FBD Connaught League: Leitrim v Mayo, Ballinamore, 2pm, Ref: S. Hehir (Galway)

BALLINAMORE in January. Is there a more a glamorous phrase in the English language? For die-hard Mayo and Leitrim fans, the answer is probably not.

The excitement around tomorrow’s game and the inter-provincial leagues in general seems slightly more heightened this year, maybe due to increased coverage (mainly online), the host of new managers on the scene or possibly a certain interview that was published during the week.

Whatever the reason, this is the time of year for optimism whatever county you call home. Judging from the results of the MayoGaaBlog poll on Mayo’s prospects this year, we are not lacking in that department.

A continuation of this optimism will be partially dependent on the emergence of two or three realistic challengers for starting positions before the trip to Salthill in May.

This time last year Colm Boyle hadn’t featured for Mayo in nearly three years. Renewed by Davitts run to the Intermediate All – Ireland, he got his chance against Leitrim in Ballyhaunis and went on to be one of the stars of the championship. This is the kind of opportunity the FBD league provides.

Here are just four of the players who will be looking to make a similar impact tomorrow.

Keith Rogers –The Ballaghderreen man was named in the line up to face Leitrim in the FBD league last year but didn’t start that game. The 2009 minor should get his opportunity this year on the back of his driving performances from centre-back for the county champions. Kept Alan Dillon quiet in the county final and still had time to get forward and kick a point. Not too shabby at all.

Michael Walsh – James Horan’s inclusion of the likes of Walsh, Micheal Forde (Sligo IT) and Conor O’Shea in the squad over the last two years will hopefully start to reap some rewards in 2013. A former champion boxer from Ardnaree, you could say Walsh is conditioned to play with a slight competitive edge, whether from corner back or in a more advanced position. His inspirational performance in the drawn Junior County Final was proof, if needed, why Horan thinks so highly of him.

Evan Regan – Regan is another of the young brigade who will have benefited from his involvement last year, especially in terms of strength and conditioning. He will certainly get his chance in an attack that is a crying out for a free scoring forward. A relative veteran for his age with nearly two years of senior football behind him, this could be the year his talent reaches the county stage.

Barry Regan – After the injury to Andy Moran, fears that Mayo would struggle without a genuine ball winner in the full-forward line became a reality in the All – Ireland final; a player with a physical presence like Barry Regan could be an option. Well able to win his own ball and with a huge boot, the top scorer in the Mayo championship certainly deserves a shot.

Who do you think will be the players to force their way into the reckoning this year? Feel free to comment below.

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waterlogged-pitch

THE inter-provincial leagues started last night, while the majority of county teams are making their first appearance of the year today. Managers are talking about new players, gym programs and preparing for the league. But far from the headlines, ordinary club players across the country are returning to churn up their local pitches and in some cases, the contents of their stomachs.

In the club November and December is a time for reflection and usually weight gain. While players are wintering, the off-season provides the local power brokers and bluffers with the chance to satisfy their egos at the annual display of big talking and posturing better known as the AGM. These boys of summer will reappear in late June, license to pass judgment in hand from the hazy memory of that meeting and the session that followed.

In the meantime the majority of players minds must be reprogrammed. For most a short-term memory is a necessity; bitterness, frustration and memories of disappointment don’t make for good training numbers.The annual wiping of negativity completed, the buzz words are now hard work and optimism. The first night of training brings with it the buzz of excitement and fear.

What’s he going to do to us?

The text appeared encouraging, just a light run with a talk about the year ahead. Sounds very pleasant altogether, might even catch some of the football. The prodigal sons must be encouraged they say, welcomed back into inviting arms and coaxed with admiring glances at their fancy new predators. Can’t do that by flogging the poor boys on their first night. The risk of them stumbling home with their bellies between their legs, promising never to venture to far from the bar stool again is too great. Surely they’ll go easy on us, sure it’s only January for fuck sake…surely.

Cut to two hours later and the unmistakable, yet reassuringly familiar sound of the local fun time Frankie puking behind the stand. There must be something about this sound that brings some sort of sadistic pleasure to managers. It’s usually greeted with a smug smile, followed closely by a jibe about activities in the local hostelries over the festive period. Cue token laughter through gritted teeth, the jokes on all of us though. Turns out by talking, management actually meant sprints; hate it when they mix those two up.

There’s always the exception to the rules. Talk of gym programs and the like have got through to some, probably the boys left waiting for the showers as the majority made a charge for the door come season end. Then there are the young gazelles who gaze in wonder at the anguish on the faces of their supposedly older and wiser team mates. These men in their 30’s, the equivalent of Methuselah in GAA terms, promise it will happen to them one day too.

