THESE are interesting and enlightening times for serious students of modern day midfield play.
Up until Tyrone changed our views on how to win a game of football by taking two All-Ireland finals against Kerry in 2005 and again in 2008 without actually winning the midfield battle, it was generally accepted that you had to dominate the aerial battles in the middle of the park to win a game of Gaelic football.
Managers and tacticians the country over have had the last few years to familiarise themselves with the art of winning games by living on scraps around midfield, and while some have floundered, others have got as much lemonade as they could have from the lemons available to them.
Maximising the ball-winning potential around midfield will be Kerry’s chief concern over the next few weeks as they get used to life without their most aggressive scavengers. A clever use of substitutes and an ability to navigate their way around the chaos has gotten Kerry through the midfield mess up to now, but one wonders how far they can get without a credible traditional midfield pairing. It has certainly been a costly campaign in Munster this year and one is reminded when considering Kerry’s plight this past week of the immortal words of King Pyrrhus of Epirus on defeating the Romans at Asculum – one more such victory and we are lost! Still, Mícheál Quirke’s and David Moran’s form when introduced at midfield showed that even the most irresistible of tides can be turned and teams don’t always have to dominate at numbers 8 & 9 to win games.
Conversely, over in Connacht a day earlier, the foundation stone for Sligo’s win with three late points against Galway was built on some fine catches by Eugene Mullen at 8 and some stubborn persistence from Stephen Gilmartin at 9. While many in the terraces in Fitzgerald Stadium still lament the departure of Darragh O Sé, perhaps no other county in the last decade has had cause to lament their own gods in exile as Galway have. Not since the current Sligo manager, Kevin Walsh, left the scene seven years ago, have Galway had a stable midfield and maybe, they, above all others are a shining example of the primacy of a decent midfield duo.
Which brings us to the scrap for possession at tomorrow’s Leinster final in Croke Park. Rarely has the analysis in the build up to a Leinster final been dominated by debate around the midfield axis of the underdog. Such has been the form of Paddy Keenan and Brian White in the games against Longford, Kildare and Westmeath that the Taoiseach and Tánaiste of Louth football are being heralded as the best midfield pairing left in Championship 2010. This in itself brings pressure on the duo to produce the goods for their team tomorrow. Having watched Paddy Keenan for a number of years, I don’t doubt he is well capable of performing in a Leinster final and indeed beyond, but while his younger partner has held his own in Keenan’s absence during the league, White is going to have to add substance to his undoubted style if he wants to impose himself on a Leinster final.
Even with their captain Nigel Crawford returning for duty tomorrow, Meath are going to have to find a way of getting a better return than they have been from both their own and from opposition kick-outs. Their five goals against a ragged Dublin two weeks ago have papered over some worrying cracks in the area. Winning about 33% of kick-outs is something not even Kerry or Tyrone with their hoovering ability could countenance, and players either side of midfield for Meath are going to have to roll up their sleeves. Seamus Kenny has been winning his fair share of loose ball in the games up to now against Offaly, Laois and Dublin but if the other five players under the midfield canopy don’t compete for the breaks, even the most decent forwards will look ordinary on rationed possession. If John O’Brien plays wing back as he did the last day despite being named in the corner, Kenny will have his work cut out in winning the same possession from breaks.
In previous years, Meath’s tendency to kick long, fast and often was something to lay a course by but recent matches has seen them adopt a more measured approach to their kicking into the forwards, even if they still place a higher premium on the foot pass than most other counties playing the game now. While Louth full back, Dessie Finnegan looked solid against Westmeath two weeks ago (until Martin Flanagan came on and ruffled him) facing down Shane O’Rourke, with his tail up after an uninterrupted campaign to date, is a different task entirely. O’Rourke is one of the most unselfish runners in the game, often sacrificing his own chance at a score when it becomes apparent that it’s in the better interests of the team to make space for a colleague. It may be a bit simplistic to evoke biography from bloodlines but O’Rourke junior has many of the attributes of his illustrious father and he can kick points with both feet to boot! After keeping tabs on more individualistic animals in Dessie Dolan and Denis Glennon last time out, I can see the Louth full-back line struggle with the unselfish nature of O’Rourke’s, Cian Ward’s and Stephen Bray’s game.
The nagging concern from a Meath viewpoint is that such was the paucity of the Dublin challenge in the second half two weeks ago, that we never got to see if Kevin Reilly really is rehabilitated at full back, or if Anthony Moyles still has the legs for 75 minutes of incessant running in Croke Park. Or if Gary O’Brien is still a better option at centre back than Cormac McGuinness. I expect Shane Lennon, Adrian Reid and Mark Brennan to provide a more exacting test for all three provided the sense of novelty of a once in a half century occasion doesn’t get to them.
Midfield will become the hot topic, the still point of the turning world between 2pm and 3:30pm in Croke Park. The point of intersection of nine years of possibility and potential and of a half century of hope and history. Maybe the midfield battle will be of no significance – and maybe it will.
But Meath will still win.
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