The Irish Mail on Sunday
STEP BACK, REF
Championship should be open and exciting, it could do without more bad calls on red cards
IF I have one wish for the summer ahead, it is that the Championship won’t be overshadowed by the decisions of referees. Outside of Clare winning the All-Ireland, what stayed with me from last year’s campaign was the controversial red cards shown to Cork’s Patrick Horgan, Kilkenny’s Henry Shefflin and Dublin’s Ryan O’Dwyer. All three were gamechangers.
Some of the calls were ridiculous, petty and stupid − but I’m not blaming the referees. I blame the assessors whose presence seems to ensure that match officials have to go by the letter of the law rather than using their own judgement in the heat of Championship, or using their own discretion in any given incident.
Because the game is in such a good place otherwise, it’s hard to predict who is going to win the All-Ireland.
Last year’s final and replay were so exciting. Clare looked like running away with it at different times, you had a bundle of goals in the replay and the drama of it all was brilliant for both supporters and viewers.
If anything was lacking it was quality defending. Both final defences were poor and a lot of mistakes were made. Cork were totally exposed in conceding five goals and they are yet to batten down those hatches.
Clare face a huge task in trying to put titles back-to-back. Have they the experience and maturity to defend an All-Ireland? That’s the big question mark for me.
In fairness, for a team with such a low-age profile, they do seem to be a very grounded bunch. Davy Fitzgerald has a big handle on them.
But will they keep buying into Fitzgerald’s structures and regime? When it’s all very new, everyone is glad to try out things. Will they able to handle the pressure from the shoulders up?
Teams didn’t give them the respect they deserved last year. Now that they are All-Ireland champions, they are there to be knocked, there to be taken on.
Everybody wants a cut off you when you are the champions. Other teams might do it for 10 minutes, 20 minutes or the full game but they tend to throw the kitchen sink at you when you are defending an All-Ireland.
As a player, you always want to measure yourself against the top team.
TACTICALLY, Davy won the battle against all the managers last year. Maybe he’ll surprise us but there are only so many tactical situations a coach can plan for. If Clare are going to repeat the same tactics, others are likely to ambush them.
Managers are blue in the face saying ‘don’t take it for granted’ to their charges. But it’s human nature to do that. That’s why experience can count for so much.
A lot of players would have played against each other in the Fitzgibbon Cup during the spring so they won’t think of the Clare lads as invincible.
I don’t think cockiness is going to catch Clare at all. I just wonder will they have the mental strength required to defend an All-Ireland. If they do, they will put themselves on a pedestal.
Look at the Clare team who won two All-Irelands in the 1990s. Ger Loughnane’s crew were a hardened bunch of players and they found it hard to back up their first All-Ireland.
If there is one thing that this young Clare team lack it is possibly maturity. Whether they are capable of back-to-back titles, I have grave doubts. No team is going to dominate hurling for the next three or four years. Just look at how open last year’s Championship was and the changes it brought. Limerick were Munster champions, Cork beat Clare before going two rounds with them in the All-Ireland final.
Dublin put in a huge performance to knock Kilkenny out after a replay in the Leinster semifinal before going on to bridge a long gap in terms of Leinster honours, beating Galway comprehensively.
So it was up there for excitement, no doubt about that.
I’ve heard a lot of talk in the wake of the League final that Kilkenny are the team to beat but I’m not so sure. I just feel the years on the clock will tell. In terms of defending a title, they are certainly the exception to the rule for the last 10 or 12 years.
As for the other contenders, Tipperary are back in business judging by how they came strong in the League play-offs.
On the law of averages, it’s about time Galway came out of the margins while Limerick have to regroup after losing joint-manager Donal O’Grady.
Cork need to find a settled defensive spine and then there’s Dublin, who could have been in the All-Ireland final were it not for the sending off of Ryan O’Dwyer.
I personally think Dublin are going to bring a lot to this year’s Championship. I saw them against Cork in a challenge game and they looked so strong physically. I’d even go so far as to say they have the power to blow Kilkenny out of the water if they happen to meet.
I was with the Laois hurlers and they were only in the throes of bulking up by comparison. You could see that they have a bit of catching up to do. Anthony Daly has Dublin in serious shape and I see them having a real say.
Wexford could make an impact but Leinster looks like a shootout between Kilkenny, Galway and Dublin.
OFFALY might have the Sky Sports cameras in tow for their first match against Kilkenny but they are struggling big time. They have a small panel and are limited as regards classy hurlers. I can’t see them making an impact.
When Kilkenny were dominating over the past decade, it was through playing the game the orthodox way – no-nonsense, man-on-man, win your own battle. Definitely Clare brought a change in style last year with a high-tempo running game.
There’s not a hope of Kilkenny trying to ape Clare’s approach – they don’t replicate others. They are the hurling purists. So it will be interesting to see what approach wins out over the summer.
There is a lot of talk that the older boys should let the young players come in but I don’t agree. I think we need the experience of the likes of Robbie (Keane), Richie (Dunne) and Glenn (Whelan) to show us how to do things and how to qualify for tournaments. They’ve been there and played in Euro and World Cup finals and you need that. The aim is to qualify.
It will be difficult against Germany. At home we haven’t been as good as we want to be against the bigger nations but now we can kick on. Even after the last time, Germany won’t enjoy coming to the Aviva. Everyone says how difficult it is to come to Dublin and play Ireland in a packed Aviva and we have to build on that.
Scotland home and away will be tough but if we are on it we can get maximum points and Poland will be similar to Scotland.
KK: What was your experience of Giovanni Trapattoni and of the time you played under him?
JM: A lot of people outside football said ‘he doesn’t have a clue and what’s he doing? He’s too old’, but look at his record for Ireland. He qualified for a major tournament. Obviously he gave me my chance and I enjoyed it. A lot of people say the style of play was not attractive but the football business is about getting results and he managed to do that for Ireland.
The language barrier was difficult at times but I enjoyed working with him and I learned a lot from him.
KK: Do you think you should have been given the licence to play more?
JM: There were times I thought I was ready and he didn’t play me. There were so many things that came up for me before the Euro finals, and then Gibbo was doing brilliantly at Everton and wasn’t getting a game. Séamus wasn’t called up either. It was a difficult one and he went with the team that got him to the Euros. It was hard watching it from home.
But he did so well with what he achieved for Ireland. The last few results show we didn’t live up to standards and we weren’t good enough but it was not just down to the manager. As players, we have to take responsibility too.