Taking stock of football's stars and gripes

Taking stock of football's stars and gripes

As is customary there will be plenty of debate about the All-Star football team announced in Dublin tonight. To be fair to the All-Star selectors, it is an onerous task to pick the fifteen best players and it is made more difficult now with the additional championship games during the Super 8 series.

It keeps a much larger cohort of players in the shop window for much longer. This is obviously hugely positive - just not when you are picking the All-Star team.

The selectors got a lot of the team spot on, with maybe question marks over two selections at most. The annual anomalies presented themselves with players being moved around in an attempt to accommodate the best. For example, there are five full-forward line players in the attack and even the sixth, Seán O'Shea, spent spells at full forward.

The only real issue I would have with the selection is different standards being applied to different players. Take Stephen O'Brien’s case for example. He was probably Kerry’s player of the year the morning of the drawn All-Ireland final. He had been consistently brilliant throughout the league and championship until that point. Two effective but less headline-grabbing performances in the final and replay and he isn’t selected.

Yet Michael Murphy, who didn’t emerge from his Super 8 group, is awarded one at 12. Murphy too had an outstanding, if shorter championship and avoiding playing against Dublin and not getting to the All-Ireland final appears to have served him well.

There can be no arguments with Stephen Cluxton between the posts or with the midfield pairing of David Moran and Brian Fenton even if the latter suffered a late season dip in form. The fact he was on the winning side probably tilted it in his favour over, say, Murphy to midfield and O'Brien at 12.

At the back I understand why Brian Howard is accommodated in the half back line. While he did spend some time playing there, both as an auxiliary defender and as a wing-back in the drawn final after the sending off, he definitely played his best football further up the field.

Paul Murphy, David Byrne and Tadgh Morley must have had strong cases for inclusion but I feel the most glaring omission is Colm Boyle. He was immense for Mayo in the championship, particularly in the games they struggled in as he continuously took the fight to the opposition. Ronan McNamee had a strong season but the call between himself and Boyle must have been marginal.

Away from the glitz and glamour of All-Stars, some sweeping changes have been introduced recently and they too have generated a lot of debate. I’m an optimist and always feel that it is worth trying different approaches to improve our game. I don’t agree with change for change sake though. In the last couple of years, there's been a lot of change.

Maybe it is time now to allow the changes have an establishment phase, allow them bed in and judge them then. Each passing year the Super 8 model is improving with slight adjustments and we are getting closer to what we want. Teams of an equal standard playing big games against each other at the height of the summer, with the provincial venues also getting an opportunity to host the biggest and best.

As an aside - and while we are discussing change - I do feel that referees are being asked to do too much. I have long advocated the introduction of a second referee at inter-county level. If this is not an option at least take time management away from them and give them one less thing to administer.

With regard to the Tier 2 championship, we had long since passed the point where something had to be done. As the provincial championships are viewed as sacred cows and deemed untouchable this system is probably the best way to go about it. It is linked to League position and each county still gets an opportunity to compete in the provincial championship and if successful there can join the pursuit for Sam Maguire.

Clearly a large proportion of the participating counties in the All Ireland race have zero chance of winning it. Rather than getting two beatings from higher-ranked counties and their season ending in early June, they are now getting an opportunity to compete against teams at their own level and crucially, win a competition.

The level of commitment across all four divisions is phenomenal and it is success and the prospect of success that sustains this. At least that is the way I always viewed it anyway. This is why many of the lower-ranked teams defined the success of their season based on the league rather than the championship. This can change now.

There has been much talk about enticements for the Tier 2 competition. Their own All-Star team, team holidays and increased media exposure. While each of these elements are important, the most important element for it to be successful is the buy-in of the participating players and counties.

There will now be a huge chance to win silverware while representing your county. It is extremely hard for any county to get their hands on some tin at any time but particularly so at the moment with the blue monster at large in the capital. An extra shot at winning a medal with your team-mates should be a huge motivation in the Tier 2 competition. It can also be a stepping stone to bigger and better things as it keeps the group together for longer, building experience and spirit for the following season. In short, it is a pathway to the development of the team.

When I started playing senior football with Finuge we were a Novice club in Kerry, the equivalent of a Junior B in most other counties. Over the following 20 years we won championships at our grade all the way up and by the time I wrapped up when asked to take over Kerry, we were a senior club. We enjoyed every one of those championship successes and were lucky enough to have an opportunity to compete in and win a Junior All-Ireland club.

Did it bother us that we weren’t playing Dr Crokes and competing for the Bishop Moynihan Cup? No. We were competing against teams at our level and we were improving all the time. By the end we were ready to compete at the top level but not at the start.

If viewed positively, this Tier 2 championship can give lower-ranked counties a new lease of life and extend their summers. The format proposed is straight knockout but I do feel an opportunity was missed as it would have been great to have seen the Super 8 model applied to the Tier 2 championship as well.

Of the three playing rule changes the offensive mark and the sin-bin are the two changes that have provoked most discourse. Again much of the debate has been of the glass-half-empty variety. It would seem that many feel that the offensive mark is going to slow the game down. I disagree. When a mark is won it doesn’t have to be taken and it doesn’t take that long to take a free.

I felt during the league when it was trialled that it added a bit of drama when a player who doesn’t normally take frees won a mark and had to size up the posts. Many players can be extremely accurate in open play when playing on instinct but when they have time to think about it when taking a free, the results can be interesting at times. The other point is that if it encourages teams to kick more ball inside and it reduces the ad nauseam recycling of possession further out the field this can only be a good thing.

The black card was effective in certain ways. One of the big things it removed or at least significantly reduced, was off-the-ball checking, a blight by the time it was introduced.

However, teams and managements are now adept at dealing with black cards and it doesn’t really punish a team anymore, just the individual. A sin bin can be much more penal. This has been evident in the Rugby World Cup. I don’t buy into the theory that the team that has a player in the sin bin will try and slow the game down and eat up the ten minutes until they are back up their full complement. It is up to the team with the numerical advantage to push up and play the game on their terms and capitalise. This will be an interesting coaching challenge for teams up and down the country.

The most unheralded but possibly most interesting rule change of the three is that all kickouts will now be taken from the 20m line. We witnessed plenty of teams in this year's championship employing aggressive kickout presses to try and hem the opposition in.

Those extra seven metres can make all the difference to a goalkeeper who can now kick over the press and set up a dangerous attacking opportunity at the other end. This rule change will force a rethink against certain goalkeepers such as Shaun Patton, Niall Morgan and Rory Beggan who all possess a long, booming, kick out over the top. The aggressive press on opposition kickouts may not be as rewarding as it has been.

It may well be that these changes might, at best, prove ineffective or, at worst, diminish our game as a spectacle. If so, it is easy to change back.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained though.

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