We are just after the first rest day in this year’s Tour de France and I was glad of the break.
I’ve been going flat-out since the first stage. It’s been a pretty punishing schedule, trying to catch some live action whenever possible, while tuning in for the daily hour-long highlights show on ITV4.
When not watching cyclists, I’m usually reading about them. Since ‘Le Tour’ started I’ve made my way through David Millar’s Racing Through the Dark (excellent), Laurent Fignon’s We Were Young and Carefree (even better), and Graeme Obree’s The Flying Scotsman (the best so far).
Richard Moore’s award-winning biography In Search of Robert Millar is next on the list (thank God for Amazon).
Readers who might think I’m a cycling fanatic shouldn’t be misled. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve only a very casual interest in the sport. However, cyclists, and the books about them, are utterly engrossing. Driven, self-obsessed, slightly manic, and often extremely complex, they make fascinating case studies.
The story of their lives, combined with the politics of the peloton, the hidden world of drug-taking, and the in-house team squabbles provide page-turning narratives. The central characters, the cyclists, are often intelligent men who have many informed and interesting ideas about their sport.
The late Laurent Fignon had a theory which has particular resonance with Gaelic football.
As one of only four riders to have won the Tour de France at his first attempt, the 22-year-old Fignon was the real deal. ‘The Professor’ had few doubts about his own abilities. Fignon believed that if the race was long enough and tough enough, then he could beat anyone, regardless of what drug they were taking.
On the very hardest races, Fignon argued that ‘natural selection’ would identify the riders with the legs and lungs of real champions. He remained convinced that true stamina and mental strength would prevail if the test pushed everyone to their limits. Ultimately, Fignon’s main complaint was that doping and shorter races were enabling merely good cyclists to compete with those of exceptional ability.
A similar phenomenon is happening in Gaelic football. For ‘doping’ read blanket defences.
The formula is simple. It only requires a smart manager and a bunch of players who are willing to do what they are told. If they subject themselves to a well-designed training programme and learn how to defend in numbers, then they will be a match for anyone. The evidence is indisputable. Consider some of last weekend’s games. After 37 minutes of action, Division Four side Leitrim were beating Down, last year’s All-Ireland finalists, 1-6 to 1-5.
At half-time in Pearse Park, Division Four Longford were beating Tyrone. In Sunday’s Leinster final, Division Three Wexford stayed within touching distance of Dublin the entire game.
Supporters from weaker counties will argue that they’re only copying the successful teams. This is true. And it is elitist, unfair, and plain stupid to criticise any county for employing a system that is extremely successful.
But Gaelic football is being spoiled by negative tactics and the GAA must introduce changes which will reward the teams with the most skilful, talented players.
Fignon’s ‘natural selection’ would provide a ready-made solution. Increasing the duration of inter-county games to 80 minutes could have a significant impact on some of the spectacles that are being inflicted upon us during the summer. Nowadays the cream only rises to the top when footballers start to get tired, and that doesn’t happen until the second half.
Consequently the first half of many Championship games is a non-event. In the scenario of Sunday’s Leinster final where two teams were defending in numbers, it’s virtually guaranteed that nothing will happen until energy levels start to fade. Executing the blanket defence requires massive levels of fitness and most teams can stick to the script for 35 minutes. But when fatigue sets in, spaces open up, and poorer players will always make more mistakes than their more gifted counterparts. This is when games get exciting, and the scores start to flow. Teams only abandon containment systems after they fall four or five points in arrears.
It is only at this juncture that the game develops the ebb and flow that creates genuine drama. But all too often it can take 50 to 55 minutes before even a very limited team starts to crack.
This largely explains the widespread popularity of the blanket defence. It allows donkeys to compete with thoroughbreds. And if a team gets a few breaks and a few dodgy decisions, they can cause major upsets.
Hence the proliferation of assembly line footballers, constructed to hassle, harry, and handpass, but totally bereft of any shred of individuality. Yet, like most mass-produced products, these players look like the real deal when they’re fresh and shiny and new. Their limitations and flaws only surface when they are put to the test.
The problem with Gaelic football is that 70 minutes is no longer a rigorous enough examination for our large numbers of manufactured players. A sterner, more prolonged examination is required. It is under these conditions that accomplished footballers can demonstrate a proficiency that has been nurtured rather than engineered.
Changes must be forthcoming. If not, it’s only a matter of time before a well-schooled donkey wins one of our classics — and some would say we’re already too late on that front.
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