00:00 Saturday 14 January 2012  Written by Sln go Fill

Cork footballers need to substantially strengthen their panel

USUALLY at this time of the year we have time to take out the crystal ball, dust it down and have a go at predicting results for the coming season. January was the month for AGMs and underage conventions, for meetings, planning and talking while the players reluctantly took to the pitches for early season training. Now it's all changed and there is no time for looking forward as we are into the action thick and fast already.

Thankfully, the weather has been unseasonably fine, in total contrast to last year, and it has been so mild that one is tempted into the open. But we do have serious reservations about all this activity in the very first week of January. Not only intercounty competitions are being held, but clubs are also getting in on the action and the failure of the new underage boards to finish their competitions last season means that some underage teams are in action already in important county finals and semi-finals.

What we are now looking at is a 12-month season, with successful teams in action from January to December. True, they do get long breaks during the season because of the uncertainty of the fixtures' schedule but that can't be planned for and the teams have to keep training the whole time.

Is this sustainable? Of course not, on several fronts. Players need a break from playing and from training and even professional players are not asked to play 12-month seasons. It's a crazy demand on our amateur GAA players. Trainers and mentors need a break as well. There's a lot of work in preparing teams these days and burn-out comes very quickly. These mentors have family lives, too, and the demand being put on them from club and county is definitely going too far at present. With all the various development squads now, this demand is getting worse.

People who run clubs also need a break in order to catch up with their ordinary lives and they are not getting that break right now. Running clubs is a complicated business and takes a lot of planning and organisation. Officials are not getting that time and the clubs will suffer as officials drop out after a short space of time or just can't give total commitment at all times. If we fail to plan, then we plan to fail and we all know the financial stress clubs are under at present.

So, the question must be asked, is the GAA biting off more than it can chew in an effort to become everything to everybody? While the playing of games is the central plank of the association, many clubs now are under pressure to become community organisations but fail to take into account the work needed to sustain that. The only thing stopping the association from becoming a 12-month one is the weather and when we get a January like this one, then it's full steam ahead on all fronts. I wonder where it will all end?

Anyway, when we were putting away the Christmas decorations in the attic, we came across the crystal ball that had been put away a couple of seasons back when every team we tipped to win something, somehow managed not to. Maybe the rest has restored its predictive powers, so we'll have another look again.

First off, a look at Cork footballers this week. What are Cork footballers' chances of regaining the Sam Maguire, lost so dismally against Mayo last year? It would be fair to say that Cork's chances of retaining the cup in 2011 were scuppered by serious injuries, mostly to key forwards. The curse of the cruciate struck badly and that's a topic for another day. We still don't know how many of those players will be back but we assume Daniel Goulding and Colm O'Neill will be available, whatever about Ciarán Sheehan. Already the curse has struck again with young David Gould out for 2012, so any predictions about winning All-Irelands can be well and truly sunk by injuries. That's where a big panel comes into play but no matter how big the panel is, there are some players you just can't replace.

While the Cork forward line was decimated last season, it was the defence which looked vulnerable for much of the season. They were destroyed by Kerry in the first half in Killarney and by Mayo in Croke Park and particularly worrying was the form of the half backs in particular.

John Miskella and Anthony Lynch are now gone and a question mark must hang over the contribution of Graham Canty, who spent most of last season on the sideline. Likewise, while he soldiers on gallantly and gives everything, the future for Noel O'Leary must be in doubt, as must Paudie Kissane, another great servant whose lack of pace is becoming more obvious every year. Full back was a severe problem all season and Michael Shields is not a natural there, lack of size being a problem, while Eoin Cadogan's hurling commitments will always interfere with his football.

Newcomer, Eoin Cotter, had a good season in the corner and will be retained. The mentors must also take a look at the goalkeeping position as Seán Mellet of UCC showed that he is an excellent goalkeeper and deserves a run in the senior red jersey.

The team definitely needs at least three new defenders and it will be interesting to see how Denis O'Sullivan, Conor O'Driscoll, Seán Kiely, Damien Cahalane and, possibly, Eoin O'Mahony, the Macroom full back, progress in the league.

