Kerry worrying | 

Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion's return to Dubs squad dampen spirits in Kerry

Optimistic Kerry fans – trust me there are a lot of them about these days – are even talking about a five in a row. Don’t even go there.

Dublin stars Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion are really going to boost the Blues' chances of all-Ireland glory next year. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

David Clifford of Kerry celebrates Kerry's All-Ireland win this year. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Darren McCurry was the only Tyrone forward who was as good as he was in 2021© SPORTSFILE

Mayo need a defined role for Aidan O’Shea© SPORTSFILE

Eoghan O’Donnell© SPORTSFILE

Shane Walsh (left) was a huge plus for Galway to have© SPORTSFILE

Pat SpillaneSunday World

It has been a magical few weeks in Kerry as we bask in the aftermath of our All-Ireland success.

A new King has assumed the throne. Hail King David, the best Gaelic footballer on the planet.

And Seanie O’Shea is not far behind Clifford in the adulation stakes.

Rumour has it that a statue in the square in Kenmare will be built to commemorate his famous free-kick against the Dubs.

The Sam Maguire Cup is very visible – it even turned up at Listowel Races last Wednesday. Jack O’Connor is a messiah (again).

All the players have been wonderful role models – turning up at every event and freely giving their time to sign autographs and pose for selfies.

A well-earned squad holiday is the next item on the agenda. Though it is hard to penetrate the circle of trust, whispers suggest they’re heading to South Africa and Mauritius in December.

Optimistic Kerry fans – trust me there are a lot of them about these days – are even talking about a five in a row. Don’t even go there.

Anyway, it’s happy days in the Kingdom.

David Clifford of Kerry celebrates Kerry's All-Ireland win this year. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

But then everybody down here got a timely reality check at 6.16pm last Sunday when Dublin manager Dessie Farrell nonchalantly announced on Dubs TV that Paul Mannion and Jack McCaffrey are re-joining the Sky Blue squad next season.

Even the most optimistic Kerry fan would acknowledge this makes the champions’ defence of the title a lot trickier.

Let us not gloss over the reality; had Con O’Callaghan featured in this year’s semi-final Dublin would probably have won.

Now they have two more players available who, on form, possess the x-factor.

McCaffrey’s pace and brilliant link play makes Dublin’s transition from defence to attack unstoppable at times.

And in terms of his ability to score points, Mannion is right up there with David Clifford and Shane Walsh.

Páidí Ó Sé used to talk about the grain of rice which could tip the balance in a team’s favour. The appointment of Paddy Tally as Kerry’s defensive coach was arguably the grain of rice that made the difference for Kerry this year.

Could the return of McCaffrey and Mannion be Dublin’s grain of rice in 2023?

All we need now in Kerry is for Stephen Cluxton and Diarmuid Connolly to resurface as well.

I am not acting the cute Kerryman when I suggest Dublin now ought to be favourites for the 2023 All-Ireland.

Right now, Kerry are 6/4 favourites with Paddy Power, while Dublin are 2/1.

Judging by what I’ve witnessed so far in the Dublin and Kerry club championships – and I have watched a lot of games – there is a huge gulf in standards. The Dublin series has produced far more quality games.

Dessie Farrell named-checked a number of players who have caught his eye in that TV interview.

These included Shane Clayton the Ballyboden full-back, and Ben Millist, the centre back from Balinteer St John’s.

Interestingly, they play in positions where Dublin probably need new faces in 2023 given the ageing profile of the current defence.

I was also impressed by the Cuala midfield pair of Peadar O’Cofaigh-Byrne, who has previously featured for Dublin, and Peter Duffy.

Another Dublin squad player, Conor McHugh, has been in outstanding form for Na Fianna.

But the player who really caught my eye was dual player Eoghan O’Donnell, who has huge potential as a full forward.

It will be really interesting now to see if Micheál Donoghue can retain him for the hurling team next season.

Of course, the new format for the 2023 All-Ireland, with extra games and a round-robin format in the early stages of the All-Ireland series, could make the series a bit of a lottery.

I believe there are as many as eight counties who have genuine aspirations of going all the way.

I have already written about Dublin so here’s a quick review of the other seven contenders.

Kerry

The monkey is off their back and they will be a more confident team in 2023. They have finally solved their defensive issues – conceding just one goal in the series.

But they got the balance right ending up as the leading scorers in the championship as well.

Yet essentially they won the All-Ireland because their star player David Clifford delivered in the final.

They face new challenges next season. They will be a hunted team, and nobody knows for sure whether they can replicate the hunger, work rate and intensity they had this year.

On a practical level, they will be playing catch-up in terms of their training.

All their rivals will be back training in December when they are on holidays.

Centre field is a work in progress, and one wonders if can they squeeze another year out of David Moran, Stephen O’Brien and Paul Geaney.

Paul Geaney of Kerry tussles with Dublin players Brian Fenton, left, and Eoin Murchan © SPORTSFILE

The standard of football in the Kerry County Championship has been very disappointing so far with little sign of new talent emerging.

Against Mayo and Dublin, three of Kerry’s starting forwards didn’t score from play.

