BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Football’s structure, not systems, needs a refit

You know something isn’t quite right when a Dublin great is sitting across the table and expressing the hope that his boys will be put to the pin of their collar on Sunday.

“It’s hard to look beyond a Dublin win if you look at the form-line of both teams,” Alan Brogan told us on Wednesday. “But this Tyrone team probably is the team that’s best set up with the personnel they have to try and challenge Dublin. As a football fan, I hope it’s a close game and Dublin sneak it by a couple of points.”

Think about it: were there any Limerick or Galway legends praying for a close encounter last month when those two met in the hurling decider?

Like hell, there was. No-one in either county cared a fig for entertainment values, or the merits of that final as a contest. Or how the game would colour the summer just gone.

Football’s big day is captured in a very different framework. It may be otherwise in Tyrone but the capital has been awash with tickets this week.

Hardy perennials have been taken aback by the ease with which access to Croke Park has been secured and the mood nationwide, as captured by Brogan, is one of resignation mixed with a weak drop of hope that the game can at least offer some suspense.

Dublin are six-point favourites this weekend and it just so happens that, should they come through with that half-dozen points to spare, it will bring the average winning margin for the entire championship up to 8.34 points per game. Why is this worth mentioning? Because the previous high in modern times, set in 2015, was 8.31.

That may or may not be an all-time record, by the way. We can’t be sure as the legwork in calculating the last decade alone was onerous in itself.

Some years have been more competitive than others — 2016, with an average of 6.18, take a bow — but the jagged progress, like the serrated edge of a saw, continues to point inexorably upwards.

We’ll not disappear too deep down the rabbit hole but some stats stand out clear as day.

The average winning margin in a championship football game in 1998, for example, was just 4.33. Ten years later, when Tyrone won the third of their three All-Ireland titles, it was 5.55. Other numbers only deepen the sense of crisis. Less than 10% of games in ‘98 were decided by double-digits. In 2008 that figure was closer to 20%. This year? It’s 41.79%.

The scoreboard in Pearse Stadium after Galway’s win over Sligo in the Connacht Championship
The scoreboard in Pearse Stadium after Galway’s win over Sligo in the Connacht Championship

Let’s allow that last one to sink in: one team couldn’t get within at least 10 points of an opponent in two out of every five championship games played this season. Plenty of counties have been brushed aside by eight or nine points. Some have shipped 20-something and even 30-something-point beatings.

People can bemoan the proliferation of defensive blankets and a safety-first culture among coaches but the fact is that scores per game have been climbing northwards at an impressive pace. Twenty years ago, your average championship football game would cough up just under 29 points. It stands closer to 39 now.

Players are fitter these days. And, largely, better. If foot-passing is a dying art then the elite footballers are much better equipped in most of the other duties expected of them.

It stands to reason then that the gaps between the haves and have-nots should widen and, while some tweaks to the rulebook would be welcome to improve the game’s aesthetics, it is the All-Ireland structure that needs a complete refit. The league, after all, has been motoring along impressively for years by pairing off competitors with similar-sized engines.

It’s also why hurling had us so rapt this year.

Dublin’s hegemony has prevented anything similar taking hold in the football championship but the result this weekend, whether expected or not, shouldn’t shield us from the fact that, for the game to prosper as a whole, for it to shed the self-loathing and dispense with the inferiority complex, Gaelic football has to put on its best face.

The counter-arguments are both obvious and understandable. Carlow’s defeat of Kildare, and Fermanagh’s late snatch-and-grab win against Monaghan, would be paraded as examples of what would be lost.

Picket lines would be manned around the provincial championships. No-one believes change would be easy but it is clearly needed in a competition that is increasingly devoid of competitiveness.


Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien

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