“Every hour God sends” was the response I received to a text I sent to one of the Derry lads recently asking how much training they were doing over Christmas, “This f...ing Lavey man is going to kill us”.
Fitness levels have become extraordinary, body shapes transformed. Nowadays, county players could run up the beach in an episode of Baywatch, drawing gasps of approval from the teenage girls who watch it. Except for Seamus Quigley, who looks like one of the Dubliners after a month on the gargle. The Fermanagh man is already a cult hero in the county. If he keeps scoring 1-08, smashing volleys spectacularly to the net when he could have caught the ball and fist fighting with gay abandon, he will soon be a cult hero on a much bigger stage.
Now more than ever the GAA needs men with the touch of Maurice Fitz and the social life of Ricky Hatton. Apparently, Seamus had Malachy O’Rourke distracted during his time as Fermanagh manager. At the weekends, the big man was racking up huge tallies for his club, running through his considerable box of tricks. During the week however, he was as elusive as ‘The Pimpernel’. In the end, Malachy provided him with a county board sponsored mobile phone. Soon the manager was getting the message “this phone is no longer in service.”
Highly talented people tend not to have a conformist attitude. This is okay if their sport is an individual one, like say tennis. However it is very difficult to handle when you have 29 other lads in an inter-dependent group. Serena Williams was interviewed in Brisbane last week. The winner of 13 grand slams and probably the greatest female tennis player in history casually remarked “I’ve actually never liked sports, and I never understood how I became an athlete.” She went on to describe her aversion to exercise in detail:
“ I don’t like working out, in fact I don’t like anything that has to do with working physically. If it involves sitting down or shopping, I’m excellent at it.”
Watching her, I thought of all the journeyman players who push their bodies to the limit morning, noon and night and will never win anything. Meanwhile, Serena is in the Mulberry shop asking the girl “ Does my arse look big in this?”
Seamus’ arse certainly looked big in his Fermanagh shorts on Sunday. Perhaps Club Eirne will organise a few bespoke pairs. It’s amazing what a good tailor can hide. Peter is in for a roller-coaster ride. He will desperately want to keep Seamus on board. But will he be able to? If he does, what price a Fermanagh victory over Down in the first round?
Tyrone meanwhile are fading and Mickey Harte alone cannot artificially resuscitate them. He needs some new, senior-grade talent but doesn’t appear to have it... yet. Young Ronan O’Neill is a staggering prospect. His senior debut last weekend in the McKenna Cup was as stunning as Michael Owen’s for Liverpool. Brought on as a substitute, five minute later he scored his first senior goal with his first touch. It will however be a while before he is fully ready for high summer. Until then, Tyrone can forgot about adding to their three whirlwind All-Irelands.
In addition, Tyrone’s once ground-breaking tactics no longer bewilder the main opposition teams, who have successfully developed strategies to counter them. Jim McGuinness’ Donegal are a prime example of this. Kevin Cassidy was talismanic but his ill-judged and petty dismissal from the squad will not overly damage them. Only Murphy is indispensable. In 2011, they were only learning and still emphatically won an Ulster title. The likelihood is they will remain overwhelmingly defensive, since Jim is an obsessive character with a firm conviction that defence is more reliable than attack. They were, after all, within a whisker of an All-Ireland final appearance.
On the other hand, nearly never made it and as Michael Murphy proved in Glenswilly’s astonishing Donegal and Ulster campaign, he is a once in a generation attacking machine. Surely Jim knows now that Michael will never win an All-Star at wing-back.
A slight recalibration of his formula would, in my view, make all the difference. Jim’s problem with playing Michael on the square is that when he is further oufield, he is their most creative player. I would station him on the square with a licence to roam to the 40’. He is such an instinctive footballer that he will know what to do without being told. Jim must try to be a little less controlling, since when Michael is free to express himself (as he was say in Australia), he is simply awesome.
I also hear he is working religiously on his left foot. Woe betide the full back that has to face him next summer.
Armagh will have to wait for Tony or John McEntee, even though they will continue to compete hard and Clarke will win plenty of games for them on his own in the meantime. Derry will stay plucky under John Brennan. Our 14 men came from two behind to beat Cavan in Celtic Park last week, which is a hallmark of John’s teams. The Bradleys – particularly the championship specialist Eoin - will return to bolster the attack, but John’s admirable refusal to embrace a defensive philosophy will make us also rans.
In the end, Donegal are the best bet for Ulster. Their system is ugly but its absolute reliability will demoralise and defeat all but the very best few teams. Their three times weekly 6.45am gym sessions mean that Peter Canavan won’t have to worry about big Seamus being poached.
Joe Brolly writes in the Journal every Friday