It struck me while watching the Kerry v Cork game from the terrace in Austin Stack Park recently that there is a huge gulf between the football being played out on the field and the supporters expectations of same.
As Kerry moved sideways and backwards trying to find a gap in the packed Cork defence, the players appeared oblivious to the groans of sheer frustration coming off the terraces. The players were, of course playing the game they saw in front of them but the supporters’ wrath was born of an idealised untenable version of the game of Gaelic football that has all too sadly disappeared into the mists of time.
It was a startling lesson, nonetheless, to hear some of the comments directed at some of the players who, while oblivious to them, were obviously acting on instruction and sticking rigidly to the agreed game plan.
That above all has been the big lesson of this year’s league campaign — football has changed beyond all recognition in such a short space of time and while supporters of the more successful teams under the new world order won’t crib, it might just take the traditionally successful counties a little longer to adjust their expectations.
Other lessons from Allianz National League 2013? The turnover is now as good as a score. Watch the lengths all the successful teams are now going to in order to avoid giving possession away. Donegal showed us last year and the year before that the art of the dispossession followed by counter-attack has been brought to a new level. But what if the opposition who are turned over aren’t set up to concede a score or aren’t as vulnerable to the counter-attack.
Irrespective of what’s being said on the terraces or in the stands, that has become the prevailing trend during the course of this spring. It’s like the Fibonacci sequence of mathematics in reverse whereby football is reduced to a bidirectional sequence of plays with huge numbers at both ends.
Much was made of Kerry’s scoring bankruptcy after going the entire second half of their opening game against Mayo without a score and a further 70 minutes a week later only scoring 0-4. But very little has been said of the fact that of the top 16 teams in the league, only Donegal (4-61 conceded) have conceded as little as Kerry (5-58). For a team supposedly stumbling from one punch to another since early February, Kerry arrive in Omagh tomorrow still standing and getting an awful lot right, defensively at any rate.
Despite all the talk of a gulf in class between Divisions 1 & 2, Tyrone have found the step up to be manageable and only Cork’s win in Omagh to put a halt to a run of eight games without defeat in 2013, offered any glimpses of a chink in their armour.
Aidan Walsh’s performance for Cork that day marked him out as the dominant midfielder of this year’s league and it also highlighted how ineffective Tyrone can be when Seán Cavanagh is eclipsed and when Stephen O’Neill is subdued. That Cork defeat for Tyrone was bookended by two great wins against Donegal and Dublin but as with other years in recent times, Tyrone’s true tests will come later than league football.
What of Kildare, coming as they are on the back of some real excitement midweek after their U21 Leinster Championship victory over Longford? There is no doubt that theirs is the story of genuine potential from spring 2013 but it is amazing how all their frailties got exposed by a horror show from goalkeeper Shane Connolly only a few short weeks ago against Dublin on a day when they couldn’t win a kickout for love nor money.
Such a collapse on one’s own kickout shouldn’t be that much of a pressure point for a team but perhaps it in itself reveals the increased value of a good goalkeeper these days. The latest flame, Tyrone’s Niall Morgan has grabbed the headlines for his scoring prowess this spring (0-11 so far) but Connolly’s showing against Dublin and subsequent removal for other games highlights the premium been placed by managers on a good quarter-back style goalkeeper these days. In that regard Cluxton, Durcan and Kealy are still the brand leaders.
Perennial top scorers Dublin are once again the standard bearers in Division 1 and whether that is because of a new attacking philosophy introduced by Jim Gavin or because the likes of Bernard Brogan and most exciting newcomer, Jack McCaffrey, have been on fire, it looks like Dublin are once again the team to watch come summer.
In Cork’s last All-Ireland winning year it used to be said that Conor Counihan’s biggest dilemma was who to opt for and who to omit from his match-day selections and, whether it’s true or not, the same is now being said of Dublin. It should be fascinating to see how Jim Gavin eases Alan Brogan’s passage into the forward line come summer, if indeed he wishes to do so.
One final observation from the spring shadowboxing relates to the disciplinary side of things. Just a few short years ago having a man sent off was often the catalyst for a stirring comeback despite numerical disadvantage. Nobody could ever quite explain it but it always seemed to be the team the team playing with fourteen men who triumphed. Not so anymore.
From the very first round in Castlebar, we saw how cleverly Mayo squeezed the life out of Kerry after Anthony Maher’s dismissal and there have plenty more examples since. Cork having Damien Cahalane sent off against Kildare and Donegal losing Michael Murphy against Tyrone ended their chances of grabbing the league points because the premium on possession nowadays saw both Kildare and Tyrone stretch the 14 men out to the point of exhaustion. Only Dublin when having to play with 14 after Ger Brennan’s dismissal against Mayo, appear equipped to deal with the issue.
And so, with just four weeks to the start of the championship 2013 in Gaelic Park New York, we await the playing out of the league playbook this weekend. With so much still left to play for, so much to win and so much to lose for so many teams in 2014- we have been spared the annual talk of diminuendos and anti climaxes.
Now, if we could just change our expectations and come to terms with the new ways of playing the game!
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