KERRY, most people would agree, are best-placed, at full-strength, to dethrone Dublin in the All-Ireland series this year.
Mayo, Tyrone and even Donegal would argue against that notion. However, that is where we are at presently.
Commentators were, up until they had come a cropper in Ballybofey last Sunday anyway, suggesting that Mickey Harte’s northerners might have even been second on the grid in front of the Kingdom.
Yet, until Tyrone start raising green flags – they have managed to score just one, against Dublin, so far in five league outings – it’s not easy to truly trust that Harte’s side could topple Jim Gavin’s unit if the teams were to meet at the business end of the championship.
Effectively, Tyrone would be likely to require at least two goals at Croke Park to have a realistic chance of defeating Dublin in the primary competition. Nevertheless, the statistics speak for themselves and illustrate the northerners’ shortcomings in the goalscoring stakes.
Obviously, that could change between now and August. For now, though, Tyrone are unlikely to be crowned as All-Ireland champions based on what we have witnessed thus far. Bear in mind, when Tyrone drew with Dublin in the second round of the league Gavin did not have a full deck to choose from. If the counties collide again later in the year, Dublin will simply possess too many tools for Tyrone to counteract.
That is, of course, unless Harte generates a further 15% to 20% improvement in his group thus putting the Red Hand in with a genuine shout of felling the giant.
Donegal would not have made it onto many All-Ireland contenders’ shortlists.
Yet, their form indicates a healthy and fruitful summer awaits. How fruitful it may be remains to be seen, but there is no doubt they are tending to their business as efficiently as possible.
The one reservation you would have about Rory Gallagher’s men pitching in against Dublin later is that, instead of attempting to be aggressive and attack-minded, that their game-plan would consist of focusing on counterattacking and therefore draw problems on themselves by playing too deep.
Still, the pace within their ranks would be a weapon Gavin’s troops would prefer to avoid, especially given Dublin made heavy weather of overcoming Donegal in the All-Ireland quarter-final last year, albeit in the storm of competing for much of the second half without the red-carded Diarmuid Connolly.
Yet, Donegal’s cohesion as an evolving unit will have matured further still in the interim and you would be slow to discount them as potentially troublesome to the standard-bearers.
One team it is becoming easier and easier to leave out of calculations is Mayo.
The westerners could defend their form by highlighting a lack of real interest in the league. Their problem, however, is that it is far from easy to flick a switch and get back in the groove. You need to be progressing, if not successful, in the secondary tournament nowadays.
Mayo, though, are regressive if anything. I wonder has the off-field discontent that led to a revolt against their previous management team, coupled with another All-Ireland final loss thereafter, finally broken their resolve over the course of the last 12 months or so? It seems like it has.
Granted, Aidan and Séamus O’Shea will be available for the championship and their presence could act as a catalyst for a massive leap forward form-wise. Until we see this happening, however, it is fair to suggest they have slipped a little in the rankings. There are, after all, only so many times you can go to the well before you find it empty.
So that leaves us, no disrespect to any other county, with Kerry as the most likely candidate to fulfil their promise as Dublin’s closest challengers. Again.
Éamonn Fitzmaurice and co threw the kitchen sink at the Metropolitans last Saturday night but, like Tyrone and Donegal before them, had to settle for a draw. It was probably Kerry’s most daring performance physically while faced with their arch nemesis too. Yet, they had to settle for a draw. Kerry even engineered a solid four-point advantage in the second half in a low-scoring encounter. And yet, had to settle for a draw.
See a pattern? That has to be disheartening for Fitzmaurice and his players.
Yes, they will ‘take the positives’, as all teams do. However, you just cannot get away from how taxing an exercise it is for all and sundry to land a knockout blow to the Boys in Blue.
The more we see of the main protagonists the surer we are that Dublin will again be the last team standing next September.
One particular section of post-match quotes from Fitzmaurice was interesting on Saturday night.
Fitzmaurice explained: “Sometimes, our lads can be relaxed against certain opposition and it can show in our performance. Against the likes of a Dublin, the fact they have won so many games and the fact they have been so consistent, it will be a huge motivating factor.
“I thought their display against Mayo was as close as you are going to get to a perfect performance at this time of year, particularly the second half. We saw ourselves how physical and tough Mayo can be when they beat us here. Definitely, it was a fantastic performance from Dublin.”
The undercurrent in those words is simply that Fitzmaurice, a brilliant coach and realist, appreciates fully Kerry will find it so difficult to displace Dublin. In itself, that cannot be underestimated because were he to be stubborn about it and state his side can shunt Gavin’s soldiers to one side on their own terms it would leave them even more vulnerable.
Fitzmaurice will think outside of the box in the hope he can concoct a gameplan that will land enough jabs so that Kerry win on a points decision if the sluggers clash.
And focusing on pinning Dublin’s half-back line down is key. How about shifting three half-backs into their half-forward line to achieve this objective?