Archive for January, 2013

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.