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Sports Week: Back to back?

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Thankfully, the spread of Gaelic football means that every championship summer involves both the art of the possible and the unpredictable. Kilkenny and Cork have won six of the last seven All Ireland hurling titles between them, and their excellence continues to make the small-ball game by far the easier of the two to preview.
In contrast, the Sam Maguire cup has had 10 different resting places since 1990 giving supporters from as far apart as Donegal and Cork reasons for optimism at the start of each campaign. Yet, if the point here is to separate the very good from the good, then once again it is hard to look beyond Tyrone, Armagh and Kerry as likely champions.
Tyrone’s task now is to do what no county has done since Cork in 1990 and win back-to-back titles. The difficulty of retaining the championship may be more in the mind than anything else, with the sheer effort and will power needed for outright victory difficult commodities to reproduce in successive seasons.
Yet with a manager in Mickey Harte who has proved himself adept at formulating highly effective tactical plans, as well as energizing players, why not Tyrone to break that cycle? They have reached two finals in the past three seasons and have won them both, outlasting Armagh in 2003 and outclassing Kerry last year.
As football veered towards an obsession with physical fitness, the number of training sessions amateur players had to endure made some of the professionals in other sports wince. Harte eventually arrived at the conclusion that less was more, and of late, Tyrone have emphasised quality over quantity.
With Stephen O’Neill, Sean Cavanagh, Brian Dooher, Owen Mulligan, Ryan McMenamin and Ger Cavlan, experience and talent are plentiful, however, the retirement of the legendary Peter Canavan as well as a premature end to Brian McGuigan’s season due to a broken leg, will place added demands on Harte.
The players and their manager showed their strength and collective will when they recovered from Cormac McAnallen’s tragic death to go the distance last year, and Tyrone possess a resilience that is similar to Meath’s in the late 1980s and ’90s, and which is only matched currently by Armagh.
The Ulster final is likely to see a match-up between the province’s great rivals, with Armagh having to overcome Monaghan on Sunday, and then the winners of Fermanagh and Antrim, in order to make the 9 July showdown. Tyrone, meanwhile, will probably have a more demanding route as they take on Derry later this month, followed by the winners of the Donegal-Down semi-final. Ask Harte about his team’s prospects for September and he’ll remind that he’s simply focused on getting out of Ulster at the moment.
As for Armagh, the summer could mark the end of Joe Kernan’s great side. The veteran campaigners such as Kieran McGeeney now have many miles on the clock, and there have been recent injuries to Oisin McConville and to Ronan Clarke. There is promising young talent coming through, but Kernan will have to find a way to effectively mix the old and the new in the heat of the championship.
The skirmishing in Leinster could be even greater than in Ulster this time with a fancied Dublin outfit billed to meet Mick O’Dwyer’s Laois in one semi-final, and any two of six to clash on the other side of the draw. Following a promising first season under Paul Caffrey, Dublin have emerged blinking into the light, and if they can escape the pressures of their own supporters and relax, they could well be in the mix come September.
The same could be said of Galway who should be able to cruise through to a likely Connacht final meeting with Mayo. Armed with the attacking threat of Padraic Joyce, Micheal Meehan and Michael Donnellan, and guided by a perceptive coach in Peter Ford, they are certainly the form bet from the west.
Mayo do have the mercurial Ciaran McDonald, and the freescoring Trevor Mortimer, but they have tended to be inconsistent. No one is too sure what to expect: a breathtaking performance, or a complete choke. In his first year as manager, the vastly experienced Mickey Moran could cast a spell or two, but Galway have the edge.
That leaves Munster, and Kerry. If Dublin think they have it tough with their fans, then they should spend a few weeks in the Kingdom. They’ve won three Munster titles in a row, have two All Ireland final appearances in a row and have won two leagues in three seasons, and question marks still remain over Jack O’Connor and his players.
Bryan Sheehan and Darren O’Sullivan are fine attackers in the making, but with Mike Frank Russell out of kilter, there is still an over-reliance on the brilliant Colm Cooper. If he is injured for one of the big games, then Kerry will need divine intervention.
Still, the door is wide open in Munster with only Waterford and Tipperary standing in the way of a renewal of hostilities with Cork on 9 July. Darragh O Se and Seamus Moynihan might be giving it a last shot, and O’Connor will have learned some lessons from last year’s final defeat by Tyrone.
Boil it down to three counties then – Tyrone, Armagh and Kerry – and take Kerry. Tradition, talent and that necessary bit of luck, and Sam will be heading to the south-west once again.

Keane: Time to
call it quits?
Roy Keane has just added a Scottish League winner’s medal to his collection, and earlier in the week he returned to Old Trafford for his testimonial game, which featured teams from Manchester United and Celtic. The match was a 68,000 sell-out generating in the region of $2m, most of which Keane will donate to a range of charities.
With praise being heaped on his shoulders by his former manager at United, Alex Ferguson, and by supporters from his current and former clubs, it felt like the end for Keane. And if what he said in March about retiring at the end of the season was true, then it was an adieu and not an au revoir to one of Ireland’s greatest ever soccer players.
Yet the rumors persist that he will play for Celtic for one more year. With the Scottish title holders qualified for next season’s European Cup, it has been speculated that Keane wants another shot at competition in Europe.
This runs contrary to his strong suggestions that he would be taking time out from the game to, as the spin doctors invariably put it, “pursue other interests.” Quite what interests he has outside of soccer is anybody’s guess, but what is certain is that once he quits, he will be in demand as a manager.
By his own high standards, his time so far at Celtic in the low-profile Scottish League has been underwhelming. Dogged by injury, he has been a shadow of the player who once led Manchester United and Ireland with unrivalled determination.
No one, with the exception of Ferguson who eventually showed him the door at United, tells Keane what to do, however, and if he wants to continue, Celtic will certainly have him. But for people who admired his sheer self-belief, watching him this season has been painful.
Roy Keane the great player is finished, and the feeling a couple of years ago was that he would be different, he would know exactly when to quit. Seems like the man’s human after all.

Harrington’s off Ryder pace
All golfing roads lead to the K Club, Co. Kildare in September for the first Ryder Cup to be staged in Ireland. Interest in a sporting event in this country will be unprecedented, the television audience will be massive and as for procuring a ticket at this late stage, forget it.
In the recent matches between Europe and the USA, Irish influence has been significant. Paul McGinley holed the winning putt at the Belfry in 2002, he teamed up with Padraig Harrington to memorably defeat Tiger Woods and Davis Love at Oakland Hills two years ago, and Darren Clarke has been one of the team’s mainstays.
With just over three months to go until qualification for the team is completed, Europe’s non-playing assistant captain, Des Smyth, is the only Irishman certain to be involved. McGinley is very close to qualifying, but Harrington is surprisingly off the pace at this stage, while Clarke has other issues on his mind as his wife continues her battle against cancer.
Europe captain, Ian Woosnam, said recently that Harrington needed to start making up ground on the points table. Ireland’s Ryder Cup will be special, but we need more than one player in the team.

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