Joe Kernan: McCartan has good reasons to be cheerful
If 2010 has left Down with that gut-wrenching ‘so near yet so far’ feeling, then their manager James McCartan nonetheless still has considerable cause for optimism that his team can eventually claim significant silverware of some form in 2011.
But no-one knows better than the canny McCartan just how difficult this will be. For my money, the All-Ireland champions will come from one of these six teams — Cork, Kerry, Tyrone, Dublin, Down or Kildare.
Maybe people will claim that I am keeping my options open in a rather expansive manner but I prefer to believe that I am taking cognisance of the fact that more teams are now solidly equipped to carry off the biggest prize of all, the Sam Maguire Cup.
The year just ending has provided us with some truly memorable contests, a rich helping of sporting romance and a dollop of the kind of controversy with which the GAA is growing all too familiar.
There are memories to be cherished, individual and team feats to be hailed — and sharp lessons to be learned.
Cork’s 20-year wait to become All-Ireland football champions ended in spectacular fashion yet it is worth recalling that they only beat Down by a point in the final.
Now the ‘evening out’ process which sees several teams boast firm credentials to become champions will undoubtedly lend a fresh element of anticipation, intrigue and glamour to the 2011 campaign.
As reigning champions, Cork’s thirst to retain the trophy is already evident and the fact that they have a platoon of young players jumping out of their skins to make the side will further step up competition for places.
And while much has been made of Kerry’s ‘poor’ year in 2010, don’t forget they won the Munster championship but were without old warhorses Tómas O Sé and Paul Galvin for the concluding stages of the All- Ireland series.
I would caution anyone to treat the Kingdom with the utmost respect even though they are still trying to come to terms with the loss of Dara O Sé, Tommy Walsh, Mike McCarthy, Diarmuid Murphy and Aidan O’Mahoney.
Dublin’s championship victories over Armagh and Tyrone this year afforded them and their manager Pat Gilroy special satisfaction and I suppose you could not blame them for basking in these successes since the memories of their reversals at the hands of the same two counties in recent years are still quite vivid.
Yet it’s 15 years since Dublin last had possession of ‘Sam’ and although Bernard Brogan is undoubtedly the best finisher in the country and players like Michael Nolan, Michael Dara McAuley, Eoghan O’Gara and Rory O’Carroll have made a big impact in the side, they may still find the ‘big one’ elusive in 2011.
Similarly, Kildare have made big strides under the capable baton of Kieran McGeeney but unless they learn to hit the ground running in games, they may again find themselves being out-manoeuvred by the more cunning sides in the final run-in.
The Ulster challenge for ‘Sam’ will, I feel, be spearheaded by Down and Tyrone.
James McCartan’s side collectively and individually will have absorbed important lessons from their league and championship programmes this year and if Ambrose Rogers is fully fit, Martin Clarke hones his playmaker skills even further and Danny Hughes revels to the same extent that he did this term, then the Mournemen will not be too far away.
It is being suggested in some quarters that Tyrone are a team in decline but I do not necessarily concur with that.
Mickey Harte has far too much experience and craft at his disposal, too many gifted youngsters chomping at the bit and too much overall pride for Tyrone to be anywhere but in the final shake-up.
Maybe a lot of the Tyrone players have been round the block a few times — several of them already have three All-Ireland medals in their back pockets — but I do not think this will in any way diminish their hunger for more success.
In fact, with the suggestion that this could be the last hurrah for the side as we know it, they could be even more formidable opponents.
They look set to retain their Ulster title — and that might just be for starters.