Pundits should remember winning ugly beats losing a classic

Midway through the first half of Sunday’s All-Ireland final, I felt a tight, heaving sensation in the pit of my stomach.

Pundits should remember winning ugly beats losing a classic

Officially a neutral, I should have been unaffected by the emotion of the occasion. But the tension got to me. The game was so tight, so cagey and so finely balanced, it was impossible to stay at a professional remove.

And I would question how anyone with a beating heart could not have been engrossed by that contest.

Admittedly, the football wasn’t great to watch. But that’s not the point. Sunday’s final was like a high wire act, Donegal at one end, Kerry the other.

Both teams were moving towards each other and there was no safety net. It was a game of nerves. The first team to lose their balance was going to fall, and fall hard.

Donegal wobbled first.

The game was played under those conditions from start to finish. I pitied the fans of both teams.

Rather predictably, the game was condemned by the pundits. Colm O’Rourke said it was “an absolutely absorbing game of bad football”. Joe Brolly went further. Joe said it was “horrific” and “barely watchable”.

But these concerns about the aesthetics of a Gaelic football match are the luxury of the neutral. Pundits can indulge in this type of frivolous discussion.

Nevertheless, it seems to be a particular obsession with Gaelic football commentators.

Soccer is different. The soccer fraternity is much more accepting about the grim realities of their sport. Take this year’s World Cup. Many of the group games were utterly thrilling.

But when it came down the business end of the tournament, the goals dried up. Argentina and the Netherlands played out a goalless semi-final. Argentina won on penalties.

The final between Germany and Argentina was another chess match which failed to produce a goal during normal time. The winner didn’t arrive until the 113th minute.

Yet, contrast the reaction to the World Cup final with Sunday’s game in Croke Park. In soccer, they realise the best managers and the best teams will find ways to cancel each other out. When these games unfold, which they often do, it doesn’t generate the festival of hand-wringing which occurs after GAA games.

This preoccupation with the entertainment value of a Gaelic football games is difficult to fathom. Pat Spillane, Colm O’Rourke and Joe Brolly have spent their lives around GAA changing rooms. They know what the game is about. They have been reared in it. So picture this scene. It’s the early ’90s. Lavey and Dungiven are meeting in the Derry Championship. Dungiven have Kieran McKeever, Brian McGilligan and Brolly. Lavey have the Downeys and the McGurks. It’s war without guns.

Before the game the Dungiven manager moves to the centre of the room. Fifteen North Derry men hang on his every word.

“Never worry about the result lads,” he tells them. “There is a big crowd out there and they’ve all paid money to watch you so go out there and dazzle them with your skills — because that’s what Gaelic football is all about.”

That’s right. That team talk has never been given — and for as long as Benbradagh towers over Dungiven, it won’t be.

Moving to Meath, in his 20-year career with the Royal County did Colm O’Rourke ever hear Mick Lyons and Liam Harnan being reminded about their responsibility to put on a good show for the fans?

Of course, he didn’t.

Yet why are we subjected to this incessant debate about niceties of the game? Like all elite sport, be it amateur or professional, Gaelic football is about winning. You can agree or disagree with that philosophy, but that’s just the way it is.

And that’s the way it has always been.

In the past, Kerry have been both innocent and arrogant. Too often, they believed their skill and talent would prevail. They lost several All-Ireland finals which they should have won. They were victims of their own hubris.

During those years Eamonn Fitzmaurice watched, suffered and learned. Fitzmaurice is a dead-eyed pragmatist. He doesn’t do romance. He has no interest in tradition. His only concern is winning.

On Sunday, Kerry made no pretence at trying to uphold the grand traditions of the Kingdom. Kerry mirrored Donegal’s system. It was like an Ulster Championship match.

Aidan O’Mahony pushed and shoved Michael Murphy continuously. It was in-your-face, undiluted aggression. This was Kerry raw and unvarnished.

In the first half, the free count was 10 to 1 in Donegal’s favour. The referee wasn’t biased. Kerry were just committing more fouls — maybe not 10 times as many but it was in that ballpark.

However, and this is the point that needs to be stressed: no-one should begrudge Kerry victory. They were the fully deserving winners. With the exception of Pat Spillane, the overwhelming majority of Kerry men would freely acknowledge Kerry beat Donegal at their own game. But the victory has come at a slight cost.

Fitzmaurice has stripped away all pretence. Kerry can no longer claim to be the custodians of catch-and-kick. Those days are gone.

No doubt Kerry will be able to live with that inconvenience. They have a 37th All-Ireland crown to comfort them. Winning ugly beats losing a classic.

If Kerry had played like Dublin, they would have been destroyed by Donegal’s counter-attacking game and Eamonn Fitzmaurice would have been branded a clueless fool who was tactically outwitted by Jim McGuinness.

Fitzmaurice was too smart. When given room to manoeuvre by Jim Gavin and James Horan, Donegal and Kerry were able to cut loose. When Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Jim McGuinness came up against each other, they reduced the margin for error to millimetres.

In a game where winning is the only thing that counts, they devised plans which produced a cold, sterile contest. It happens. And it was always going to happen. Kerry would have been naive if they had done it any differently.

Pundits are selfish. They just want to be entertained.

But managers like Eamon Fitzmaurice are equally selfish. They just want to win.

And winning, as Colm and Joe well know, brings its own entertainment.

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