Neil Ewing: Different demographics of Tailteann Cup proves there are still interesting characters in the GAA

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“Attending receptions was not a habit of mine so as usual I headed homewards. As I limped to the train in Dublin that evening, my thoughts were not on wine, women nor song as might be expected. What was on my mind was the problem of securing my punt above high water mark when I reached the island that night.”

– Kerry legend and Valentia Island resident Mick O’Connell recounts his Sunday evening after captaining his county to the 1959 All-Ireland

Bleach blond Owen Mulligan enjoying a long day of socialising seven days prior to winning the 2008 All-Ireland.

David Hickey, the eminent Dublin transplant surgeon, who managed to pick up three Sams in combination with a demanding career and a stint playing semi-professional rugby in France.

Farmers Liam Harnan and John Fenton, starring in TV ads extolling the proficiency of Cepravin at preventing mastitis in your herd.

The Donegal ‘Spice Boys’ of the noughties who were stereotyped with bringing a gear bag and an ‘evening wear’ bag to games. A decent cast of what are often collectively referred to as ‘characters’.

The modern game, most say, is lacking in characters. Process-driven robots, delivering mundane quotes at stage-managed corporate events.

This is not true. We are not looking in the right places for characters. Too much focus on a tiny slice of high-profile players from a small elite. An elite with the resources to provide the media guidance which protects their counties’ characters from letting the mask of mundane slip.

There are different demographics of GAA player in 2022 for sure but interesting characters are still aplenty! The Tailteann Cup is as good a snapshot of these as any. Without the heavy hand of a ‘media manager’ holding players back, there should be an avalanche of content out there if hacks are mining for the craic.

Lack of characters in the modern game is a perception. From a purely football vista perceptions also exist around every team in the country.

As the Tailteann Cup builds to a crescendo this weekend with its penultimate rounds taking place in Croker I look at the footballing perceptions and realties in each of the four semi-finalists plus a quick insight into a character in each dressing room.

Cavan

Perception

“A great football county, they love their football”. The cliché trotted out most often when Cavan are discussed. Division 4 was beneath them. Capable of competing with many teams but not at the very top table. A passionate following waiting to be ignited.

Reality

After four consecutive Ulster U21 titles (2011-2014) they have underachieved at senior level for the last decade. One Ulster title and an impatient tour of all four league divisions. Tyrone’s Peter Donnelly had a huge background influence on those underage successes and his departure could be one of the reasons the underage success has not manifested at senior level. Currently have one of the game’s brightest managers on the line, assisted by an All-Star, All-Ireland-winning player and former inter-county manager.

Three All-Star players from 2020 on the field. Up front, Patrick Lynch is an elusive presence to assist the powerful Gearóid McKiernan. A win in this inaugural Tailteann Cup campaign needs to be a building block that gets them back on the road to a consistent spell in Division 1 and regularly upsetting their Ulster neighbours.

Character

Teak-tough defenders do not usually have dazzling sidesteps in their highlights reel but one moment from this year’s league earned the Cavan stalwart the new moniker of Killian ‘Twinkletoes’ Brady.

The man of the law is a keen advocate of discipline. His astronomical yellow card total must closely match the amount of penalty points he has had to give out!

Sligo

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Sligo goalkeeper Aidan Devaney is congratulated after saving two penalties in the Tailteann Cup quarter-final penalty shoot win over Leitrim. Photo by Ray Ryan/Sportsfile

Perception

A soccer county. A population with much more interest in results from the Showgrounds than those at Markievicz Park. Division 4 is their level as the passion for the game is not there. They should be happy to enjoy the protection from hammerings offered by a second-tier competition. No need to be getting notions of competing in Connacht despite two recent underage provincial titles.

Reality

Soccer, rugby, hurling, and basketball are sports with good participation levels in Sligo. This is great. Multi-sport childhoods with the opportunity to later specialise and compete nationally from a local base is exactly what should be on offer to every kid in Ireland. A passion for Gaelic football does exist, the rural east, west and south of the county have small populations but strong rivalries.

Most clubs in the north have exploding underage numbers. School success is slowly starting to feed into underage provincial success, but this needs to be built upon. Adult club structures need to facilitate a growth in participation levels. A greater volume of underage talent needs Sigerson Cup exposure.

