Sean Cremin is here with an end of season report card on the Gaelic football season. The championship had its moments and there were episodes of drama that probably papered over the cracks of what a lot of people classified as an average enough season.
Best Player: James O’Donoghue
The Sunday Game panel did their level best to justify other contenders but there is absolutely no way that there was a better footballer in Ireland than James O’Donoghue at any stage this year. He may not have been as influential or at this best in the All-Ireland Final, but he was still by far the best player in the country.
There was extra pressure on his shoulders this year following the loss of Colm Cooper and he responded in style. He began his season with a ten-point haul in the Munster final against Cork that included eight efforts from play. He then made his way to the turf of Croke Park where his quality continued. His solo goal against Galway was a clear sign of his pace and finishing.
He was given much closer treatment in the semi-finals against Mayo where he was marked very well by Keith Higgins and still finished both games with 1-3 and 2-6. Some people may criticise his performance in the final, but another angle could be that O’Donoghue looked to be sacrificed to allow Paul Geaney and Kieran Donaghy cause damage in a two-man full-forward line.
He was excellent in 2013 and went a step further in 2014. He still has age on his side and now the question is whether he can be better than Colm Cooper. At the moment, he was the best player in Ireland this summer.
Best Newcomer: Paul Murphy
Paul Murphy gets the nod here ahead of Ryan McHugh, on the basis that he was a complete newcomer. McHugh announced himself to the country more prominently this year in a starting role but had featured for Donegal prior to this season. Murphy on the other hand pretty much came from nowhere and had a big impact on the season.
2014 was the debut season for Murphy who featured very little at underage for Kerry. Outside of Kerry he was a complete unknown and he may have even been a unknown to some GAA folk in the Kingdom. Either way, he had an outstanding season and now all GAA fans in Ireland know exactly who Paul Murphy is.
One of the most admirable things about Murphy was the way he seemed to wear the number five jersey, that had been vacated by the one and only Tomás Ó’Sé, without any pressure whatsoever. He had massive boots to fill and made a more than significant contribution. He really made a name for himself this season.
Surprise Package: Armagh.
The Orchard County had been on a slippery slope for a number of years but 2014 seemed to spark a mini revival. The success of Crossmaglen Rangers was not filtering into the county set up in any way and Armagh had struggled badly for a while, in comparison to the All-Ireland contending sides of the mid-noughties.
They had done little or nothing in Ulster for a long time but this year saw them defeat Tyrone and draw with Monaghan. They were close to winning the replay against Monaghan and then went on a good qualifiers run. They had a very good victory over Meath and should have beaten eventual All-Ireland finalists, Donegal, in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
It was definitely an improvement for the men in orange and in a season that was short on surprises, Armagh possibly surprised more than anyone else. They performed a lot better than people would have expected and now with Kieran McGeeney in charge looked to be decently placed heading into the 2015 season.
Who’s Hot? – Eamon Fitzmaurice
The Kerry manager deserves an awful lot of credit for the job that he did in 2014. If he had been in charge of any other county other than Kerry, then the plaudits headed Fitzmaurice’s direction would be an awful lot higher. Very few people would have seen Kerry as All-Ireland winners at the start of the year, and the role that he played should be very highly valued.
First and foremost Kerry had to deal with the worst possible news ahead of their championship season. One of their main strengths had been the re-positioning of Colm Cooper to centre-forward who went onto to be the main orchestrator of their attack. Then, disaster struck as Cooper was ruled out for the season. It was almost declared as a national day of mourning in Kerry, but look at how the season turned out.
The main thing that stood out was the way Fitzmaurice prepared his team based on the respective opponent. In the majority of games, they went out and played their traditional style and then created a plan for their clash with Donegal. The reintroduction of Kieran Donaghy was also a very efficient management move.
The way Fitzmaurice set his team up after losing Colm Cooper was very good. There was no way that an adequate replacement could be find so the team was made a much more hard working side with the likes of Michael Geaney and Johnny Buckley in the half-forward line. He did an excellent job this year and deserves a lot of plaudits.
