the same manner as English, who opined in previewing the game that the winner would almost certainly be in the All-Ireland final. Certainly Tipp did enough to at least elevate themselves to the position as the side most likely to rattle Kilkenny's cage. Whether its a good portent or not their performance in the last ten minutes is obviously what sticks in the mind about a game that oddly lacked the clinical nature and intensity that had been expected. Amidst the feel good atmosphere regarding his return to the no. 1 position it could be forgotten that Brendan Cummins sprayed a couple of short puck-outs straight to opponents in the second half. Also the managements lassitude in giving the speed merchant Cathal Naughton the freedom of the park in the first twenty minutes suggested the nonchalance of the training pitch, where the premier backs were having their adversity put to the test by their manager. But it could be that Cork's failings have just allowed Tipp to iron out crimps that won't be on show again. In the round Stekhanovite zeal trumped casualness. Eamonn Buckley, Shane Maher and Conor O'Brien grew into the game in a manner that evinced that appetite and application, amongst other things, can bring you a long way. In this aspect of the game they have great examples set for them by Eamonn Corcoran and Paul Curran, the latter making a stellar start in his campaign to gain the All- Star at full back so unjustly denied to him in 2006. We are now also becoming used to Conor O' Mahoney's unfussy excellence at centre back, but it is worth taking a pause intermittently to remind oneselves that he is producing a standard of play at no.6 for the blue and gold that has likely not being seen for a generation. ( and remember we are having children later in life in these secular times ) Class Tipperary forwards have been much more ten a penny down the years but whilst Eoin Kelly and Lar Corbett lived up to expectations, bar the slightly overstated contribution of Seamus Callinan, they received little assistance on Sunday and novenas should be led by the Archbishop of Cashel for their good health throughout the summer, something that can't be relied upon on past evidence.

The fascination with Cork will be learning later in the summer whether they contributed to their own downfall, or is the game well and truly up for the team as currently constituted. Certainly at times on Sunday they seemed to be under the misapprehension that Ray Cummins had come out of retirement. The rebels have perhaps fallen too much for the media led perception that their short ball game has been rumbled. As a result of wanting to mix up their tactics they ended up falling between two stools. Managements anxiousness to use Cathal Naughton out the field, but not in a three man half line with the similarly diminutive Ben O' Connor, led to Pat Cronin and Paudie O' Sullivan being ill suited to forage in a depleted inside line. The young Cloyne forward showed some nice touches, but may be better suited to full forward and Sean Moran's remark in Saturday's Irish Times that "if you gave him a brush he'd prefer to stand at an easel than on a ladder" seemed apposite in it's wittiness - as an aside it was only rivaled for quote of the weekend by the sagacious old hand on who stated that "Gerald McCarthy couldn't coach a frog to hop". Staying with O'Sullivan jnr there have been comments that he shouldn't have been landed with the penalty taking responsibilities, but that opinion masks the fact that this Cork team have never had a natural penalty taker, although this may be partly because their style of play hasn't led to many being awarded. It wasn't all bad news for Cork as Shane O'Neill franked his league form with an assured display and the aforementioned Naughton showed he can be more than a supersub. But ultimately as pointed out in this parish last week Cork are short of standard bearers at the height of their powers who haven't had their hunger sated. Whither Setanta O' Halpin and Thomas O' Leary anyone!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Cork v Tipp preview

