This time last year, I did a preview (of sorts) of the 2012 football season, expressing the view then that it was reasonable for us to expect further progress this year on the encouraging start James Horan had made as manager of the county team in 2011. Aside from the rather caustic dismissal of Donegal’s chances in 2012, what I had to say then wasn’t wildly off the mark so I guess it makes sense to have another go about what might lie in store for us in 2013.
I’ve been turning this idea over in my head for a few weeks now and the more I think about it, the more I feel that next year could well be a do-or-die one for us. What I mean is that 2013 affords us an unusually good opportunity of finally claiming Sam but that, if we’re not up to the task, this chance may not come around again for quite a while. In other words, 2013 could well be our year but only if we’re ready and willing to take full advantage of this opportunity and that if we fail to do this we may have to wait a fair while for the next one.
It’s relatively easy, I know, to be dismissive of such lofty aspirations. After all, most pundits would still rate us as no better than fourth or fifth in the country – the common consensus (not to the mention the bookies’ odds) would be that we still trail the likes of Donegal, Cork, Dublin and Kerry – and logic would tell you that a team that is still a bit away from being the best (certainly based on this year’s evidence) is unlikely to land the big one. Instead – so this line of argument goes – we’re much more likely to do no more than give another good account of ourselves in the All-Ireland series next year as we simply don’t have what it takes to bludgeon our way past everyone we come up against in Croke Park.
That capability to see off all comers was what made Donegal’s march to glory so impressive this year and until we’re at a level where we too can do this, we’re unlikely to make it to the winner’s enclosure. As someone (I can’t recall who it was) remarked after this year’s final, we’re only going to win Sam when we’re the best team in the country and we just weren’t that team in 2012.
What this essentially means is that our hopes of finally winning a fourth All-Ireland are likely to rest on our ability to push on to a significant degree next year, so much so that we improve at a faster rate in 2013 than our main rivals do. In the process, this would have to mean that we would at last become the kind of team that is capable of imposing its will on everyone else in the contests that really matter next year – all the way from Pearse Stadium in May to Croke Park in September. Can we do this?
It’s not just down to us, of course, because whether or not we can get to the top of the pile depends also in large part on how the other main contenders shape up in 2013. All will once again come to the contest with their own hopes and ambitions but, as is the case every year, every team will take the field changed in some way compared to the previous year, not all of them for the better either.
Jimmy McGuinness made the claim on the recent All-Star trip that his Donegal team have yet to reach their full potential and that they have further significant progress to make in this respect over the next few years. Maybe they have but there’s no guarantee they’ll make the kind of further improvements that Jimmy has in mind. Sport simply doesn’t work like that.
Shortly before Christmas, I found myself chatting to a guy who was part of Pat Gilroy’s backroom team this year and he made the very valid point that Dublin this year lacked the kind of bite and purpose that had propelled them to glory in 2011. The inference was that – consciously or not – they were sated by their success and, Jimmy’s cultish zealotry notwithstanding, you’d have to question if Donegal will really possess the same burning desire and selfless commitment to do it all over again next year.
This is especially so given that the Messiah – who has led them preaching a rather fundamentalist Gospel compelling his followers to give 100% commitment to the cause to the exclusion of everything else – will be otherwise engaged for at least part of every week over in Glasgow. I’m sure all kinds of plans are being put in place to make sure that Jimmy’s commitment to Celtic has minimum impact on Donegal but the fact that he’s willing to devote some of his time to another cause might well raise questions in some of the players’ minds too, as they continue to hawk Sam across the Hills and keep being reminded about what great lads they are altogether.
Donegal will, by virtue of their status of defending champions, come into the 2013 race as the team to beat but this has been true of so many other champions in recent years – including mould-breaking winners like Tyrone – and all, apart from Kerry in 2006/7, have failed to land back-to-back titles. So, at the risk of incorrectly dismissing them for the second year in a row, my clear feeling is that Donegal won’t defend their title successfully in 2013.
Kerry and Cork both came unstuck when they ran into Donegal’s propeller blades this year, both demonstrating that a team that comes at them with a well-defined game plan has a great chance of taking them down. Cork’s bone-headed tactics in the semi-final against Donegal illustrated starkly Conor Counihan’s tactical shortcomings which means that even though Cork will take the field in 2013 with a team that is once again glittering in raw talent, you’d really have to wonder if Counihan is the man to get the most out of them.
