Rossies no longer lightweights
ONLY in Ulster has the serious stuff commenced, Donegal and Monaghan having staggered over their first championship hurdles, and now on course, it would seem, for an Ulster decider.
Both will be aware, however, of the old maxim that there’s many a slip twixt cup and the lip, and that the road to the final is strewn with hidden pitfalls.
Donegal face the rigours of a journey to the Athletic Grounds to face a hostile Armagh in a high intensity quarter-final, where exchanges will not be of the powder-puff variety. The winners advance to the semi-final against either Derry or Down.
It’s a journey fraught with danger, a much steeper climb to the Ulster summit than that facing Monaghan, who will be clear favourites to survive their semi-final clash against Fermanagh.
Nor might the outright winner escape an eventual clash with one of the Ulster vanquished. Tyrone and Cavan may be subdued just now, but they have not been killed off, and the two will be a different kettle of fish later in the competition.
Everyone wants to see Dublin removed from the cosiness of their virtual home ground in Croke Park, but the complaints seem to come only from supporters of their opponents rather than the opponents themselves, most of whom have expressed a liking for playing at headquarters. Thus they hosted Longford on Sunday with the predictable outcome. No one in Leinster is ready yet to threaten Dublin’s fortress.
Clare and Tipperary are already on the road in Munster, but the big guns of the province have yet to roar. Who though expects anything but a Kerry win?
In Connacht, there’s a jauntiness about Roscommon’s climb back into the limelight that suggests earnest progress. Steady rather than spectacular improvement marked their ascent from Division 3 to Division 1 football these last couple of years.
Their solid achievements reflect an intensity that lights up their confidence. They run hard at defences and in full flow are difficult to check. No longer dismissed as lightweights, Roscommon are now seen as worthy pretenders to Mayo’s title.
In Ruislip they played sensibly on a ground that holds no favours for visitors. James Horan in his first year was dragged into extra time in that venue and it took all the skills of Andy Moran to come to his rescue. Last year in Hyde Park the very same Andy was called on to steer Mayo out of the morass.
The goal of Roscommon this year is to capture the Nestor Cup for the first time since 2010. It’s a realistic yardstick they have set themselves. Their star full-forward Senan Kilbride says that the province is a bit more open this year in that the serious challengers have all a bit more belief that they can win it.
“But until somebody does Mayo are still favourites,” he says.
In what sort of form Mayo find themselves we’ll not know until they step out in Pearse Stadium on Sunday week for a battle with their old adversary. No sense of excitement is emanating from the camp. Aidan O’Shea in an interview with a national newspaper last week betrayed the faintest hint of a more defensive-orientated Mayo this season.
Like all team spokesmen, of course, he talked up the opposition, expecting Galway to be more ‘streetwise’ this year, more defensive, to be stronger at midfield and better prepared for the semi-final than they have been for the last while.
The only form news about the players stemmed from their club performances in the first round of the championship. In most cases the county players stood apart, fitter and more resilient than the rest. And all survived the horrors of injury.
None exemplified that gap better than Mark Ronaldson playing for Shrule/Glencorrib in a game they lost to Kiltane after conceding an injury-time goal in Bangor.
Traversing half the field corner forward Ronaldson glided past defenders as if propelled by some outside force. He shipped heavy tackles, yet managed to account for eight points, two of which were from frees.
Having been in and out of Mayo teams over the past number of years, the Shrule man responded to the opportunity presented to him in the league by managers Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly with good performances.
Even allowing for a Kiltane defence short a couple of regulars, his display was out of the ordinary, and if he has been reaching similar standards in training, he will surely retain the managers’ confidence in him at corner forward for the semi-final on Sunday week.
The return of Cillian O’Connor was a boost for the managers. His was no more than a cameo role in Ballintubber’s win over Ballinrobe, but it was a welcome one, and while O’Connor is unlikely to have reached peak fitness for the clash on Sunday week, he still carries a lot of our hopes.
The news, too, that his huge appetite for work is drawing the youngest O’Connor brother, Diarmuid, ever closer to serious consideration for first-team selection is a lift for a forward line that has shouldered a fair share of criticism those past four years.
Good, too, to see Jason Gibbons back in harness, the man who shocked Cork a couple of years back with a blistering goal. Injury has hampered his return to similar form. Soon, hopefully, we’ll see him blossom again at midfield.
Tom Cunniffe also made a successful return to Castlebar Mitchels in their hard-earned win over an overly defensive Ballaghaderreen. Don’t know what markers of fitness he has laid down in training, but he has lost none of his trademark acceleration.
Chris Barrett, plagued by injury for the last few years, turned in a big performance for Belmullet on his way back to full fitness, and also provides delightful headaches for management as they contemplate their first 15.
Mayo awash with deep thinkers
JAMES Horan has swelled the list of former Mayo managers and players who bring us news on Sundays of the progress of inter-county football throughout the summer.
James, who stepped down last season after four years as Mayo boss, has signed up as pundit with Newstalk, and has criticised the recent negativity from different quarters about the state of the game in general.
He was particularly impressed with the football played by Donegal and Tyrone. Fascinating games, he said, played by two very good teams with a lot of skilful players. And, interestingly, he hopes to return to Mayo management.
Four other knowledgeable Mayo men have become household names in the field of national commentary and analysis. Martin Carney (adopted), Kevin McStay, John Maughan and David Brady, are all equal to the task, all splendidly objective in their reasoning and evaluation of their subjects.
Mayo is awash with deep thinkers and, as it should be, most hold strong, sometimes conflicting opinions about Mayo’s underachievement.
Since no amount of debate has uncovered the cure for our football ills the words of an American poet come to mind: “I am an idealist. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on the way.”