All the trigger words have been out in the last 48 hours.
Dour. Battle. Arm-wrestle. No classic.
The consensus was quick to form and difficult to refute: Dublin-Kerry 2015 wasn’t a patch on Dublin-Kerry 2013, never mind Dublin-Kerry 1977, or any of the other vaunted clashes between the teams.
In the Croke Park lift on Sunday someone said it was an All-Ireland final in keeping with a poor season, and there was little reason to disagree.
It’s curious the way an All-Ireland final can cast a glow backwards through the championship: who now remembers the 2010 hurling season as anything other than a series of steps towards a magnificent final, for instance? Joyce called it the retrospective arrangement, and in that context Sunday’s battle — claustrophobic, bad-humoured and low-scoring — did us all a favour.
It gave an accurate reflection of the preliminary events rather than boosting the reputation of what preceded it.
That was true of the hurling final this year as well. Much was made of the disappearance of Kilkenny supporters while their victorious team was still in the process of completing a lap of honour, but again, that was of a piece with the season that preceded it.
Being honest, we had one very good hurling game in this year’s season — one stone cold, sit up straight in your seat, hang on ‘til the very end encounter that made you forget to breathe while the last desperate plays were made. Tipperary-Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final was a terrific game, but given the low quality that was on offer for much of the year, it now looks like one of the most magnificent sporting occasions of all time.
There were more games in the football championship, and more good games. The Munster football final round one was a very good contest, and Dublin-Mayo round two as good if not better.
After that? Westmeath-Meath? Something that happened in Ulster? One of the cakewalks in Leinster or Connacht? Viewing this year as an aberration is a dangerous position to take. You run the risk of seeing the exceptional years, the stand-out seasons, as the norm rather than as the ‘exceptions’, which is how poor seasons can be depicted.
And a consequence of that danger is a reluctance to ask why the fare was so bad this year and whether it can be improved.
In this observer’s view several interdependent factors combined this year to reduce the entertainment factor. One is the sense that finally the back-door or qualifier system is being recognised as no longer fit for purpose.
Managers have been saying for some years, in those post-match quotes which few people bother to inspect for messages subliminal or otherwise, that with due respect to the early season outings, the real championship begins in August.
This compresses the significant action into a much shorter time frame, but because those games take place later in the year, it lengthens the season considerably for inter-county players in terms of pre-season conditioning around Christmas, the slog of league games in spring, and the practically year-round necessity of piercing abstenences and deprivation.
Your average inter-county player does not arrive in August, as a result, full of the milk of human kindness.
Former Cork boss Conor Counihan touched on this obliquely in a chat some years ago when he pointed out that the amount of time and energy players put into preparation means that when things go wrong, they don’t tend to have a sense of humour.
Hence the savagery of the contest: the sledging, the negativity, the aversion to risk which is marking so many modern games.
If you seek a particular example, pay attention not so much to the McMahon-Donaghy incident in the game last Sunday, but to Galway-Mayo in Connacht and last Sunday’s closing four minutes of action. In both cases so much time was wasted past the 70-minute mark, to the obvious frustration of the losing sides, that indicating the amount of injury time was a wasted exercise.
What’s the answer, then?
The GAA is going to have to pay attention to the structure of the championship again. Having moved at the turn of the millennium to revise the straight knock-out system, it will now have to refine that same system significantly. As it stands the anomalies whereby provincial champions spend weeks without a game in hurling, or wherein Kerry had four weeks inactivity while Dublin were tested by two tough semi-finals are simply the tip of the iceberg; the glory days of Fermanagh and Sligo enjoying leisurely voyages through the qualifiers are now in the past as the stronger counties still cruise to semi-finals and finals.
The disciplinary shambles evidenced by the Diarmuid Connolly case in particular will also have to be addressed. Simply put, any development which undercuts the basic competitiveness of the championships must be resolved because such anomalies compromise the integrity of the competition. The trickle-down effect of undercutting referees hasn’t been quantified yet either, but it soon will be, and not to the GAA’s advantage.
Does that sound a little pious?
If it does, take some baser considerations on board: when the GAA seeks to negotiate its next broadcasting deal — whether that’s with indigenous or satellite organisations — the basic attractiveness of the games is a bigger consideration than one might think.
Grim conflict, sharp practice and snarling intimidation don’t add up to an attractive proposition to commercial partners.
It’s hardly that appealing to participants either.