JOHN FOGARTY: Is the best football unseen?

At the end of last month, GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail was asked if he was worried about the standard of games in the football championship this summer.

Ó Fearghail expressed concern about the gap that has grown between Dublin and other counties in the Leinster SFC but argued it was an isolated matter.

“Cavan were beaten by Donegal by 18 points a couple of years ago (sic, nine points, 2011). That happens. Donegal were beaten by 18 points by Armagh a couple of years (sic, nine points, 2010) before they won the All-Ireland and that’s just reversed. The thing does change. Armagh and Tyrone won every Ulster title for 10 years (even more – 12).

“This weekend, a Division 3 team, Longford, have beaten a Division 1 team, Down. So things like that are also happening. Look what’s happening in Connacht – I think Connacht has widened and opened up.”

It’s a jaundiced view to suggest football is, in the main, hale and hearty because some counties are no longer losing by landslide margins. A slightly more reflective yardstick is to compare and contrast the average winning/losing margin in the championship. It currently stands at 5.9 points, which is its lowest since 2010. Scoring totals have rarely, if at all, been higher than they are now.

In figures, football seems to be in good nick but the qualitative approach, that most preferred by the general public, informs them all is not well. There is novelty in four Munster counties reaching the last 12, Tipperary’s win over Cork and Galway’s Connacht triumph can be determined upsets but they can’t mask the fact that this summer’s competition has felt like one big yawn.

That’s coming from some who is privileged to be paid to watch matches. What it must be like for those who fork out hard earned cash to do the same.

County loyalties mean there will always be an appetite to purchase tickets but if the GAA believe they can depend on those alone for football’s fan base they are misled. If the club player should be the most important person in the organisation then the neutral supporter shouldn’t be too far behind them. The neutral, be he or she a GAA member or not, is no longer somebody the GAA can regard as a discretionary. He or she is being turned off by what they’re seeing. The games they may have attended outside of their own county’s matches are becoming fewer and fewer.

There was genuine hope that Tyrone-Donegal would start the summer in earnest. Instead, it turned out to be a game of basketball without a shot clock.

After all these years, Gaelic football still doesn’t know what it is. The rules remain grey. Just last week, GAA director general Páraic Duffy intimated all is not well with the definition of the tackle, which was successfully updated by the Football Review Committee a few years back to mean it is aimed at the ball, not the player.

“I think people underestimate how difficult it is to referee Gaelic football and this definition of a tackle, and it’s been there forever in our game – we can’t find a solution to it, the definition of the tackle, and as long as you have that lack of clarity around the tackle, was his charging, this kind of issues, was he pulled down, you will always have those things.”

Former Meath manager Seán Boylan, a member of the playing rules committee, has spoken about simplifying the rules of the game before the end of their term, which coincides with Ó Fearghail’s in early 2017. It sounds like a noble project for the Jarlath Burns-led group but when there is such an outcry to introduce new rules to make the game more palatable they face a challenge.

Structurally, it’s obvious football is flawed. That Ulster counties carry so much provincial baggage into the All-Ireland series indicates on one hand that the provinces still matter but then Ulster is a one-off. This year, replays were the downfall of Monaghan and, to a lesser extent, Cavan. If Ulster can’t see fit to back the call to end replays next year then it truly is time for the iodine tablets.

The split qualifier draw has confused rather than simplified matters and it’s clear counties haven’t availed of the opportunity presented by it to formulate better club schedules. The promise of two cracking All-Ireland quarter-finals on the “B” side of the draw compensates for what is shaping up to be mundane affairs on the “A” half but that’s all it is – promise.

We can’t help thinking the best football games are those we’re not seeing. The A v B games behind closed doors in St Clare’s in Glasnevin, Fitzgerald Stadium, Garvaghey where skin is shed as readily as sweat and skill and strength exhibited in perfect matrimony.

Who wouldn’t have paid to get a glimpse of Mayo’s first full-blown training match in MacHale Park after their loss to Galway? Mayo have since rediscovered their balance and Tyrone were given one hell of a test by Donegal on Sunday but for Dublin and Kerry their greatest battles thus far have been private affairs.

By far and away the best, it’s natural to believe the fights among themselves are more engrossing.

Like Donegal’s Zacchaeus who climbed that Killarney tree in 2014, we all want a glimpse of something better. The pity is we’re going to have to wait.

A weekend for the evergreens as ageism takes a back seat

Is the best football unseen?

It began on Saturday afternoon when Pa Kelly turned back time to transform a malfunctioning Cork with the serenity he brought to the county team in his pomp. His link play from the full-forward line was composure personified. How he disguised his point attempt into a pass inside for Ian Maguire’s goal was simply majestic. Shortly afterwards, Mark Lynch carried the same torch guiding Derry to victory in Cavan and Andy Moran took it on later that evening in Castlebar when he left the field to a rapturous applause having delivered a performance as the inside forward that was as good as his glory days in 2011 when he looked virtually unmarkable.

On Sunday, Seán Cavanagh was captain by name and nature, managing to find breathing space in the most claustrophobic of environments to pick off and set up scores.

A couple of hours later, Bernard Brogan was accepting another piece of silverware after giving an exhibition of finishing.

Kelly, 31 next month, Moran, 33, Lynch, 30, Cavanagh, 33 and Brogan, 32, may not have all that long left at this level but following yet another weekend when the football fare left so much to be desired wasn’t it endearing to see such proven quality show their worth yet again?

Kelly’s display, in particular, was heart-warming considering the injuries that have blighted his recent seasons.

Ageism is an affliction that will never fully leave GAA commentary. More reason, then, to acknowledge occasions like those experienced last weekend.

Beware the temper trap

Is the best football unseen?

Like any upstanding manager, Jim Gavin took offence to his Westmeath counterpart Tom Cribbin’s revelation they had gone out to ‘entice’ Diarmuid Connolly into doing something silly in Sunday’s Leinster final. Cribbin said he had to be honest but was there all that much sincerity in measuring the length of the Dublin forward’s fuse?

Connolly is an exceptional force but his temperament is his Achilles heel. Everybody knows it too. Dublin secretary John Costello accused Darragh Ó Sé of making “mean-spirited” and “inflammatory” quotes about Connolly last season when he suggested Connolly can be antagonised. Since then, Lee Keegan and James Dolan have succeeded in doing exactly that. Perhaps Dublin viewed the source of Ó Sé comments as opposed to the words themselves but it wasn’t as if the former Kerry midfielder prompted Keegan and Dolan’s actions.

While Connolly was provoked, even Gavin at this stage would privately admit Connolly has to curb his propensity to react.

Stephen Cluxton suffers from the same ailment, as seen by kicking out at Stevie McDonnell and Kevin McLoughlin in the past. In hurling, Tipperary’s John O’Dwyer has often been spoken about as a player walking a disciplinary tightrope and he eventually toppled in the Limerick game.

It’s not condonable but when teams sit down to find ways to beat Dublin, because there are so few avenues to take, a lot of necessary evils are on the table. It’s too easy to say Dublin must rise above it but if they don’t, they could end up counting the cost.


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