The college boys who arrived full of swagger hours earlier could tell them. They entered the damp environs of the dressing room, their heads filled with the heady days of summer and years gone by when fitness was a constant, conveniently forgetting that the new constant in their lives is six cans and a naggin of something barely above the standards of bleach.

“Another lap lads.” “Just the one” replies the voice of youth and stupidity. “Two so” is the reply, closely followed by groans and mental promises to nail the little bollox when the chance comes around. He may as well have said, “You’re gone soft boss.”

The words, “That’s it for tonight lads” barely register through punch drunk senses. The retreat begins back to the sanctuary of the dressing rooms. Someone cracks a joke at the expense of Frankie and all is good again as tired but happy faces get there bearings in this old home. What else would you be doing, what else would you rather be at.

These first few nights capture perfectly the madness and addiction of the GAA when expectations have yet to be dampened by loss of form, a tight loss or injuries. Everything that’s great about the  GAA is in evidence on these nights and they have never been so important to those left behind in dwindling communities. Christy O’Connor described it beautifully in his book, ’The Club.’

The nights that capture that lovely madness of hurling and feeling a part of a group sharing the same goal. Sport at its most visceral doesn’t have to involve cups or medals. It has to do with a group sharing experiences until such times as those experiences turn them into something else.

So as inter-county teams prepare to do it all again for another year, keep in mind all those club teams beginning the long road to their own less glamorous version of the nauseating excitement of high summer, hard ground and championship. Chances of success, acknowledgement or even appreciation remain slim, but the message is keep the faith boys, because at this time of year anything is possible. Now ten more laps.

MOST years are defined by a moment, a player or a team, rarely is it defined by a manager. 2012 was the year of Jim McGuinness.

The cult of the manager has been on the rise again in the last few years. Brian Clough was the original of the species when he took Derby County and their neighbours Nottingham Forest from modest footings to unimaginable heights in the days when things like that were possible in professional sport. Clough was seen as an enemy of football by many at the time for his outspoken ways. One of his modern day counterparts Jose Mourinho, has followed a similar trajectory of controversy matched only by success.

In the GAA there have been managers who were cult figures within the game. Mick O’Dwyer brought the game of football to new heights with the unparalleled fitness of his great Kerry teams. He was the master of deflecting pressure away from them too. However, those Kerry teams contained stars in every line, generational players who left a legacy in the game. O’Dwyer never had to be the real star of the show.

Sean Boylan, John O’Mahony, Paidi O’Se, Joe Kernan and Mickey Harte won All – Irelands and in the case of the last two, broke the mould in terms of ways to play the game. None of them though ever garnered more attention than their team or their star men. This year Donegal weren’t winning matches, Jimmy was.

Maybe it’s his tactics, his youth, talent or the controversies, it’s likely that it’s all four combined in a new age of GAA coverage. In the last year there has been an explosion in the amount of coverage given to Gaelic Games; about time too because the need is there. Blogs, podcasts, online sports sites and Newstalks GAA coverage has given RTE’s the kick in the arse it so badly needed.

This modern age of coverage needed a modern manager and they found its poster boy in McGuinness. Villified by the press after the semi – final defeat in 2011 for crimes against Gaelic Football, he then dropped his captain Kevin Cassidy after an interview he gave to Declan Bogue during that campaign. Nobody likes a loser and especially not an ugly, disloyal one. The press and the online masses had their enemy and as in all classic sporting stories, cue the comeback.

As Donegal steamrolled their way through Ulster and set their sights further south, their new more adventurous style of play was gathering admiring glances. The man vilified twelve months ago was now being hailed as the Messiah and Donegal, almost inevitably in the end, went on to claim the ultimate prize.

Their achievement is unique in GAA terms in that it was not on the back of an exceptionally large and talented new generation of players, but rather a bunch of players young and old who wholeheartedly and unconditionally bought into Jim McGuinness’s way of life and football. This is what makes it one of if not the greatest managerial achievement in the history of Gaelic Football.

As like most cult managers, he too has a muscular ego and unfortunately it came to light in a not so flattering way. The refusal to begin the post match press conference until Declan Bogue had left the room, smacked of wrong time, wrong place. Like Mourinho taking his medal and then walking of the pitch after Porto’s Champions League victory, it served only to take away from his players achievements.

His appointment by Celtic is recognition of the impact he has made in just two years. It’s difficult to imagine it happening to any other manager in the GAA. Considering the commitment he demanded from Kevin Cassidy and the rest of his players it’ll be interesting to see what impact it has on his involvement with Donegal in 2013.

