Whisper it but maybe Gaelic football has cured itself

I must say I really enjoyed it. I mean, I had my doubts about the standard of play initially, and unfortunately there are always going to be mismatches in the early stages.

Whisper it but maybe Gaelic football has cured itself

I must say I really enjoyed it. I mean, I had my doubts about the standard of play initially, and unfortunately there are always going to be mismatches in the early stages.

But it’s been very entertaining and, importantly, we’ve been able to enjoy the matches on their own merits without constantly debating the wider context of the game’s development.

The Women’s World Cup? No, I’m talking about the All-Ireland football championship! Hah! See what I did there?! Anyway…

Look, keep this to yourself, OK? Whisper it, but this football championship has been pretty good so far. Like, actually entertaining. And not just in the way that watching two fellas rammying outside a chipper at 3am can be entertaining.

The football has been good, there have been plotlines aplenty, and the business end of the championship is jam-packed with intrigue.

Not bad for a sport which was pronounced clinically dead sometime in last decade. In the words of legendary darts commentator Sid Waddell, it’s the greatest comeback since Lazarus.

Ah, but the football championship only starts at the quarter-final stage — so sayeth the wisdom of the GAA greybeards, handed down through the generations since, well, 2001.

True — what happens in the next seven weeks will determine the rude health or otherwise of the cadaverous old game. But there have been, like, 55 matches so far this summer already, so, you know, it’s something to be getting on with.

Case in point: The Ulster Championship. What madness was afoot up there?

A competition which usually exhibits as much flair as the Armenian Greco-Roman Wrestling Championship was suddenly alive with colour and excitement. The final was arguably a disappointment, but even that returned the highest scoring total of any Ulster decider since 1933.

You had the march of the Rossies in Connacht, a giddy gallop which may or may not end in its usual fashion (abject disaster). Cavan reaching an Ulster final for the first time since 2001 brought a rich historical heft to the narrative of that championship. Cork’s return to respectability meant the Munster final turned out — whoda thunk it? — the best of the bunch. Limerick won a match!

Yes, a cloud of despond remains over Leinster, but that will take many boring arguments about games development funding to sort out, which thankfully we don’t have time for here.

The qualifiers were good fun. In an unlikely turn of events Armagh turned into the great entertainers. Rian O’Neill and Jamie Clarke played with gay abandon; Kieran McGeeney almost cracked a smile. Clare continued their role as the hard-working kid who always has his study done but falls just short of the points for medicine.

Offaly won two matches! Tyrone bounced back in the qualifiers in that way they always do, which is basically a Rocky montage where the hero beats up on meat carcasses while plotting redemption in the final act.

Of course, any prevailing good vibes are in large part down to the continuing participation of Mayo in the whole gig. Mayo are the good-time party guy who everybody loves to have around until they leave and no one has anything to say to each other and everyone is staring intently at their taxi app.

Their presence in the Super 8 has, as Kieran Shannon wrote on these pages yesterday, made the quarter-final group stage feel like “fantasy football made real”.

The makeweights in the Super 8 are Cork and Meath. Cork and Meath! For those of us of a certain age — you know, the people who thought the line-up at the Forever Young Festival was edgy — Cork and Meath will always be swaggering warlords of the championship battlefield.

That might sound nostalgic, but then thousands of people paid to watch Level 42 in a field last weekend, so what do you know?

But all this is circumstantial evidence, m’lud. You get stories and plotlines every year. What has really sparked hopes of a Jon Snow-style implausible resurrection is that the football has been good. There has been kicking. There has been catching. There have been scores. There have been goals.

There has been an undeniable sense that the great tactical eclipse, which had blotted out the sun across GAA-land, is passing, and rays of sunlight have begun to break through.

At times like this, one must always turn to the man above. I mean Michael Murphy, of course.

The Donegal captain talked to Off The Ball this week about trends in tactics and player development.

Thus spake the Great One: “Teams are moving towards more of a game where they need to get scores on the board, and I think they are trying to evolve their gameplans from real, bodies-behind-the-ball defensive structures to more of an attacking structure. With that, players need to become more skilful and rounded as footballers.”

Amen to that. Could it be, for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about Gaelic football’s imminent demise, that the game has cured itself? Is this a natural tactical evolution, inspired by Dublin’s dominance and the realisation, as Murphy hints at, that you will actually need to get a few scores to beat these lads?

Have all the review committees into saving football been wasting their time?

This championship has included none of the rule tinkerings trialled in the Allianz League, yet we are left with eight remaining teams, none of whom are out-and-out ‘black death’ defensive merchants.

Some — Kerry, Cork, Mayo — are avowed attacking zealots, others mix their game up with deep defences breaking into lethal counterattacks. Dublin, we know, can beat you any which way.

In general, the top teams are pragmatic, able to change styles as the need arises,mixing high presses and low blocks and kickout strategies in a great tactical stir fry.

Hey, this could all go pear-shaped in the next few weeks. Maybe Kerry and Mayo will finish 0-5 to 0-4, Dublin will hammer everybody, and Tyrone will be the first team to have 15 players black-carded.

But right now — say it very quietly — for the first time in a long time, Gaelic football feels like it might be heading into a good place.

But that’s just between you and me, right?

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