It perhaps should be whispered in the company of vainglorious old firm types, but the sheen has fallen a little off this much trumpeted clash in the last few days. The tawdry events in Waterford have bossed the column inches afforded to hurling,- a cursory glance at the likes of Herald A.M would give the impression that the English soccer season was still in full swing- whilst despite inital ballyhoo the sold-out signs don't appear to have gone up yet. The anticipation about the match has also been put askew by the surprising Cork team news. It's ironic that the favourable press inches afforded to the rebels in championship previews were as a result of the new promising blood that had been on show in the league. However now that four comparative newcomers have all been included in the starting forwards, there is a perception that the balance is not quite right. If nothing else all of a sudden, a previous fault, that of forward depth, has been cast to the four winds. Someone like Brian Corry, impressive in the latter stages of the league, could now be included, with Joe Deane, Niall McCarthy, Niall Ronan and the two Kieran Murphys' in an impressive shadow selection.It could be that the Cork management, even sub-consciously, feels it has enough scoring power in say ten forwards, to get it over the line. Those with their ear to the ground like John Allen have expressed apprehension, but Cork have an impressive record when they have seemingly pulled selection rabbits out of hats. ( see '66,'90 and '99 ) The issues in the respect of the young forwards might be as much positional. Pat Cronin seems an ill fit for full forward, whilst Cathal Naughton's preternatural pace might be better suited for wing forward, albeit that a half line with he and Ben O' Connor would limit puck-out options. The problem Cork may have is not having enough players in the say 22-27 year old bracket. Men of relative experience, hungry, but perhaps not weighed down by the Celtic Crosses in their pockets. Also the O'Connor brothers have been plagued by niggling injury.

For Tipp fans the optimism comes from their being a distinct 2001 vibe about their panel. Then a diligent and hard working formulation galvanised by their young manager seemed to have enough of an 'x-factor' to overcome many teams of a similar standard. Indeed, with fleeting gnashing of teeth, Tipp fans might have observed after the league final that they have been badly managed for the last few years. They now perhaps see, even at this early stage, in Liam Sheedy a manager who can husband the resources far more successfully. Nicky English managed, in particular to wring every ounce of potential out of his backs seven years ago, especially Tom Costelloe and David Kennedy. Sheedy may yet need to work similar wonders. Eamonn Buckley seemed much improved in the latter stages of the league, but with he and debutant Conor O' Brien in the corners, the premier county may be exhibiting over confidence by feeling they can leave All-Star Declan Fanning in the stand. Shane Maher's selection, although he is of lionhearted stock, may lead to to one centre back too many being stationed in the halfback line. Equally whilst comparing with 2001 although Seamus Butler shares Mark O' Leary's ability to ghost on to loose ball, and dispatch it between the posts, it would be invidious to compare Ryan O'Dwyer with Declan Ryan. Furthermore the confidence behind Tipperary's charge towards silverware seems to take as utter red that Eoin Kelly has put the torper of last year behind him, and that Lar Corbett has cast the clothes of inconsistency from his back.

An acquaintance of this blogger related how few people will get off the fence in predicting a victor in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, and it's an understandable, evaluating the two sides, to seek comfort in procrastination. One hunch is that neither side are as far down the road to challenging Kilkenny ( unless the cats standards slip from 2007 ) as they might believe. The poor record of Tipp in Cork city, not having won since 1922, is overplayed as they have only lost eight times in that span. Thus although Cork might have more room for improvement in their panel, it could be that on the very scientific law of averages, Tipperary's time may have come. Possibly. Maybe.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Whiter Shade of ( Deise ) Pale

It was a day where the flesh burned in Limerick ,whilst the day trippers in Lahinch found themselves, perhaps karmically, shrouded in fog. The skies were clear in the Gaelic Grounds, but the elements of hurling light and shade were less certain, given Clare's comprehensive victory. A side that had been ranked, not only well behind Kilkenny, but also in a different parish to the likes of Tipperary and Galway, had with one bound been freed from years of Munster underachievement. On the other hand Waterford, twice victors over Cork last summer, have, post spring ennui, and an early summer injury crisis, been deemed to be now beyond the pale by many reasoned judges. A more hyperbolic analyst, Ger Loughnane, might, if he had been on television on Sunday, have aped his hasty opinion post the first round Munster clash between Tipperary and Clare in 2005, tailoring it in these circumstances to say; " Clare Back, Waterford gone". Three years ago Clare recovered from having their epitaph written for them by Mr. Biddy Early to be foiled by a point in an All-Ireland semi-final. And if a similar unfurling of Waterford's season might lead to mass hari kari down suirside, it at least shows that ill championship winds have been known to change direction.

