If Mayo can get a result against Dublin this weekend, it will really whet the appetite for the season ahead, writes Michael Hannon.
Not since Dublin beat Mayo in the 2017 All-Ireland final has the rest of the country had a whole pile of interest in the race for Sam. With a bit of a decline setting in with the Connacht men in 2018,and Kerry blooding so many young lads all at once, Dublin’s place at the top has looked iron cast. It's hard for Dublin fans and supporters to get their head around this but 90pc of neutrals are a bit bored by Dublin’s brilliance.
What was once impressive remains so but it’s hard to be enthusiastic about a foregone conclusion as last year's All-Ireland race was.
That's to be expected. I remember watching Spain cake-walk their way to becoming Euro 2012 champions, one tiki-taka pass after another, and actually switching over the television station to watch a mixed doubles game of tennis at Wimbledon.
Nothing against the tennis at all, but a second round mixed doubles game out on court 33 is normally not going to keep my attention over a game of football at the Euros.
Of course, Spain were brilliant. I could see they were brilliant, but half an hour of marveling at their brilliance was enough for me, I wanted to be entertained and whatever impressive fare they were serving up simply wasn’t doing it for me. They were too good for the game to be a contest.
But back to Gaelic football and Kerry’s victory over Dublin two weekends ago has had a pretty impressive short-term impact on interest levels among neutrals.
Suddenly there are small shoots of hope that this dominant Dublin side might not have it all their own way in their drive for five All-Irelands in a row.
Young players tend to improve dramatically over the first 24 months of involvement on a senior inter-county panel so while it is well acknowledged that Dublin have only recently returned to training and are clearly off the pace, it's also true to say that Kerry have much scope to improve on tactical, technical, and physical aspects of their game simply because of their age profile.
For instance, the Kerry who turned up to play against Cavan played a game alien to the one they played against Dublin. I have never seen a Kerry side set up as defensively as the one that took to the field in Kingspan Breffni a few weeks back.
Perhaps they had decided that they were deliberately going to work on one defensive aspect of their game in their opening two fixtures of this year's league, because what we saw that day in Cavan according to eyewitness accounts wasn’t too far off what they produced in their opening league game against Tyrone.
All of which got me thinking that Kerry’s main concern is trying to figure out how to play a game that beats the other 30 counties in Ireland. This is because the game you have to play to beat Dublin is very clear.
Mayo have shown everyone the best way to take them on, and that’s by giving them no time on the ball in the middle third. So Kerry turned up in Tralee and played the Mayo game plan.
There were times they were ultra-defensive, just like they had been against Cavan, but by and large they tried to play the way the men from the west had played in those games covering the 2013-17 seasons.
What we know about Mayo is that they have the players to play that way. They have the defenders who are athletic and powerful enough to be left one-on-one at the back with everyone else trying to get pressure on the ball in the middle third. We don’t know if Kerry have those same defenders.
My gut feeling is if they did, they wouldn’t be setting up so defensively in their other league games. If they did have those players, they wouldn’t be trying to figure out a game plan to beat the other 30 counties.
Whether Kerry have the ability to go toe to toe with the Dubs in the summer, and not just in February will become apparent over the course of the rest of their league games.
You see, the dust had barely settled after the Kingdom's victory when I was hit by the sobering thought that a well prepared Kerry had played out of their skins to beat Dublin by a single point. This being a Dublin team who came back very late to preseason.
So kudos to them for adopting the Mayo game plan, kudos to them for blooding so many new and young players, but the real platitudes will be reserved for them if they continue to improve their execution of that game plan in their other games against other opposition.
If they revert to how they played against Cavan and Tyrone for the rest of the year and then suddenly try to change tact against Dublin in the Super 8s they will be taking a step into the unknown.
Their defenders will be facing a much different proposition when they come up against a fully functioning Dublin forward line in a wide and open Croke Park.
In many ways this week's game between Dublin and Mayo is arguably even more intriguing than the Kerry game against Dublin. We know the men from the west can physically and athletically match up with the Dubs even if they have never been prone to doing it in the league. This is largely due to their late starts and framgmented preparation due to half their panel living and working in the capital.
This year they’ve started back early after exiting the championship before the Super 8s and they have unearthed a couple of new forwards who look athletic and exciting.
They’ve got a returning manager in James Horan who is credited for changing their fortunes a few years back and shaping the careers of so many All-Star players.
Dublin will be six weeks back in action by the time they take to the field against Mayo, in a game they have to win if they want to stay in the hunt for league honours.
Six weeks is loads of time to blow away the cobwebs and get some work into your legs. But Mayo will sense an opportunity to get one over their rivals in a game that suddenly counts matters for a whole host of reasons.
Were Mayo to win, and Kerry to play against Galway along the same lines as they did in round three of the league and not rounds one and two, then this summer the neutrals really might find themselves enjoying the journey as Dublin go in search of history rather than bemoaning the lack of entertainment.
We will watch this weekend with interest...
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