An Fear Rua – The GAA Unplugged! – Article 16 – February 4 2010

McKenna and O’Byrne – important names in football
After a period of much uncertainty due to the inclement weather, the traditional pre-league Gaelic Football competitions in each of the four provinces have finally begun as any lingering doubts about whether or not the tournament would take place were finally put to rest. Games have taken place in the McKenna Cup (Ulster), FBD League (Connacht), McGrath Cup (Munster) and O’Byrne Cup (Leinster).

The profile of the FBD League and the McGrath Cup seems to be low enough for some reason, which is a pity because with the likes of Kerry, Mayo, Galway, Cork and others taking part, there is always a good chance of seeing some quality fare on show. The high number of teams taking part in the McKenna Cup and O’Byrne Cup probably tells us why they are getting a good deal of attention and also bringing in decent-sized crowds.

In total there are sixteen teams that have played in the O’Byrne Cup this year, while twelve teams take part in Ulster. In contrast, there are only eight teams in the FBD League and while there are eleven teams that play in the McGrath Cup, six of them are college teams as Cork don’t play at all in the competition. As they are rightly regarded as being one of the top football teams in Ireland, their absence would always mean that the interest in the McGrath Cup would be lessened.

However, both the McKenna Cup and the O’Byrne Cup do attract considerable notice, and even though teams rarely play their strongest outfit in the games, it is good to see lads who are fighting for a place on the team doing their utmost to convince their manager of the worth they could have to the team. In the McKenna Cup, Tyrone have produced some good displays so far with the likes of Kyle Coney and Peter Harte showing boss Mickey Harte (an uncle of Peter) that there are players coming through to challenge the likes of Messrs. Mulligan, McGuigan and O’Neill. Another player of note who has featured in the competition is lining out for Tommy Carr’s Cavan side. Even though they have lost their three matches in the McKenna Cup (putting more pressure on the former Sky Blues defender), they have pulled off what could a major coup by bringing former Dublin panellist Gareth ‘Nesty’ Smith into his line-up. He has shown well so far and, as a man who doesn’t look out of place in a St. Oliver Plunkett’s/Eoghan Ruadh side that includes Alan & Bernard Brogan, Jason Sherlock, Ross McConnell and Anthony Moyles, he could have a big say in their 2010 campaign.

Unfortunately, this writer hasn’t really seen enough of the McKenna Cup to give a deep insight into each team’s worth. On the other hand, I have seen quite a bit of action from the O’Byrne Cup and that certainly has raised some big talking points. As ever, there is a lot of talk surrounding Pat Gilroy’s Dublin side as they shape up for the new season. They have played twice so far against Wexford and Meath, with a number of players making their first appearances for the Metropolitans as Pat Gilroy looks to re-build his side.

In spite of all the talk about re-building though, there are still a number of players who would be pencilled in for the Championship side all the same, provided they are fit. Stephen Cluxton, Barry Cahill, David Henry, Alan Brogan, Bernard Brogan, Conal Keaney and Paul Griffin would almost certainly be seen as starters for Dublin, though Henry may be moved from his corner-back position. The Raheny man did feature in the half-forward line against Meath on Sunday and kicked two good points, so he could be a possible option there or in the half-back line. Nevertheless, after last year against Kerry, Gilroy is entitled to explore all avenues, which make games like this all the more valuable.

Kevin McMenamin of St. Jude’s has certainly done his bit in the two games with a goal from penalty against Wexford and two from play against Meath. Though we should always be aware that good early form can be deceiving, this is something that Gilroy will be happy with from McMenamin. Another player getting his chance right now is Eamon Fennell, who has been the subject of much controversy in the past couple of years. He has sought for quite a while to get a transfer from O’Toole’s (first to Ballymun Kickhams and now St. Vincent’s), but the North-Dublin club have been quite stubborn in their refusal to let Fennell leave. While it is understandable that O’Toole’s would want to keep their one and only inter-county footballers, it is hard to see what worth can be gotten from wanting to keep a player who clearly has no interest in playing for the club anymore.

