Sport

John McEntee: Pitfalls and potholes ahead in Championship season

Much is expected of Lee Brennan in the Tyrone forward line this summer and it will be interesting to see if he can live up the pressure

THERE was a time as a young fella when the greatest challenge I would face in a given day would be to keep an opponent scoreless. If I was really optimistic, it would be to score that elusive point; you know the one at training when the manager shouts ‘next score wins’.

Your team could be five points down, but scoring the next point is really the only one that matters. Winner takes all.

As I’ve gotten older my greatest challenge seems to be getting the wee man to training on time. The state of the roads across the North is shocking.

Last night I suffered my third flat tyre in as many weeks as I attempted this ill-fated journey. Car owners now need easy access to three sets of tyres; snow tyres in February/March as our roads are poorly salted, tractor tyres following the April showers and ordinary car tyres when heading south to Dublin.

I am reminded of a craic an Armagh team-mate called Tommy O’Neill used to tell us as we approached potholes.

Tommy would shout ‘whist, did you see those donkey ears?’ alluding to the fact that the pothole was so large a donkey had wandered into it.

There is one similar hole at the bottom of my road which was reported to the roads service eight weeks ago and has still to be filled in. I’ve not yet seen donkey ears, but local fishermen have been known to check it out for the presence of sticklebacks.

Anyway, as I was replacing my punctured tyre, it got me thinking about what potholes or pitfalls await the Ulster Championship contenders this year.

Teams used the Leagues to trial new kick-out strategies following the tweaking of the rule which forbids kick-outs to land within the 20-metre line.

Given the penchant for securing possession, it is going to be interesting to see how teams will adopt to longer kick-outs or if they will devise alternative strategies to secure possession through short kick-outs, albeit beyond the 20-metre line.

This is a high-risk strategy, but perhaps no higher risk that kicking long into a highly contested zone.

Teams such as Tyrone and Armagh, who have developed their gameplan starting with a short kick and securing possession, have to adjust their style of play and will be asking serious questions of their midfield sector to see if they are up to the challenge of winning 50/50 balls or winning dirty ball.

Marty O’Rourke and Brian Dooher were past masters of this art. It is not so much a skill, but a commitment to be in the right place at the right time which anyone can learn, but where few excel.

How significant is home advantage? Once upon a time Páirc Esler, Newry was a fortress; not any more.

You can bet your bottom dollar Antrim will travel confident and well prepared. The same can be said for each travelling team.

If Cavan avoids the north’s poorly maintained roads, they might just be set to create the greatest of all shocks with a win over Donegal in MacCumhaill, Ballybofey.

I’d never have made such a prediction 10 years ago.

Will Tyrone make home advantage count in Healy Park, Omagh?

It was once the most feared fortress in Ireland, but has recently become a happy hunting ground for travelling teams, particularly if the ground is soft underfoot.

For me, home advantage is more of a psychological edge than a physical one. When Armagh play Fermanagh, the 18,000 capacity venue in Brewster Park will play host to as many orange flags as green flags. The travelling support will be as vocal and the desire to win just as fervent.

Home advantage is counter-balanced by the pressure to win. Unfortunately, even with the presence of psychologists in the backroom of many teams, the pressure to win is much greater than the fear of failure.

Another pothole may be the over-reliance on one primary scorer.

Take Tyrone, for example. Trillick’s high-scoring forward Lee Brennan has big shoes to fill if he is to take the place of Stephen O’Neill as the Red Hands’ go-to man.

This is Lee’s first year as a regular starter. To be the primary scorer and to thrive in the white heat of Championship football would seem to be a tough ask for one so young.

I’ve played alongside very fine footballers who could kick points for fun in club games and in training matches, but to perform on Championship Sunday takes a special kind of guy, someone with a self-confidence forged from many years of having the answers to the questions others pose.

If Tyrone are to win, Brennan (if fit) must be the guy who provides the icing on the cake rather than the guy who bakes the cake. He is not yet ready to carry that responsibility.

When the world’s media focussed its eyes on the North for the Giro d’Italia in 2014, the proposed route was tarred and well maintained.

In GAA terms, the Championship is each county team’s opportunity to put their best foot forward Let’s hope no pothole has been left unfilled.

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