The Struggle for Sam 2017

(photo credit: Independent.ie)

With no disrespect to the New York footballers, this weekend truly marks the beginning of the GAA Football Championship when Mayo meet Sligo in Castlebar in a game which will be live on RTÉ2.

As county teams train and constantly dream of holding aloft the Sam Maguire there are actually very few teams that will have a significant say in the latter stages of the All-Ireland Football Championship. With Dublin aiming for three in a row, Kerry beating Dublin in April’s League Final, Mayo ready to try and scale the summit once again and the mustering of Monaghan in Ulster it is time to analyse the sides that will be vying for summer success as they embark on their respective quests.

 

1)Dublin

Jim Gavin’s side have won four of the last six All-Irelands and are still undoubtedly the team to beat this summer. Prior to last month’s defeat to Kerry in the National Football League Final this Dublin side were on a 36-game unbeaten streak which stretched back to March 2015 in Killarney where they lost to Kerry in a game that kept referee Eddie Kinsella occupied throughout.

Despite underperforming, Dublin were unlucky not to force the game to extra time when Dean Rock’s free hit the post in the dying seconds of the game. Inches, centimetres, decisions; all that really separates the top teams in Ireland. Jim Gavin will not be too worried about losing the League Final seeing as Dublin’s magnificent run was under constant scrutiny in the media. One could argue that it could actually be a weight off the shoulders of this Dublin team and that it will act as a safeguard against any complacency that may have crept in throughout the League campaign. Finishing top of the League was good going for a Dublin team that blooded talented new players such as the dynamic duo of Niall Scully and Conor McHugh.

Dublin still have the strongest squad in Ireland and while there are many veterans of the county scene littered throughout the squad there are also sprightly stars such as Con O’Callaghan and Colm Basquel starting to emerge from Dublin’s impressive underage successes over recent years. This blend of youth and experience could be vital towards the end of the year as Dublin look to face Kerry in a possible final. Key players over the years such as Bernard Brogan, Paul Flynn and Eoghan O’Gara, who have a lot of miles accumulated will need to perform better following sub-par showings last year.

There is still lightning pace and athleticism in Dublin’s middle third to overpower most teams with the likes of James McCarthy, Brian Fenton, Jack McCaffrey and Diarmuid Connolly being key to this. With Cian O’Sullivan being deployed as Dublin’s sweeper, the Dubs aren’t shooting the lights out as they did prior to their shock defeat at the hands of Donegal in 2014’s semi-final, when they played their powerful running game which left them cruelly exposed at the back. Getting the blend right, keeping their discipline and with the bit of needed fortune thrown in, Dublin are tethering on the brink of creating history.

2)Kerry

The team that, for me, will be the biggest challenge for Dublin this year. There is a feeling that this Kerry team has come of age and are now seriously ready to put Dublin’s Championship dominance to an abrupt end having beat them in April’s League Final in Croke Park. A county that walloped the Dubs by 17 points in 2009 has gravely suffered since, losing to Dublin in the 2011 final, 2013 semi-final, 2015 final and 2016 semi-final. A renewed sense of optimism engulfs Kerry as the traditional footballing aristocrats are starting to regain the pep in their step.

They thoroughly deserved their win over Dublin last month but they had only won four of their eight league games this year and made it to the final through circumstance following some inconsistent displays. Absolutely vital to Kerry’s campaign will be David Moran in midfield. The Kerins O’Rahilly’s man has found the form that he had when Kerry won the All-Ireland in 2014. His fielding and range of passing are second to none and should Kerry win an All-Ireland he will be a strong contender for Footballer of the Year. Kerry manager, Éamonn Fitzmaurice has found the foil for Moran in young Jack Barry whose constant workrate allows Moran to showcase his skills and abilities. Jack Savage, an industrious inside forward who works tirelessly also looks to have been a real find.