What his appointment means for the GAA in general is minimal. As a national and mainly Irish organisation we are insecure about our footing within the wider sporting world. This is why we get a warm fuzzy feeling when Alan Shearer tweets about how mental hurling is or finding validation in the mighty Celtic seeing one of our own worthy of appointment. The game of Gaelic Football is worthy to take it’s a place beside any field sport in the world.

As worthwhile an exercise as Eugene McGee football review committee was, it does show the insecurity there is about our game. Aside from the clarification of the advantage rule and the increase in the penalty for descent, the rest are unnecessary and born out of misty eyed sentiment of a bygone and not so glorious era. There needs to be a realisation that the game is evolving naturally as every other.

2012 was also the year Seanie Johnston realised his dream of playing club hurling in Kildare and all of Mayo got very mad at Joe Brolly when all we really want is his approval. It was a good year for Ballaghderreen, Charlestown and The Neale, while few had as cruel a finish to a year as Ardnaree. Next year has to be theirs.

We lost a GAA icon in Paidi O’Se who was always a believer in Mayo football; unfortunately we fell just short again. Was it a missed opportunity or stepping stone to what will be the greatest day of all? One or two new introductions might be all it takes. Here’s hoping.

Ballymun Kickhams v Kilmacud Crokes, Parnell Park, 7.45, Referee Sean Gahan

AFTER Moy Davitts Celebrity Bainisteoir success on Friday night, tonight’s Dublin county final will see two more Mayo men go in search of silverware in Parnell Park.

Mayo football has been well represented in the Dublin county championship down through the years. Kevin O’Neill with Na Fianna, Andrew Gardiner with Ballyboden and more recently Brian Maloney and Pat Kelly with St. Vincent’s, have all experienced success with their adopted clubs.

Tonight Shane Forde and James Burke, representing the rising force in Dublin GAA that is Ballymun Kickhams, will attempt to emulate their success.

The former St. Pat’s students have been playing for Ballymun since their college days and were involved in two historic U-21 successes for the club that have laid the platform for their strong senior showing in recent years.

Burke, whose brother Cian represented Ardnaree in the Junior final replay on Saturday, has been involved with county minor and U-21 teams in the past and featured in the senior set up in 2011. He played a big part in Ballymun’s march to the county semi-final twelve months ago and has been a constant a wing back again this year.

Forde returned to Dublin this year after three seasons playing for his native Ballycastle. Since his return he has been a part of a prolific inside line that includes Dean Rock, son of former Dublin legend, Barney.

Forde briefly came under James Horan’s radar back in 2010 when he impressed during the trial matches organised at the beginning of Horan’s reign. No further call came but after a lack of stand out forward performances in last week’s county final, it will be worth noting how Forde performs in the final of a championship where the standard has been consistently high in the last number of years.

Kilmacud are 4/6 favourites heading into tonight’s clash, but from a Mayo perspective let’s hope for a Ballymun victory (sure they play in green and red) and maybe a few more viable options for James Horan in the new year.

Pic courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

SO the latest Bond film Skyfall was released yesterday and by all accounts it’s meant to be quite good; OK scrap that, it looks brilliant. And considering he was in charge of the whole carry on, a lot of this credit would have to go to director Sam Mendes.

Mendes hit the Hollywood big time back in 1999 when Kevin Spacey went all midlife crisis in his directorial debut American Beauty. Since then he has directed a number of box office hits, married and divorced one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and now he’s taking on one of cinema’s most famous franchises.

So when the missus starts drooling over Daniel Craig and his barely adequate physique, set her straight with some facts about the main man Mendes.

Early Life – Born in Reading in 1965 to child author Valerie and University Professor James Mendes.

Best of Times – American Beauty is one of the iconic films of the 90s and won 5 Oscars including one for Mendes for Best Director. Revolutionary Road was both a critical and box office success while Jarhead was another highlight in a sudden departure from the Americana setting of his first two films.

Worst of Times – None really. To date none of his movies have flopped or been slated by the critics and that record looks set to continue with Skyfall.

Relationships – Mendes married British actress Kate Winslet in 2003 who he cast in the lead of his film Revolutionary Road five years later. As the old saying goes never work with animals, children or wives (don’t quote me on that), and although the movie was a success, their marriage wasn’t and they split in 2010. They have one son together called Joe. Mendes is currently dating actress Rebecca Hall, who as you can see is not too shabby at all.

Pic courtesy of collider.com

 

The Sportsman – Sammy is also quite a talented cricketer having played for Cambridge University. In the most quintessentially British story of all time, it was cricket that got him his big directing break. The director of the Chichester Theatre heard of his prowess and invited him to join his company because he was tired of being hammered by the Royal Shakespeare Company in their annual match. Tally ho.