Last season was a most disappointing one for Aidan Walsh at midfield, a huge drop in form from the previous year. At least he has committed himself to football again this year, despite pressure on him from the hurlers and I hope we see the player we thrilled to in 2010.

Who do you play at midfield with Walsh? The best midfielder in the county championship last season was Castlehaven's Seán Dineen but he looked very ordinary in the final against a good College pairing. Still, he looks to have the potential and a run in the McGrath Cup and the league would really benefit him.

Alan O'Connor had a very good season in 2011 until it came to the crunch in August and one wonders if he can repeat his good form again in 2012? It would be a big bonus if he could and he was the more impressive of the two midfielders in 2011.

It was disturbing to see a number of forwards dropping out of the panel last year and when the injuries struck, the panel was far from being as strong as people were claiming. Only a single point was scored in the second half against Mayo in the quarter final and, with Daniel Goulding out, too much of a load was put on the shoulders of Donncha O'Connor. For a while last season it seemed as if Fintan Gould was at last beginning to show the potential he had at U21 level but, again, the season didn't finish too well for him and there must have been disappointment too with his club that they didn't win the county. If he doesn't claim a permanent place on the team during the league then it is hard to see why the selectors are persevering with him.Likewise, Paul Kerrigan has a lot to prove. Totally inconsistent from game to game, and playing in spurts in other games, he is well-known now for producing spectacular scores, but on a very rare basis. He will have to show a lot more consistency and work-rate if the fans are to be happy with him for the 2012 season.

Paddy Kelly seemed to have nailed down the centre forward position for much of the year but faded towards the end and one must wonder what his best position is? He is definitely worth his place. What of the great warrior, Pierce O'Neill? Is his race run? He has been invaluable to the side with his strength and surging runs and maybe there is another season or two left in his legs.

Daniel Goulding, Ciarán Sheehan and Colm O'Neill would be a natural and talented full forward line, with Donncha O'Connor fitting in somewhere too, but will they all be available for the coming year? I would see very little wrong with a forward line of Sheehan. Pierce O'Neill, Kelly, Colm O'Neill, O'Connor and Goulding. Back that up with an in-form Walsh and O'Connor at midfield, and Dineen as back-up and you have as good a front eight as there is in the country. As back-up in attack you have young players like Seánie Cahalane, Mark Collins and Brian Hurley of the Haven and Donal Óg Hodnett of Skibbereen.

Again it is the defence that worries me and Cotter, O'Mahony, Cadogan, a fit Canty, Kiely, Cahalane and Shields would seem to be the best bet right now.

Having just read Declan Bogue's book, 'This is Our Year' about last year's Ulster championship and what the players go through for the sake of winning, we certainly don't envy any player who commits himself to playing intercounty. To say some of the managers are possessed would be an understatement and some of the tactics they operate to get an edge on the opposition are almost unbelievable.

Jim McGuinness and Donegal are the typical example and what those players went through last year to get to an All-Ireland semi-final is bordering on madness. It is definitely a fanatical approach and one wonders just how far will the whole thing go before somebody with some sense cries halt. Last year we spent the summer criticising Donegal's type of negative football but it was only when reading this book that it became so evident how the whole thing was so carefully planned. We said it then and we say it again, if fanatical managers like McGuinness are allowed to do this to Gaelic football, all for the sake of winning, then God help the game.

Imagine issuing instructions to your team three hours before the All-Ireland semi-final that you were playing a fourteen-man defence for that game, which is exactly what Donegal did against Dublin last year, and nearly ended up in the final. What frightens me as that McGuinness has stated that 2011 was only the first year of his two-year plan. What will he spring on the public this season? When you read of the torture the players go through in training, total physical abuse, then you must question what the sport is all about. Is this what we really want for the young lads we are now introducing to our Gaelic games? Thank God for good old-fashioned junior C club football.

Next week we'll have a look at Cork hurlers and Jimmy Barry Murphy's plea to supporters to lessen their expectations for 2012. What expectations?

Good to hear that the Bantry GAA club is commemorating the late Paddy Minihane by running a senior football tournament in his name, starting this weekend. Eight teams will take part with the first game, Carbery Rangers v O'Donovan Rossa, worth a visit in Leap.

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