In the final, four of the forwards scored a bare 0-2 from play between them. And as a unit Kerry seem to struggle to break down blanket defences.

So, Jack O’Connor has much to ponder during the winter.

Galway

Having come so close to beating Kerry, their confidence levels will have soared. They tick all the boxes required for championship success: athleticism, physicality, pace and skill.

Yet I have a gnawing feeling that they played above themselves in the final due to Kerry failing to fire on all cylinders.

I don’t believe their present forward line is capable of delivering an All-Ireland.

But for the individual brilliance of Shane Walsh in the final they would they really struggled for scores.

Mayo

The appointment of a new management team under Kevin McStay gives them grounds for optimism.

It looks like they will address two key weaknesses, gaps in their coaching set-up and psychological issues.

The presence of Donie Buckley, Stephen Rochford, Liam McHale as well as Maurice Sheridan ought to address the coaching issue while new team psychologist Niamh Fitzpatrick might do for Mayo what Caroline Currid has been doing for Limerick hurlers since 2018.

The older Mayo players are in Last Chance Saloon territory. Their warrior-like spirit will only take them so far, though on the plus side, the likely return of Tommy Conroy after injury is a big bonus.

Mayo manager Kevin McStay: Photo: Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

McStay needs to persuade Lee Keegan to stay involved and find a defined role for Aidan O’Shea, almost certainly at full forward.

Furthermore, they need to adjust their running game – it has become too predictable and opponents have learned how to tag their key runners and blunt their attack.

Ever since their breakthrough to the All-Ireland semi-final of 2011, Mayo’s Achilles heel has remained unchanged. The one statistic which will haunt them forever is that they converted just 37 percent of their chances from open play in the 2021 All-Ireland final against Tyrone. Therein lies your real problem, Kevin.

Derry

Winning the Ulster title for the time since 1998 will have boosted their self-esteem and confidence.

They were arguably the fittest and best conditioned team in the championship and probably had the most consistent centre field pairing in Gareth McKinless and Conor Glass.

Superbly organised by Rory Gallagher, every player knew precisely what his role was.

But kicking on is easier said than done. Like Dublin, they will be operating in Division 2 in the Spring, this could be a hinderance. But the key issue is how limited their options are due to their game plan.

It consumes so much energy it is virtually impossible to sustain against the top teams in Croke Park or if they fall behind.

Galway exposed them on both these counts this year – firstly in the league and then in the All-Ireland semi-final.

There is a touch of the one-trick pony about them and unless they evolve and quicken up their transition game they will struggle to challenge for an All-Ireland.

Armagh

Armagh are the polar opposites to Derry in terms of how they play.

Like Kerry and Dublin they have a developed a winning kicking game which gives them a big advantage.

They are superbly conditioned; have a much improved defence and are quick learners.

After a woeful performance against Donegal in the Ulster championship this season they learned from their mistakes and destroyed the same opposition in the qualifiers.

On the negative side, I’m not convinced about their forwards. They haven’t yet delivered on a consistent basis partially because they haven’t decided what role they want Rian O’Neill to play.

Switching him between the middle third and full forward is not a solution. He ought to stay on the edge of the square. Then they can build the attack around him.

But their big problem is ill-discipline – they were involved in three high profile incidents against Tyrone, Donegal and Galway this season.

Rightly or wrongly they will now be watched more closely by referees. Unless they clean up their act they can forget about winning an All-Ireland.

Tyrone

Forgotten team of the summer – even if they were the defending champions. I don’t buy the theory they won a so-called ‘soft’ All-Ireland. They deservedly won the 2021 championship.

The success of their U-20 team this year suggests they don’t lack talented young footballers either.

Preparations won’t be disrupted by a team holiday in 2023, and they are sure to be hurting after all the criticism levelled at them this summer.

But there are too many stories about unrest in the camp to ignore.

For seven players to leave the squad after winning an All-Ireland title is unprecedented in GAA history.

Conor McKenna will become the eighth when he goes back to Australia. Methinks the team management have issues to address.

The loss of so many players meant their impact substitutes, who were so influential in 2021, were marked absent this summer and Darren McCurry was the only forward to show a semblance of his 2020 form. Expect a reaction – otherwise the reign of Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan could be short lived.

Donegal

I’d hate to be a Donegal fan – there are the most frustrating team in the country.

They have a huge reservoir of the right kind of footballers in terms of physicality and athleticism - yet consistently they underachieve. They have not been in a semi-final since 2014.

Michael Murphy is in Last Chance Saloon territory and Paddy McBrearty and Ryan McHugh are nearly there.

Their problem lies in their game plan – a relic from the Jim McGuinness-Rory Gallagher managerial eras.

It is one dimensional and at times the players look like they are going through the motions.

Their decision to run down the clock rather than attempt to create a winning score at the end of the Ulster final against Derry was a damning indictment of their cautious mind-set. They need to keep Murphy on the edge of the square and kick the ball into him and McBrearty as frequently as possible.

I wonder how much psychological baggage they are carrying after those repeated big match failures. And the inability of the Donegal County Board to find a replacement for Declan Bonner is very worrying.

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