Over in Kerry, meanwhile, Eamon Fitzmaurice has been fast-tracked into the manager’s job – with little or nothing of note on his management CV to date – and while this may in time prove to be an inspired choice there could be a large element of on-the-job training in it for him next year. As such, it’s difficult to gauge if Kerry will next year be able to make the kind of improvements that are necessary to get them back in the position of likely champions. Still, this is Kerry we’re talking about – a Kerry team that still boasts within its ranks some of the finest players of this generation – so write them off at your peril. Such peril notwithstanding, however, I think Sam may be too great a target for them in 2013.
Jim Gavin is also facing into his first year at the helm in Dublin but the pilot has already had high altitude successes with the county at underage level, having steered them to two U21 All-Ireland titles in the last three years. He’s obviously got plenty of talent at his disposal – with the bulk of the 2011 team still there and, despite the loss of Ciaran Kilkenny to Australia, many of those U21 starlets coming through – and if he can get them to rediscover their hunger, the Dubs are likely to be there or thereabouts for the next few years, 2013 included.
And what of us? Well, this year we were all but guaranteed a place in the last twelve (having only to get past Leitrim to be sure of that) and we enjoyed one of our softest runs ever into the All-Ireland series. Next year, by contrast, couldn’t be more different and a preliminary round clash against Galway in Salthill in May raises the danger that we could get dumped into the first round of the qualifiers, never a happy hunting ground for us.
It’s vital that this doesn’t happen and so while Alan Mulholland’s charges are likely to be much improved on this year (they could hardly be worse) we simply have to turn up at Salthill and demonstrate that, whatever about the close rivalry that has existed between us down the years, we’re operating at a higher level right now. Those with their eyes on the history books might look to what happened us there in 2007 following our All-Ireland final appearance the year before but it’s up to us to show that that defeat back then has no relevance now and to ensure we leave Pearse Stadium with the right result. If we do that, the road back to Croke Park starts to open up for us once more.
But, realistically, how far can we hope to go in 2013? I think we have to be looking to go all the way and furthermore I reckon we – and by this I mean everyone: team, County Board, supporters, the whole lot – have to take the view that this one is ours and that we’re prepared to do everything in our power to ensure that this time we get over the line.
In terms of where we’re at versus our major competitors, I think we’re really well placed to have a right good tilt at Sam next year. I don’t buy this stuff – pedalled by Joe Brolly and others – that Donegal have the potential to dominate the game over the next few years and I don’t think we’ve anything to fear next year from the likes of Cork, Kerry or Dublin either. On our day, we can beat any of them but, of course, to land the All-Ireland next year we’ll need to sort out at least two and possibly even three of them over the course of the All-Ireland series.
Where we finished up in 2012 gives us an ideal launch pad for 2013. Losing the All-Ireland hurt like hell but I really liked the defiant air that was in the Regency that Sunday night and it’s this kind of purposeful attitude we need now as we seek to build on our 2012 achievements. A bit of hurt wouldn’t go amiss either as we seek to find the right attitude to adopt in 2013 and maybe the fact that we have a Kerryman in our backroom team could help us in this respect.
In terms of personnel, we’re likely to see a few arrivals and departures compared to 2012. All of the lads who broke through to the first team this year made a major impact and we need a fresh injection of talent over the spring to see who else is ready to make the step up for next year’s championship. And, hopefully, we’ll have Andy back again before the real stuff starts, ready to lead from the front once more.
Obviously, it’s up to James and the lads to do the business on the field but the role that supporters can play in a serious push for glory can’t be forgotten either. One abiding memory I have from 2012 was how much we were outgunned on the terraces by Donegal on All-Ireland final day – their clear numerical superiority inside Croke Park that day spoke volumes for the confidence they had that their team would deliver whereas the relative lack of support for us told a very different story about what we thought of our chances on the big day.
Next year has to be different. The team needs to improve significantly on this year – a tall order but one that can reasonably be expected to happen – but the manner in which we support the team has to change too. We have to put aside all notions of defeat, we have to stop talking about all those final losses and we have to believe – really believe – that this time we’re going to do it.
It still may not be enough but I do think that there’s a real opportunity for us next year if we’re all ready to do what’s required to grasp it. These chances don’t come around too often – I’d say our last such one was probably back in 1997 – and so when they do we have to go for it with everything in our power. 2013 could well be one such year and so it’s up to all of us to ensure we play our part to help make it one we’ll all truly remember.