The return of Gaelic games at the top level over the last two weekends has been a welcome reinforcement for the many people who are invested in the sports at all levels.

While the bizarrely delayed resumption of club activity finally lifted our collective mood, the county game offers another dimension of debate, emotion and aspiration – even if it is only on TV for now.

The journey to this point, however, has created a difficult situation for the teams that we are going to hold to the very highest standards over the next couple of months.

With so little collective time together ahead of the 2021 Allianz Football League, we should expect very little beyond what we already know in the short term.

Coaching in the Dark

The lack of preparation time will have been debilitating for coaching teams with anything approaching ambitious plans for fundamental changes to their team's style of play.

There are many ways to coach, of course, and the lockdown periods have empowered coaches at all levels to innovate like never before. Through necessity, squads at county level will have utilised digital platforms to analyse performances gone and look at modelling for new variations ahead.

In every walk of life, people learn most effectively through one of four mediums: visually, aurally, through reading/writing and 'hands on' or kinaesthetic learners. The prohibition on group training until a month ago means that the impact on visual learning through software will have been maxed out.

Diligent coaching teams will have set out the evolution of their game plan over winter months and built a foundational understanding with players through these platforms. All of that is little more than preparation work though as the most meaningful form of coaching – by far – is 'hands on'.

Therein lies the coaching problem facing all teams in advance of the new season.

Inter-county training resumed a month ago

Four weeks is not sufficient time to build and test any game plan developments that could be considered road worthy ahead of the start of the season.

The theory and in-house practice might offer positive signs but until a defensive plan is tested against some of the best attacks in the country or new attacking patterns trialled against battle-hardened defences, you cannot move on.

With the best will in the world, in the overwhelming majority of counties, practicing against your back-up group will not offer the learnings required to continue improvement.

Battle Readiness

The unavoidable conclusion ahead of the resumption of competitive games is that counties with the most established systems of play, coaching input and playing personnel will start on the front foot. It will be a significant challenge for teams seriously changing any of those three elements.

Coaching, like playing the game, works most effectively through trial and error. Offensive patterns, defensive habits and the chemistry of teamwork only approach high performance levels after coming through serious stress testing.

In most cases, the experience of failure before adjustment is the most important element of getting things right. There will be very little room for that in 2021.

In addition, squads with the deepest pool of quality are at a significant advantage in terms of preparation. In the absence of external opponents, everyone is foraging away in their own environment and the level of competition and intensity each can create is directly related to the readiness for battle the first 15 will possess this weekend.

There is no question that the All-Ireland champions’ normal advantage in this area is further enhanced this time around.

Championship Focus

Processing all of that makes the league a really difficult prospect for everyone in terms of how to get the most benefit from it. Outside of the top flight, for many teams the Allianz Football League has been the most rewarding competition of their season. It provided seven competitive but winnable games and the most realistic trophy prospect.

With the curtailed programme it is no longer a competition that teams can prioritise, even if progress can be achieved for 2022. The focus for this year will largely be on championship performances.

Looking in particular at Division 1, each team faces a unique set of challenges to use their league games to fine tune for the championship while still doing enough to stay in the division.

Fresh Faces

Both promoted teams are well established at this stage and in both cases may actually have more quality player options this season than last.

However, there are prominent new coaches in both the Roscommon and Armagh camps who will be keen to stamp their identity on how the team plays football. The most prudent approach might be to tweak as they go as opposed to undertaking any major surgery ahead of a Division 1 campaign that will examine every fault-line forensically.

Kieran Donaghy is involved in Armagh backroom team this year

Monaghan’s problems run a little deeper in that they have no real form lines to build off. Despite managing to stay in the top division last year, an early championship exit to Cavan – facilitating the latter’s provincial title run – will have burned.

The Farney men cannot hope to keep doing what they are doing and expect to progress and the arrival of Donie Buckley means they have nothing to lose from rolling the dice and trying to develop their style of play.

Galway, too, are in a position where they need the spark of something different to push on. The conclusion of last year’s league campaign dulled all of the pre-Covid positivity, before they drifted out of the championship too. Quite how that can be achieved in this preparation window, I’m not sure.

Ghosts of 2020

Tyrone are in a unique position amongst the top tier teams given that they are under new management. There is no alternative for their coaching team but to forge ahead with building their own machine throughout this league campaign.

Although Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan are new to their roles, one immediate positive is that there will be very little Tyrone’s coaches won’t have known about the playing personnel in the squad.

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Saturday evening in Omagh promises to be a fascinating contest. The new Red Hand model will be unveiled but we will also see the results of Declan Bonner and Stephen’s Rochford’s winter of soul searching.

There is no logic to Donegal’s Ulster final performance last year and the hard answers are psychological.

Donegal have a hugely talented panel of players but the evidence of the last two championships – with Castlebar and the Athletic Grounds prominent – is that they are too brittle mentally to dig results out when momentum goes against them in knock out football.

That will be an uncomfortable truth they will have realised if they have looked inward since the 2020 Ulster final. The players will also know they can’t provide a response until they are back in the hole again later in the summer.

Where are Kerry?

Kerry’s planning for the 2021 season will have been interesting given the bizarre nature of their transition over the truncated 2020 season. Peter Keane invested the remainder of the league after lock-down in honing an approach without the ball that amounted to a mass of bodies inside their own half.

The result – by accident we can only assume – was a hesitant and laboured attack transition that betrayed the values of how we expect Kerry play the game.

The Kingdom now find themselves at the first of what may be only three competitive games to right the mistakes of last year ahead of the championship. Despite possessing some of the most potent attacking weapons in the country, Kerry come into this season with no shape to how they play with or without the ball.

David Clifford following the shock defeat to Cork last year

Assuming the coaching team have settled on what they see as the best approach for the players they have, the league will very much be a testing ground.

Based on individual personnel, Kerry represent the most obvious threat to Dublin at the outset of the season but that potential will only begin to be realised if they can forge a game plan through the league that can give them a platform to take the champions on at the end of the summer.

The Old Guard

As ever, the beneficiaries of any state of flux are the establishment. Against a backdrop of teams searching for fluidity in their play against the clock and trawling for personnel that might make an impact, Dublin can rest against the platform they have built over many years.

The perpetual champions do not require revolution in any facet of what they do. Their team is established and the competition within their panel will produce a natural selection process that will organically replace anyone whose standards have dropped.

The challenge for Dublin’s coaching staff is simply to keep the team moving forward within the same parameters of the last two years and to little more than refine how they play.

As was the case in 2020, if Dublin are exactly where they were last year in terms of performance standards when the key games come around in 2021, then they will likely win the All-Ireland title again.

The pandemic has robbed teams now of two years of development and closing the gap to what is an exceptional benchmark will be a herculean task under the current circumstances.

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