Despite Gooch’s retirement, Kerry still possess serious firepower in their inside forward line with Paul Geaney, who was top scorer from play last year, and 2014 Footballer of the Year, James O’Donoghue. Keeping O’Donoghue fit is imperative as he has repeatedly suffered with injuries since 2014. However, the thoughts of Geaney and O’Donoghue working in tandem remains a mouthwatering prospect for fans of the Kingdom.

Kerry’s defence is still a problem however as they only conceded less scores than relegated Roscommon in the League and it remains to be seen whether or not they can keep teams out.

 

3)Mayo

Beaten finalists last year following a replay, there is little doubt that this Mayo team will continue to defiantly plod the same well-worn path to August because that is all they know at this stage; defiance and commitment to finally breaking their long barren spell which stretches back to 1951. Mayo, mocked by many, are more than capable of winning an All-Ireland and remain a serious contender in the race for Sam. Players of the calibre of Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan and Diarmuid O’Connor would walk into any team in the country.

2017 has been lacklustre for Mayo and it is clear that they have many miles to go before they sleep. Losing to Monaghan and Cavan at home is unacceptable from a Mayo perspective and a Croke Park hammering by 12 points at the hands of Dublin, where they effectively gave up suggests that Mayo are being weighed down by the baggage of last year’s final in which they ran Dublin close so close.

That said, they should win the Connacht Championship and progress to the last four where they will most likely face Kerry. Pace and physicality are key components in the Mayo game plan and the dynamism of 2016 Footballer of the Year, Lee Keegan, Séamus O’Shea and Colm Boyle will be pivotal around the middle of the park. If Mayo are to realistically win the All-Ireland they need more out of their forward line, Cillian O’Connor’s form has dipped but he remains Mayo’s main scoring threat. It is Aidan O’Shea however, who, despite his brilliance in Connacht, has to increase his performance levels in Croke Park. A brilliant footballer who is mesmerising on his day but who needs to increase his consistency in September showdowns.

It is clear that manager Stephen Rochford has to eliminate all talk of the public fall-out between the players and their last management team as it has dominated the headlines. It is up to Mayo players to start doing their talking on the pitch and one gets the feeling that the goodwill that was once harboured towards the Mayo cause throughout the country is beginning to diminish following this latest debacle.

4)Monaghan/Tyrone/Donegal

Trying to predict the Ulster Championship is harder than trying to predict the winning lotto numbers. For me, one of these teams should emerge as Ulster champions and one way or another, both sides will likely be playing their football into August at least. Monaghan have had a strong 2017 so far under the experienced Malachy O’Rourke and boast a mean defence with the likes of Colin Walshe and Drew Wylie prominent. Strong and extremely fit, Monaghan are top of the Ulster pile ahead of Tyrone who are similar in their set up, however, what separates these two sides is the fact that Monaghan have more forward power in the shape of the supremely talented Conor McManus who has carried Monaghan for years now dovetailing nicely with Jack McCarron. McCarron, plagued by injury since breaking into the Monaghan team has started to develop into one of the football’s most dangerous inside forwards. An injury to either of these two players will curtail Monaghan expectations.

Tyrone, similar to Monaghan but lacking firepower. Funneling men back makes Tyrone an extremely tough side to beat but a side that will not accumulate a massive tally. An over-reliance on the trio of the evergreen Sean Cavanagh, Peter Harte and the engine of Mattie Donnelly.

Donegal have had an admirable 2017 thus far under Rory Gallagher’s stewardship following the retirement of important All-Ireland winners from 2012 such as Colm McFadden, Rory Kavanagh and Éamon McGee. Impressive new players such as corner back Eoghan Ban Gallagher and midfielders like Jason McGee and Ciaran Thompson have added a freshness to what was an aging squad. Performed well in the league but Championship football is a different beast and we shall soon see whether Donegal’s new faces will adapt quickly. Therefore, Donegal remain a bit of an unknown quality in 2017 but still have quality throughout in the shape of captain Michael Murphy, Frank McGlynn and Ryan McHugh.

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