James O'Connor made a prescient point on Sunday that in twenty years of sending out Clare teams at all four grades, Mike McNamara has never presented a side that was ill-prepared. The long suffering die-hards who have masochistically followed underage banner selections in recent years are au fait with his u-21 team two years ago, who were pipped in Thurles by a Tipperary outfit that subsequently on to lead an All-Ireland final in injury time. The squad's confidence was evidently not knocked by an underwhelming league, perceptions about which seemed to take little account of the panel playing, as they did last summer, with an underpowered attacking hand. Oddly enough the performances of Tony Griffin and Diarmuid McMahon, both recently returned from abroad, did little to advertise the importance of the gruelling spring training regimen their team-mates have supposedly endured. It could be that McNamara cannily observed that the wheel has turned full circle, and that his charges perhaps needed the training exertions that have entered the county's folk memory, given the relatively fallow fortunes of recent years, to boost their confidence.

As Clare showed in Croke Park in 2005/6 with all options available they aren't quite the inert attacking force they are often portrayed to be. But these shibboleths are hardly surprising given that many of Clare's forwards are often strangely unloved at home. There has been much pleasant surprise at Niall Gilligan's display on Sunday, which gives the mistaken impression that the Sixmilebridge man has been poor on many big days in the saffron and blue. Gilligan has, if anything, been the victim of lofty expectations due to his exploits when he burst on to the scene in the final three years of the last decade. Beside him Mark Flaherty stroked the ball beautifully from play and especially from frees. Indeed with Conor Plunkett doing a good Seanie Mac impression from long range it was hard to remember Clare's dead ball prowess ever being crisper in the modern era. But the achilles heel in the current attacking crop, a lack of aerial power, despite their non-diminutive status, will face greater tests down the line.

It would be a strange Galway-like pressure for the Clare forwards to feel that they have to continue winning shoot-outs, but those who felt there were elements redolent of Clare's glory days shouldn't have been referring to their defensive play. Against a half-forward line that could charitably be described as undercooked, the banner half-backs needed to be little more than energetic and diligent. If Clare had been told at the turn of the year that they would face Waterford's forwards without Gerry Quinn, Alan Markham and for half the game Gerry O' Grady they would have felt, correctly as it turned out, that a large score would be conceded and an onerous pressure would be on the forwards. Although many of John Mullane's scores came from loose play rather than the inadequacies of markers, it was instructive how much possession Shane O' Sullivan won in the latter stages of the game, in the unfamiliar environs for him of corner forward. Similarly Gary Hurney's inability to make an impact on the fray was more down to ball usage rather than being unable to get it in his hand. Thus Gerry O 'Grady's possible absence from the Clare team against Limerick might properly put under the microscope the frailties in the full back line which have not received due care and attention up till now. It could validly be argued that the Crusheen man, for all his inconsistency, is the most important player for the banner at present, and his loss may, at this remove at least, swing things towards Limerick.

As for Waterford, well it appears an open and shut case. most scribes have claimed their attitude and work rate was questionable. But as Tony Griffin declared afterwards, Clare always find matches against the Deise to be open affairs. The return of Ken McGrath and Eoin Murphy will doubtless improve matters, but in the formers case just as much for his creative potential as a libero centre back as for his prowess as a stopper. The Mount Sion great would have been as unlikely to track Diarmuid McMahon's wanderings as Brian Phelan was. One indirect boon to the return of the aforementioned pair would be that it might offer security to whoever had the poisoned chalice of the No. 3 shirt thrust upon them. One option, though admittedly it would be of the sticking plaster variety, would be for Justin McCarthy to offer James Murray an eleventh hour return to the panel. Murray, a conscientious and versatile contributor to the side throughout the decade, wasn't afforded a return after a winter abroad. When you consider some of the mutterings of dissention emanating from around the panel it seems like a hubristic decision to keep the 'bearded wonder' in purdah when other more volatile characters have been frequently indulged.

It would appear very difficult now for Waterford to knitt all the pieces together as impressively as in the last two years. But if, and it's a big one, Kilkenny have fallen from their perch, their southern neighbours might, with a bit of luck, not need to reach the heights of last season to be serious contenders. For Clare it would be wise, not that we forsee Mike Mac getting carried away, to beware the ides of 2003. Then, a victory over a pallid and injury hit Tipperary gave the county hopes that were snuffed out on the next day by far more cohesive opposition in Thurles. We shall see.