In a crazy year, we could see some major upsets in the race for Sam Maguire

In a crazy year, we could see some major upsets in the race for Sam Maguire

Aidan O'Shea of Mayo climbs above Séan Andy Ó Ceallaigh of Galway when the counties met in the league. Could a Connacht side grab Sam Maguire in this unique season? Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

DESPITE all they have achieved, and how often they have defied the odds, Mayo have still struggled to shed a couple of labels in recent years, two in particular; that they have too much mileage on the clock; that they don’t score enough.

Their performance against Galway two weeks ago though, was completely at odds with those theories; Mayo had racked up 2-17 by half-time, before finishing with 3-23; they started five U21s and introduced two more.

Mayo looked like a team reborn but, in such a crazy year, it’s very hard to know where any team really stands before entering the white heat.

After some pundits had tipped Mayo to win the All-Ireland, they were relegated from Division 1 seven days later after losing to Tyrone in Castlebar.

Of course, everything is relative. Tyrone were also fighting for their survival in Division 1, whereas Galway were coming from a different starting point a week earlier.

With the Galway county football final having just finished in early October, Galway only had their first session with the full squad ten days earlier.

Mayo were still seriously impressive that afternoon but the devil was in the detail – effectively all of their scores were registered from inside or around the D.

When does that happen in a serious inter-county match now?

On the other hand, that Mayo-Galway match wasn’t the only strange looking scoreline of that league weekend; Wicklow beat Antrim 7-11 to 0-7.

The scoreline looked even more of an anomaly considering the statistics of both sides earlier in the campaign; outside of their game against London, Wicklow only scored four goals in their other four league games; Antrim meanwhile had only conceded two goals in their previous five league games.

Last Sunday provided another crazy scoreline with Limerick hitting 0-36 points from 51 shots over the 70 minutes.

Of course, everything has changed since the spring; teams are fitter now and players are in better individual shape; the weather was really good over the last two weekends, especially in Thurles last Sunday; pitches are still in great shape, unlike what they were last January, February and March.

Most players are coming off the back of a club championship, but county teams still haven’t had the same amount of collective training done as they would have prior to the league beginning in January.

In that regard, coaching time and tactical planning has been seriously curtailed compared to a normal championship lead-in.

Everything has been different. In one of his recent columns for the Irish Daily Star former Donegal footballer Eamon McGee made some interesting observations on the new normal for inter-county players.

Despite the lockdown, and the club championships, McGee wrote how most players have still been “in the inter-county frame of mind” for most of the year.

“I’m of the belief that amateur players simply can’t give that attention for 12 months,” said McGee.

Donegal’s Jamie Brennan and Tyrone’s Frank Burns. Picture: INPHO/Lorcan Doherty
Donegal’s Jamie Brennan and Tyrone’s Frank Burns. Picture: INPHO/Lorcan Doherty

“Will this be a psychological problem for some players when they hit the pressure situations that are coming over the next few weeks?

“Knockout football will always spring a surprise or two. That’s not an assumption, that’s an actual guarantee and we will see a few strange results. I believe that this will be the most competitive All-Ireland race in a long time.”

McGee is probably right, especially when that has already been apparent in the Premier League. Some of the results to date have been so unprecedented that they have defied logic; Aston Villa beating Liverpool 7-2; Spurs whacking Manchester United 6-1; Leicester City taking down Manchester City 5-2.

A shorter pre-season and less time on the practise ground has made preparations more chaotic. Physical and mental burnout is also a potential factor for teams that were involved in the Champions League late in the summer.

On the otherhand, players are clearly going for it and the scoring rates have gone through the roof; after the first four weeks of the Premier League, the scoring rate was the highest in the English top-flight since 1930-’31.

The number of away wins has also sky-rocketed.

There are a number of different theories; the lack of supporters has made players more relaxed and carefree; the data suggests pressing the ball is down and that there are more errors leading to goals; it is more relaxed for referees too, which is obvious in the number of penalties awarded to away teams.

Brian Gavin, the former inter-county referee made that point recently in his Irish Examiner column, noting how referees will not be “entirely unhappy about there being no crowds.”

Gavin continued: “Referees concentration levels are better without them (crowds). We’ve seen in recent years frees being given for the reaction of the crowd or a certain group of supporters in the stand than what has actually happened on the pitch.”

That is also probably relevant to players, many of whom may feel under much less pressure to shoot from a difficult angle than they would in front of a packed stadium.

So much emotional energy and pressure stems from the crowd but, while the top teams will still be fancied, the dynamic has certainly changed, especially in a knockout/winter championship.

“There’s nothing surer than there will be a few bolters and there will be provincial medals coming back to places that probably haven’t seen them for a long time,” said Bernard Brogan recently.

“Or they’ll be a team that wins an All-Ireland that mightn’t have thought they would. So, it’s going to be a really difficult championship to predict.”

It should be because, in an overall context, this year’s championships should be very different for far more than just the obvious reasons.

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