Seán Carrabine, Niall Murphy and Paddy O’Connor are players that would make a big impact at higher levels. Tony McEntee needs to get his side up the divisions and show the country that big populations are not required to be very competitive.

Character

A big man with a big personality. Has already saved three penalties on Sligo’s path to the semi-final, probably inspired by days wasted watching his beloved Newcastle United concede penalties. Most who spend five minutes in his company would be shocked to know a man so clearly lacking in common sense is a practising Actuary. More shocking again is how this townie ended up bringing his farming sideline to the masses on social media during lockdowns. Aidan ‘Big Red’ Devaney.

Westmeath

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Ronan O’Toole of Westmeath tussles with Niall Sharkey of Louth. Picture: Aidan Dullaghan/Newspics

Perception

What Division are they in now? GAA’s perennial yo-yo team. Division 3 in 2011, Division 1 in 2014, Division 4 in 2017. And despite all this mayhem Leinster finalists in 2015 and 2016. The claim could be made that their championship performances in the last decade made them Leinster’s second-best team.

A midlands county capable of anything from mediocrity through to Division 1 survival. My own personal perception of them is primarily shaped by a 2015 June bank holiday pre-championship challenge where their lack of interest for the time of year was astounding. One of their players claimed to have only found out about the game that morning. Talented but semi-invested in sustaining a high level, hence the inconsistency.

Reality

Similar to Sligo, a county that enjoys a fair spread of sporting interests. No stranger to exporting some of its most talented to cross-channel soccer clubs or provincial rugby teams. When they can get all their best players bought in from the outset of a season they are one of the teams who could knock on the door of in Division 1. Anything less and a year in Division 4 can be needed to nudge them back to reality.

Jack Cooney is an impressive manager who has enjoyed success of his own in addition to a spell assisting Rory Gallagher in Donegal. Cooney has done a decent job managing what could be termed a transition period as some stalwarts move past their best and a young group, with no notable underage success, have been slowly integrated.

Hot and cold spells in Tailteann Cup games but their extra scoring power has seen them rack up enough in the hot periods to render the cold spells not terminal. James Dolan and Sam McCartan are dangerous coming from the middle third, Luke Loughlin’s pace is menacing when he is in the mood. Ronan O’Toole and John Heslin will score.

Character

A lethal forward with a social contribution to the group that has an inverse relationship to his diminutive stature. Eschews the modern trend for pre-training mobility and activation work by concentrating his efforts on the ‘Crossbar Challenge’. Ronan O’Toole passes his week as a senior analyst with JP Morgan.

Offaly

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Jordan Hayes of Offaly in action against Malachy Stone, left, and Pádraig O’Toole of Wicklow. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Perception

A proud footballing history bejewelled by Séamus Darby ending Kerry’s 1982 drive for five. A history maintained for decades by teams capable of taking the wind from the sails of Leinster’s more illustrious trio of Dublin, Meath and Kildare. John Maughan has brought a level of no-nonsense preparation and commitment which has stirred the current crop from their torpor. This basic increase in standards jumped them from Division 4 to 2. An U-20 All-Ireland in 2021 should see them back competing in Leinster.

Reality

Offaly fell off the footballing radar due a lack of focus on the development of their players from underage through to senior inter-county level. The completion of the impressive O’Connor Park development diluted finances and resources available for the development of the game. Michael Duignan, as chairman, has created a unity of purpose.

This can tangibly be seen in a multiplication of employed coaches on the ground, fresh corporate partnerships, and Shane Lowry’s involvement in creating an exciting future for aspiring Offaly footballers. One U-20 All-Ireland will not bring them back to a level to win senior Leinsters.

They need to add a few more underage Leinster titles over a longer period. Form hit a few hurdles since mid-March culminating in relegation from Division 2. If they do not perform this weekend the obvious question will be, despite the strides made under Maughan, whether is time for the popular and impressive Tomás Ó Sé to move from a selector role to bainisteoir for 2023.

Character

Just as the game of football has evolved, methods to meet future life companions has also done so. Crucial to this is having the vanity to post some flattering pictures online.

One Offaly midfielder has no problem here as his relentless ‘beach weights’ schedule has honed a physique that would turn a Greek god green with envy.

Commitment to a cause, as you would expect from someone who defends our country through his Irish Army work, is not an issue for Jordan Hayes.



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