BEFORE club championships are concluded, before the grace and the grieving of another year of high county achievement has been fully set aside, a new season is almost upon us. A season heralding change in the organisation of national and local competitions like there has never been before ... a big break from tradition.
It has mostly to do with the provision of more time for clubs, which are the basic units of the organisation, but are being overshadowed by the marketing power of the All-Ireland Senior Championship.
Yet, that concern for clubs pales somewhat when you consider that the Sligo Senior Championship is only now being completed and Leitrim’s just a couple of weeks earlier. Since their interest in the Connacht Championship ended in mid-summer, it would be too easy to hold county activity accountable for those delays.
In any case, the All-Ireland final moves to August, by which time the new round robin series of the super eights will have produced the finalists, making more time for the completion of county and provincial championships.
That decision has already been changed, however, for next season. To facilitate the proposed visit to Ireland of Pope Francis, the powers that be have been forced the switch the final to the following week. It is now rescheduled for the first Sunday in September.
There will be no curtailment of other fixtures. The first round of the National League commences on January 28. And it is intended to have the competition finished by the end of March, leaving the month of April free for club fixtures.
The provincial championships will then commence on the first week of May. But will not county managers be reluctant to release their star players for club games so close to the opening of their championship campaign?
It suggests a feverish beginning to the new season. And while the clubs are being accommodated, you wonder is the National League being inadvertently scaled down in importance? And whither the provincial pre-season competitions, which are critical for the blooding of new stock?
All of those changes seem to point to the eventual elimination of the provincial leagues, with the National League beginning earlier in January and used mainly by managers for experimental purposes.
For the coming season, the Connacht Council has omitted colleges from the FBD League. The two sections in which third-level institutions were accommodated in recent years have now been amalgamated. All five counties play on a round-robin system. Some of the games will be on Wednesday nights.
Some county managers are already preparing for next season’s campaigns, especially those whose teams enjoyed a short reign last year. Others, like Jim Gavin and Stephen Rochford, who competed to the end, will have a shorter break before resuming.
Although it is being taken for granted that Rochford will resume in Mayo for one more season, he has not so far given any hint of his intention to return.
It’s a difficult choice for a man who was vilified beyond reason during the campaign. No man absorbed more caustic or hurtful criticism. No man deserved it less. In leading his men into the All-Ireland final, Rochford’s convictions were borne out in Mayo’s fine efforts.
No doubt the Crossmolina man will take into account his commitments to work and family and the intentions of Donie Buckley, who has been the wind beneath Mayo’s wings over the past five or six years.
The Kerryman has played a huge role in the development of the team, to the extent that after a number of years together the players, are thoroughly familiar with the ways of their trainer. And he with their ways.
But demand in Kerry is growing for his return to the county he once trained. Hopefully he will put on hold any such desire and that management in full will commit to one further year.
A decision will be required by the board very soon in order to allow time for the possibility of a negative decision and for the search for replacements.
Garry’ make Mitchels sweat in gripping semi-final
WE won’t know until Wednesday night whether Castlebar Mitchels’ reign for the past two years is waning or whether Garrymore can relight the fuse that once fired their county success.
For a while it seemed that although not playing with the swing that characterised their football over the past couple of years, Castlebar Mitchels would do enough to edge into another county final.
The errors that denied them progress on Sunday were so basic that any opposition would have been heartened. And Garrymore are not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth.
They cannot match the Mitchels in terms of experience or perhaps in the overall quality of their game, but their zeal was more than Castlebar could match. And profiting from a couple of unusual blunders by the champions, Garry’ touched a few nerves.
It was no more than they deserved, therefore, when Darren Quinn, Shane Nally and the ageless Jimmy Killeen scored the final three points of the game to thrash out the draw that brings them together again on Wednesday.
The Mitchels’ wastage was the focal point of the first half. And with the wind behind them, their lead of three points at the interval suggested that they struggled for consistency. But within seconds of the restart, Danny Kirby had the ball in the Garrymore net and it seemed they were about to carve out another place in the final.
And then young Cathal Slattery revived Garry’s chances when he squeezed the ball under the diving body of Rory Byrne in the Castlebar goal. The revival continued with Jimmy Killeen’s equalising point.
You would expect Castlebar, with all of their experience, to have learned from their mistakes. But Garrymore will draw strength from the manner of their revival and the perceived weaknesses of the champions. It will go to the wire again. And the most focused side will survive.
In the second semi-final, the inexperience of Claremorris was clearly evident. Swamped by the thoroughness of the former champions and the speed of their thrusts, their heads fell after conceding a couple of early easy goals.
They strove to put some sort of system in place, but the old wise heads of the O’Connors, Alan Dillon and Jason Gibbons were too much. It became a David and Goliath setting.
We did get a glimpse in the final minutes of the spirit that humped Claremorris over the line against Breaffy. A couple of quick goals, a blistering shot by Stephen McGreal and another by Matthew Macken, were indications of their potential. They will learn from the experience and they’ll be back.
Whether Ballintubber gained anything from the one-sided affair, we won’t know until the final. They will not be measured by their performance in this semi-final; rather by the manner in which they overcame Hollymount/Carramore having had Cillian O’Connor dismissed.