What He Says – “I like throwing snowballs at small children.” Not sure about this one but maybe that’s why he’s divorced.

What They Say – Daniel Craig in a recent interview with The Guardian said: “Sam is so bloody-minded about getting what he wants, and he understands how to get it. On the set of Road to Perdition I remember him coming up to Paul Newman and just saying quietly ‘Do it better,’ into his ear. Newman just shrugged and said ‘OK’.” Brave man.

Factoid – Ex – wife Kate Winslet was born in the same hospital as him, 10 years later. Spoooky.

SO one month and two days since that day in Croke Park, a line will be finally drawn under Championship 2012 with the naming of this year’s All-Stars. Since way back in 19-dickity-2 when Johnny Carey (what a name) wrote his name into Mayo GAA history by becoming Mayo’s first All – Star, people have questioned the rationale behind the selection process.

The critics out there point to the exclusion of some of the greats of the game who were never acknowledged as one of the reasons to question the merit of the All-Stars, and there have been cases in recent times of players being picked on criteria only known by the selection committee.

If the rumour mill is correct, Dillon, Cafferkey, Higgins and Keegan will be the Mayo players to pick up awards. If this proves to be correct and Kevin McLoughlin and to a lesser extent Barry Moran are not honoured, then those critics will have a fairly compelling argument.

Whatever happens shouldn’t detract from anything that rewards players (think Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard All – Star winners) who deserve every accolade they get and much more.

So let’s see what happens before we get too riled up and for the winners I say cars, women and drugs (not the bad Lance Armstrong ones) for everyone; no money though, must keep things amateur.

Here’s my selection;

 

Paul Durcan – David Clarke undoubtedly made the save of the summer  from Bernard Brogan, but it was Durcan consistency and pinpoint kickouts throughout the summer that set him apart and gave Donegal such a strong platform.

Keith Higgins – He always had the pace and the attacking instincts but this year the Ballyhaunis man added a physicality that has brought him to a new level. One of the main reasons Mayo managed to recover their composure in the final.

Ger Cafferkey  – You might say it’s strange to pick two of the full back line that was so brutally exposed in the opening moments of the final but Caff deserves to be there. Only when you see him live do you appreciate what a tight marker he is. Classy footballer, hopefully will be there for years.

Neil McGee – Great year for the Gweedore man who’s been om the scene since 2005. Huge physical presence, his direct opponents rarely troubled him all year.

Frank McGlynn – Could have just as easily stuck him in the full forward line. A player who sums up the McGuinness era and who without the Donegal style, would never have flourished the way he has. Great defender, he also scored a not so shabby 1-4 in the championship.

Karl Lacey – The man who held the ball at the final whistle of the final game. He’s been on the scene for a long time; centre back has allowed him to exert the influence on the game that his talent demands.

Lee Keegan – A tossup between Keegan and Boyle. Scored a crucial point in the Connacht Final and came back from a horrific semi-final injury to inspire in the final.

Neil Gallagher – When everyone was talking about Aidan Walsh and Alan O’Connor in the build up to the semi – final, Gallagher thought them both a lesson in mid-field play and he continued that form into the final. Gallagher led the renaissance in high fielding this summer.

Barry Moran – Three man of the match performances against Leitrim, Sligo and Down. Was exceptional against Dublin where a big catch near the end lifted the siege. Disappointing in the final but should have done enough in previous games.

Kevin McLoughlin – Mayo’s best player all year. His importance was highlighted even more with the loss of Andy Moran. Work rate, intelligent use of possession and a lethal finisher. One of the most natural footballers in the game.

Paul Flynn – In a flat and un-motivated side Flynn was the stand-out performer. Scored heavily this year, his point in the second half of the semi – final was a highlight.

Mark Mc Hugh – McHugh is the pin-up boy of McGuinness’s regime. His foraging back in front of his own full-back line was the catalyst for so many of Donegal’s attacks. His immense fitness also allowed him to contribute handsomely to attack.

Michael Murphy – All the talk last year was of Murphy sacrificing his star quality for the sake of the system. This year he was back nearer to goal and realised his star potential in the All – Ireland final.

Colm McFadden – The Championship’s top scorer with 4-32. McFadden was a constant threat all year and performed on the biggest days. Should deservedly win player of the year.

Colm O’Neill – Recovered from last year’s injuries to show again what a brilliant player he is. In a year where Cork promised so much, a probable return of just one All – Star sums up a disappointing year.

