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The four types of players hitting the pitch for pre-season, from blushing debutants to eternal panellists

At this time of year, managers’ team-sheet selections are only thing we’re going to learn about them

When it comes to the GAA’s pre-season competitions, which kicked off in earnest on Wednesday night, the focus is inevitably on the managers – on Jim McGuinness and Mickey Harte’s opening games in charge, on a new Clare manager for the first time in a decade. For all that these managers are eager to get a good start, they know it’s worth little more than a couple of hours of positive press. The real tests lie further down the road.

But for some players, the next two weeks might be as good as it gets. We are inclined to bury the lede a little at this time of year. The only thing we’re really going to learn about new managers at this time of year is through their selections. And the names on those team-sheets can be broadly divided into four distinct categories.

1. The blushing debutant

These are the obvious scene-stealers in team line-ups at this time of year. A star on the county minor team from two years ago gets fast-tracked into the team so we can all have a look and see if he has the stuff. A tally of 1-3 for one of these lads in an O’Byrne Cup game and that will be enough for those crazed enough to have been present at the game to insist once a week throughout the summer that “this lad deserves a chance – we should be throwing him in, he’s got the stuff.”

There is no judgment more eagerly passed on than an opinion formed while you were also simultaneously burnishing your impeccable credentials as a dyed-in-the-wool supporter. The fact that fewer than 300 other people were present as you formed this opinion automatically gives it far greater weight than it actually deserves.

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But these are big nights for young fellas like this. Many players in this age bracket will be balancing Sigerson Cup or Fitzgibbon Cup responsibilities as well, but nothing that happens in the early rounds of the third-level competitions has anything like the impact of a few scores kicked in the county jersey – no matter who the opposition, or what the competition.

2. The eternal panellist

For all the second chances that a young debutant gets from fans, the opposite is often true of the four- or five-year veteran on a county panel who still hasn’t nailed down a starting position… or even a guaranteed spot on the bench. There comes a time in every footballer’s career when they have to shoot the dog or buy the licence, in that delightfully blood-stained phrase.

Oftentimes a good display in the O’Byrne Cup will almost be held against a player in this bracket – it’s nearly seen as an indication that this is his level. “1-3? That’s the least that lad should be hitting if he has any interest in making something of himself this year.” This is the most thankless position of all. You’re damned if you do, and you’re most certainly damned if you don’t.

But who wants to be known as a great man in the FBD league? We all have names in our heads of fellas like that. After a while, it’s a competition you want to be able to skip. And worst of all – their two appearances in the FBD League might be the only football they play all year. For those stuck in that loop, it can be difficult to break the cycle.

3. The established name

This lad might only be here because it beats the hell out of training. But seeing Sean O’Shea’s name on the bench Kerry named yesterday was still a shock. It’s quite mad that he would be sharing a dressing-room with people for whom their match against Tipperary last night might be the biggest day of their entire football career.

4. The punishment selection

This is often the hardest name on a team-sheet to categorise. But intercounty managers have to listen to a lot of guff over the course of a winter. Since their last competitive game in charge, a whole season of club championship games at junior, intermediate and senior will have been played.

He may have attended a lot of these games, and he will have been presented with a lot of names that he “has to” bring into his county set-up. Many of these names should be ignored, and will be ignored. But there might also be one or two names that stick around a little longer in the public consciousness, one or two names that will be thrown back in the manager’s face if he doesn’t have a look at them.

So oftentimes a manager will pick a man he’s far from sure about, leave him on for 60 minutes even if he’s getting a roasting, particularly if he’s getting a roasting in fact, and that will be that for another year. The public chatter will cease. For such things, even the McGrath Cup has its uses.

In some kind of psychotic break at this time last year, I ended up in Baltinglass watching Dublin/Wicklow in the O’Byrne Cup. Dublin had an almost entirely unfamiliar team out, but the best player on the field was Colm Basquel, who ended the year with an All-Star and an All-Ireland medal. If you donned your county jersey last night, there’s an upbeat way to start 2024.