In terms of Fennell’s value as a player, it is fair to say that the jury is still out on the big midfielder. In the first round against Wexford, he had quite a productive afternoon by getting on the ball as much as possible, but was less effective against Meath where he was face-to-face with the towering figures of Mark Ward, Conor Gillespie and Brian Meade. In his defence, he hasn’t played that much football in the past 12 months due to both injury and his club situation, so it will be hard to judge just how good he is until he back to full match fitness. Certainly midfield has become a problem area for Dublin following the retirement of Ciaran Whelan and the defection of Shane Ryan to the hurlers, so the likes of Fennell, Darren Magee, Ross McConnell, Michael Dara McCauley and possibly Declan O’Mahony will have to show that they can step away from the shadows and provide the leadership that is badly needed in that department.

Another problem position for Dublin in recent times has been the full-back spot and it is interesting to see Paul Casey, formerly a half-back, being played there now. He was one of Dublin’s better perfomers against Wexford, but did struggle against the power and accuracy of Jamie Queeney in the Meath game, though he did break out well from the square a few times during the course of the game.

Last year Denis Bastick wore the No. 3 jersey in what was a mixed season for the Templeogue/Synge Street man, but he is currently out with an injury, hence the chance that Casey has been presented with. Naturally, Bastick will be given another opportunity to show he can still play in this role again, but he will face tough competition from the two O’Caroll brothers, Ross and Rory, who will be fully concentrating on the Dublin senior football side (rather than the hurling side) when they are done playing with their respective college sides in the O’Byrne Cup.

It is quite hard to know where Dublin will be at this year though, and things really won’t become clear until the Championship comes around, as recent years have shown the Sky Blues’ form in the league hasn’t really been that great of an indicator for how they will fare come the summer time.

It is likely that they will also face Meath at some point in the Championship, and the Royals also had an experimental side of sorts lining out the last day. They did have a few of their bigger players in the starting 15, such as Eoin Harrington, Cormac McGuinness, Peadar Byrne, Joe Sheridan and David Bray, but they had others who might be considered to be fringe players or players that are new to the scene. The aforementioned Queeney had started last year with the Meath Juniors, but was brought onto the senior panel, coming off the bench against Mayo in the All-Ireland Quarter-Final and kicking two precious points to help them towards victory.

Starting on the edge of the square against Dublin, he showed what he could bring to the table, and is another in a long list of players in the Meath squad who are six-feet plus which can always work as an advantage. Certainly, with the likes of David Bray, Queeney, Joe Sheridan and Peadar Byrne in the forward line on Sunday they look to be quite a compact unit, and there is also the likes of Cian Ward, Brian Farrell and Stephen Bray (a second-half substitute the last day) to come back into the fold, so they could be a real threat this year.

While the expectation with Dublin may possibly be dampened a bit this year (there has been a lot of talk recently about how they keep saying that they will learn from the mistakes of previous years, but seemingly never do), it is quite possible as a result that there will be more pressure on the likes of Meath and Kildare, who both had a productive 2009.

Meath also had a good year under Colm Coyle in 2007, but followed it up with defeats to Wexford and Limerick the following year, so they will have to be careful that they don’t fall into the same trap this year. Kildare will also be expected to build on last year, though the loss of Paul Grimley as trainer could prove to be crucial.

They look forward to an O’Byrne Cup clash against Louth this Sunday following the regrettable scenes last Sunday that saw 7 players (4 from Laois, 3 from Kildare) being sent-off in a fiery encounter in Portlaoise. Hopefully, this was just a once-off and won’t turn into a common theme from the two sides. Kildare though need to show that little extra this year if they are going to push on, and need to show they can win a game when it is there for the taking, like it was in various stages during the Dublin and Tyrone defeats last year.

Their game against Louth, as well as the Meath-Dublin replay due to take place tonight (Wednesday 27th), and the winner’s semi-final against DCU will make for interesting viewing though it will be hard to gauge each counties progress until the latter rounds of the National League take place.

Nevertheless, these competitions do offer good early season entertainment for fans, and are well worth having in the GAA calendar to help whet the appetite for the games that will inevitably follow.

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