Player of the Year: Colm McFaddan

Young Player of the Year: Paddy McBrearty

 

And Finally…

While presumably the Donegal team have been single-handedly raising Diageo’s share price, the relentless world of the GAA keeps moving on. From all accounts, Donie Buckley seems like a real addition and will give the squad a boost after the initial disappointment of Cian O’Neill’s departure. It’s Kerry in the first round of the league and before you know it we’ll be below in Salthill with the wonderful hope of a long summer spread out in front of us.

Ballaghderreen 1-9 Ballintubber 0-4

 

BALLAGHDERREEN put pay to Ballintubber’s bid for a historic three in a row with a comprehensive eight point win over the reigning champions. In truth it should’ve been so much more, Ballaghderreen setting the tone for their display in a first half where they dominated Ballintubber physically.

Five first half frees from Barry Regan, two of them monstrous kicks from over 50 yards, were pivotal in the end with Ballintubber struggling to find a free taker to replace the absent Cillian O’ Connor. In fact Ballintubber failed to convert any of their place kicks throughout the game with Padraig O’Connor, his replacement Darragh Sommerville and finally a semi concussed Alan Dillon failing to convert relatively simple chances.

Of all the forwards on show it was the aforementioned Regan who was the only one to catch the public and presumably James Horan’s, in an otherwise underwhelming game. Regan, who has had a brief flings with the county panel before, was a real physical presence in the inside line, while his ability to lick long-range frees gives him something few other players in Mayo possess.

Keith Rogers was a driving force from centre back for Ballagh’ and placed Alan Dillon on the back foot from the start. Dillon did score a trademark beauty in the first half but never fully got to grips with the game and his day ended early through an unfortunate clash of heads.

Midfield was an area that Ballintubber would have expected to dominate with county boys Gibbons and Geraghty. Things didn’t work out as planned though, with David Kilcullen and goal scorer Barry Kelly dominating the jaded pair and reminding everyone they too were once considered county class.

Once an early second half flourish by Ballintubber petered out with the withdrawal of Dillon, the Ballaghderreen pressure was relentless. Wing back Drake missed horribly of the post when he broke through the cover but it didn’t prove the turning point that it could have been.

After two historic county titles in a row, Ballintubber had nothing more to give. Kelly’s goal and two final points from Rory Conway and David Kilcullen sealed Ballaghderreen’s deserved third county final, moving them to 7th in the overall standings level with Hollymount, Ballycastle and their East Mayo rivals Charlestown.

 

Man of the Match: Barry Regan – This game more than any showed the importance of a good free taker. Regan hit some huge points in the first half that gave Ballagh’ the platform for their win.

BALLAGHADERREEN: O Flanagan; S Drake; P Rogers; T Regan; P Kelly; K Rogers (0-1); D Drake; B Kelly (1-0); J Kilcullen; D Kilcullen (0-1, 45); A Hanley; S Finn; O Jordan; B Regan (0-5, five frees), J Dillon (0-1). Subs: C Doohan for T Regan (39 mins); R Conway (0-1) for J Dillon (25); B Solan for Finn (59).

BALLINTUBBER: B Walsh; L Tunney; Hallinan; P Earley; M Kelly; E Earley; R O’Connor; D Geraghty; J Gibbons (0-1); D Coleman; A Dillon (0-1); M Hoban; D McGing (0-1); D O’Connor; P O’Connor. Subs: J Duffy for M Hoban (28 mins); D Sommerville for P O’Connor (h-t); A Plunkett (0-1) for Dillon (50); K McGuinness for D O’Connor (55).

 

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KILTANE finally lost their fight to retain their senior status on Sunday afternoon with a 13 point defeat to Ballina in Knockmore. David Brady’s intervention clearly had the desired effect on the players for whom the fear of being first Stephenites team to be relegated from senior level in 114 years of club football should have been enough inspiration.

For Kiltane, it’s a sad end to a season that was looking so promising when they were unfortunate to lose out in the final of the Comortas Peile na Gaeltachta back in June. Cill Seadhna is as proud a club as there is and their achievement in remaining senior for so long against the odds, is a testament to the battling qualities of the Bangor men.

Yesterday’s result means that there will be no senior football played in Erris in 2013. It’s been a bad week all round for the barony with Cill Chomain returning to Junior after six years in the Intermediate ranks. Every club has been ravaged by emigration but it’s fair to say that clubs in the northern and western extremities of our county have been hurt the most. On the bright side, this could mean the revival of some tasty North Mayo derbies in the shape of Kiltane v Belmullet and Cill Chomain v Ballycastle, in Championship 2013. Oh and I suppose good news also for Shrule/Glencorrib; no more four hour round trips.