Time was just about up last Sunday when Justin Tucker sent a 49-yard field goal sailing through the uprights at M&T Bank Stadium to give the Baltimore Ravens a 20-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers. It was a thrilling end to a game that had lived up to its hefty pre-match billing of two teams that could yet have to do it all over again in the Super Bowl come the new year.
“That’s a really damn good football team,” said the 49ers’ right guard Mike Person afterwards. “And I think we’re a really damn good football team as well. Those are the games you play for to see how you stack up against everybody.”
He is right. This was a game between two of the sport’s best. It stood to reason that everyone wanted to see it happen.
That it did is taken for granted now, but if the latest hand-wringing over the GAA’s fixture schedule and the future of the old provincial structure proves one thing, it is the fact that tradition can cling fast in the face of what appears to be common sense and the sort of changes that can deliver the best entertainment.
That Ravens-Niners game would not have happened 50 years ago.
Baltimore play in the AFC North, San Fran in the NFC West, and there was no means by which the best American football teams in both conferences could meet each other outside of the play-offs, or the big one itself, before the old NFL and AFL entities were fully fused in 1970.
Michael McCambridge’s superb treatise on the sport, America’s Game, traces the journey made from a point where it was a poor relation to both baseball and the college football scene to one where it became the behemoth of US sports.
The chapters detailing the rift between the two rival leagues and the eventual thaw are especially good.
The feud between the AFC and NFC was so bitter before they agreed to merge that Tex Schramm, GM of the Dallas Cowboys, used to talk about “the war in the 60s”.
As McCambridge put it in the book, he wasn’t talking about Vietnam. That’s the sort of rhetoric that puts the ‘club v county’ kerfuffle here into some perspective.
The NFL isn’t the only example of how tradition has treated what should be a natural evolution as an enemy at the gate. When Chelsea won the old First Division title in 1955, they were all set to represent Blighty in the inaugural European Cup.
The draw had already paired them with Djurgadens of Sweden when the plug was pulled.
It was the Football League that stepped in. Alan Hardaker, the body’s secretary, was an ardent opponent of the concept and the body’s management committee ultimately voted that Chelsea should withdraw as it was “not in the best interests of the league”.
It would be another 44 years before the club had the chance to play in the competition again.
It took Matt Busby to force the issue. The Manchester United boss saw where the game was going and he embraced the concept of the best teams on the continent facing each other.
History has shown him to be right and there will come a time when GAA fans look back at an All-Ireland system pairing counties on the basis of geography rather than quality as willfully ignorant.
We’re already feeling the winds of change with provincial round robins and Super 8s and we may even see the provinces as we know them scrapped at the next GAA Special Congress after the association’s calendar review task force published its findings earlier this week.
Sport invariably finds its way to a point where the best teams play each other more often rather than less, or not at all.
It’s what players like the 49ers’ Mike Person want. It’s what coaches and supporters want, and it’s what the sponsors and TV people want.
It’s what prompted the advent of domestic leagues, World Cups, and continental competitions. It’s why rugby aped soccer with that same approach. It’s why World Rugby tried to bring in a new global calendar and structure that would see the top nations play each other on a more stratified basis.
This is what happens when sports are run by professionals.
The traditionalists won’t like it when the GAA eventually does follow suit, but it’s as inevitable as water running downhill, or Dublin destroying Wicklow or Longford come late May or early June.
Hurling is lucky that its power bases in Munster and Leinster make for tailor-made hothouses with round robins delivering more games. Football’s situation is trickier, but it will happen.
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