If you didn’t know already, it’s all Ulster’s fault. All of football’s current ills.
The drop in scores? Boo Ulster.
The rise in black cards? Hiss Ulster.
The new and improved double-quilted blanket defence? Down with Ulster.
Four performances over the weekend have sharpened the pitchforks and poured more oil on the torches.
There was Tyrone’s 15-man rearguard action against Dublin on Saturday, which kept the hosts to their lowest scoring return at Croke Park since Kerry reduced them to 11 points in a 2012 league game.
On Sunday, Cavan failed to find the net for the seventh consecutive league game. Going back to as far as July 2012, they have not scored more than one goal in a game.
The following afternoon in Letterkenny, Donegal and Monaghan’s displays in cancelling out each other saw the home side register just a goal for a second-half score. By all reports, it was as tedious a 70 minutes as Cork’s visit to the defeated All-Ireland finalists the previous Sunday.
But for every fact there is an equal opposite fact. Dublin kept Tyrone to just 12 points on Saturday. Cavan’s style might be likened to the Black Death, but they have just one clean sheet in their last seven games. And if Donegal and Monaghan are going to be slated for their lack of endeavour, let’s not forget Kerry two years ago when they mustered just four points against Dublin and went a half without a score in Castlebar. Cork in Ballyshannon weren’t all that expansive with their football, either.
There are some who might like to think the anti-football charges against Ulster counties are stacking up but, on closer inspection, they don’t. The jump in black cards, especially in Division 1, may be attributed to there being four northern teams in the top flight, but Kerry, with four, have picked more than any other side. Combine all four Ulster counties’ total of black cards (eight) and they fall short of Kerry, Mayo and Dublin’s nine.
Of course, it’s all about perception but are all counties regarded the same? Over the last two weekends, Kerry have been involved in a couple of ugly altercations. On Sunday, they formed one half of a collapsed scrum as some of their players and Cork’s fell to the ground refusing to let go of their grapple of one another.
Yet, that, nor the heated exchanges with Dublin, were not documented on RTÉ’s League Sunday.
That isn’t to say Kerry were the instigators in both cases, but then, they weren’t wholly innocent either, just as they weren’t shrinking violets in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final replay against Mayo.
How that game has since been viewed is an issue for Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney, who recently claimed the physical exchanges in Limerick weren’t viewed as dimly as those that factored his own team last year when he was coach.
“If you look at the Kerry-Mayo game, people don’t want to talk about it, because the referee let it all go, which I think is the way football should be played. But we tend to paper over the cracks when some teams are doing it and we tend to be a wee bit more PR-orientated when it seems to be happen around any team I’m involved in. It is a contact sport, but where it happens and who it happens with, people don’t want to look through the same glass at every game. They tend to become a wee bit tinted when they look at one team over another.”
Armagh were in that many scraps last summer they were like a pack of Nelson Muntzes, but McGeeney has a point: When traditional counties get down and dirty, it’s passed off as uncharacteristic; when others do it, it’s typical.
That myopia extends to the recent trend of teams developing defensive banks. Speaking after Dublin snatched a draw from Tyrone on Saturday evening, Jim Gavin remarked: “We were rightly punished by a good Tyrone side who are good at what they do. That’s their football style and structure. They’re just good at it.”
However, let’s not fall into the trap of lazy analysis and claim Tyrone have been playing like this since 2003. They only adopted it for the second-round game against Mayo last month. It’s almost a new phenomenon to them playing it as Dublin facing it. They did so out of necessity after Monaghan took them for 1-13 in Omagh.
Monaghan themselves have followed the same course of action, following their heavy defeat to Mayo.
After such humbling experiences, the most practical thing to do is, firstly, become hard to beat. After all, it is the essential ingredient in their preparations for the Ulster championship, a bloodthirsty gauntlet neither Kerry nor Cork nor Dublin nor Mayo have to run. A better understanding of that fact and the teams that have to compete in it wouldn’t go astray.
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