Who’s Not? – Derry
They had a great run to the National League Division 1 final in the first half of the season and were tipped by many to be dark horses for the Ulster and possibly even the All-Ireland championship. But their championship performances fell well below expectations.
They opened with a game against Donegal. This was a big game for Derry as a run in Ulster was seen as a viable option to gather momentum but they lost a tight game and found themselves going through the backdoor. The defeat was seen as no disaster as many felt they could be dark horses going through the alternative route.
The draw appeared to be in their favour as they faced Longford at home. It seemed to be a formality that Derry would get their season back on track but they ended up losing to Longford in one of the shocks of the championship. They failed to live up to expectations and had a very poor championship.
They won an All-Ireland title in 2012, completely flopped in their defence of the title in 2013. The question was whether Donegal were a genuine force or had their momentum totally stopped. They reappeared in an All-Ireland final in 2014 and could have lifted the Sam Maguire trophy and showed that there were still a good team and not a flash in the pan.
The winter of 2013-2014 was full of speculation regarding conflict between Jim McGuinness and his backroom team and further tension between McGuinness and the Donegal county board. A lot of people expected them to lose their opening game to Derry but they got over that obstacle and went onto win the Ulster title.
They stumbled over the line to beat Armagh in the quarter-final and then were 6/1 outsiders to beat Dublin in the semi-final. They put on a masterclass of counter-attacking football to beat the supposed All-Ireland champions in waiting. Overall Donegal bounced back from a poor season in 2013 and showed that they could be around the top tier for a while.
Bonus Talking Points
Tactics and Gameplans Are Vital
Blanket defences have become the most fashionable commodity in football over the last few years and while some teams have changed their ways, the 2014 season showed that tactics and game plans are essential to winning games or titles. All teams were different but there were a few clear examples of teams winning games mainly down to game plans.
The most obvious example was Donegal’s victory over Dublin. Dublin have beaten almost every team in Ireland by double figures over the last two years and teams have tried to take them and failed in every game. Donegal played a counter-attacking game that looked to be failing for the first twenty minutes but then the tide turned. They completely out-witted Dublin and beat them because they had a better game plan.
The way Kerry lined up in the All-Ireland final was just another sign of how a team must have a game plan. If Kerry went out and played an open and expansive game against Donegal, then they easily could have lost. They had to play the game in a more conservative manner and managed to succeed as a result. It was proof that even the purists like Kerry have to change their ways in order to succeed.
Time for a Structural Change?
All four provincial championships were relatively poor. The Ulster championship was competitive but the standard was very poor. There were very few entertaining games while they were tense and close encounters. Connacht was poor as Mayo triumphed again without much of a challenge, and the less said about Leinster the better, where Dublin have the cup to themselves.
The Munster final was poor this year where Kerry destroyed Cork. A closer look at Munster brings back the memory that Clare actually gave Kerry a run for their money and Tipperary should have beaten Cork. The fact that Padraig and Sean Collins and Cathal McInerney have committed to football for the Banner next year might improve the Munster championship.
The gaps between games are also far too long and there were too many poor games in this year’s championship. the season needs to be condensed to improve the quality for intercounty players and club players.
Is there any hope for the smaller counties?
There was no real ‘story of the championship’ this year. There was no sign of London making a Connacht final, there was no lesser team making a break through the qualifiers. Overall the gap between counties seem to get wider if anything. The previously mentioned Clare contingent opting for football over hurling may give a glimmer of hope but overall the smaller counties seem to be getting further away from the top teams.
Good or Bad Championship?
For the semi-finals alone, the football could have been considered a success as we witnessed two classic encounters between Kerry and Mayo along with a massive upset in Donegal defeating Dublin. The quality, entertainment and drama in these games alone provided a lot of entertainment but a further look at the championship may suggest different.
It is a bit cynical to go as far as calling it a poor championship. It did take a while to get going and the final was a disappointment but it is very easy to criticise. There were some great games but there were also a lot of poor games. As mentioned previously the whole system does need a makeover. This year as a whole could be classified as poor, but it would be a cynical enough view. We saw a lot of quality in this year’s football championship and it should not be all doom and gloom.
Overall Grade: C+/B-
Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena
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