For those of you who initially thought last Sunday’s Ulster final was another desecration of what was once known as Gaelic football, a question — name a game in recent memory in which both teams helped serve up a greater number of exceptional long-range points than what Tyrone and Donegal did in Clones?
Chances are you’re struggling. Last year’s Dublin-Mayo replay might spring to mind, with some of the bombs the O’Connor brothers and the Dublin attack fired over that evening, along with James McCarthy’s point that brought Dublin back to within three points just before their flurry of goals left Mayo gone in 60 seconds.
Twelve months earlier Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly fleetingly appeared as if they were going to make a mockery of Donegal’s famed massed defence before gradually The System wore them down and Odhrán MacNiallais and Michael Murphy successfully launched some scud missiles of their own through the posts at the opposite end.
Reeling through the years, we can recall most of Armagh’s seven points from play in the first-half of the 2002 All-Ireland final being from range.
But did any of those games surpass the number of long-range beauties last Sunday offered up? No. How many games through the years have? Very, very few.
Just think of the quality of long-range points from play there were last Sunday. Ryan McHugh alone nailed three. Mac Niallais and Sean Cavanagh fired over two apiece. There was Peter Harte’s point, as brilliant and as pivotal as Kevin Cassidy’s immortal bomb in Croke Park against Kildare in 2011. Plus Christy Toye’s effort, and Kieran McGeary’s, and Darren McCurry’s, all in the closing minutes, all when the need was greatest.
The Sunday Game’s highlights or analysis didn’t even feature Michael Murphy’s late free from another planet that gave Donegal a one-point lead.
In another era — one which certain commentators now yearn for but never truly existed — that would have been played back again and again and again. Under that pressure? From that range? It was a stunning piece of skill. Last Sunday it didn’t make the cut, just like Niall Morgan’s couple of shots from beyond the 45 didn’t either. There were simply too many other long-range beauties to cram in and Murphy’s prowess from that range off the ground is something we just take for granted now.
Of course last Sunday’s Ulster final wasn’t for everyone. Of course there were features of it that were concerning. The lack of kick-passing. The lack of contested kickouts. And the lack of goals.
In the last four Ulster finals only once has a ball been fired to the net, when Chris McGuinness momentarily breached Jim McGuinness’s defence in the 2014 final which Monaghan still lost.
The Connacht final in the meantime has featured 13 goals, Leinster 12, Munster 10.
Since Donegal started their fantastic sequence of contesting six consecutive Ulster finals, there have been only three goals from play on the third Sunday of July in Clones. That alone tells just how much they’ve dictated the terms of engagement in Ulster finals in that time, and how those matches haven’t exactly been for the purists.
An even more concerning stat from those six provincial finals has been the scoring return of Michael Murphy. In the last four he’s been held scoreless from play. He’s only scored 0-3 from play over the course of the six of them. That tells you there’s something wrong with how Donegal are using him, and how there’s something off about football in general.
It’s hard to think of another team that has contributed more over the years to the football championship for games outside of Croke Park than this Donegal team. Take even a season like last year: It would ultimately end rather flat for them, Mayo beating them handily enough. But for the first two months of what was an otherwise dreary championship, Donegal provided it with a spark and narrative and big moments: The gripping preliminary round win over Tyrone in Ballybofey, going into a supposed lion’s den in the Athletic Grounds and quashing the McGeeney revolution from the outset; even the Ulster final which dramtically hinged on whether a Paddy McBrearty shot on the turn was inside or outside the post.
This year they’ve again been excellent contributors to the championship between their two epic games against Monaghan and last Sunday’s compelling battle of wits, and that contribution is not yet done; games against Cork, and possibly Dublin, await. They’re manfully raging against the dying of the light. But it is undeniably dying.
The slippage is there. They’re losing games to Ulster rivals they wouldn’t have lost a couple of years ago — last year’s Ulster final, blowing a seven-point lead against Monaghan in the league, then last Sunday.
Another thing about last Sunday needs to be acknowledged. Not only was some of the long-range shooting from play and off the ground of the highest quality, but so was the sportsmanship. We’ve seen commentators bemoan how last Sunday dishonoured the games the venue has previously hosted. Whatever planet they’ve been living on, they certainly haven’t taken in many games in Clones.
For all the fine players it has staged, it has also hosted many — too many — games plagued by sly, cynical, brutish fouling.
Recent Donegal-Tyrone games were also in that vein, for all the fine football that was served up in the opening 50 minutes of last year’s preliminary round in Ballybofey.
The 2011 and 2012 clashes between the teams were particularly unedifying spectacles, spoiled with incessant gamesmanship.
In that sense, while last Sunday’s game showed how the operation of the black card is still not quite right, it also underlined how it is working.
In other years, without a black card, there would have been players routinely hauled down outside the scoring range.
A highly-anticipated Derry-Monaghan game in Celtic Park in 2009 comes to mind. The game ended up being one dragfest. One play exemplified all that was wrong with it and Gaelic football at the time.
Tommy Freeman, one of the freest-scoring and best ball-playing footballers in the country at the time, raced after Derry’s half-back Brian McGuigan coming out with the ball and with his two feet leaving the ground, thumped McGuigan with his fist to stop the play there and then.
It was more than a yellow card but it wasn’t quite a red card either, so the ref had to issue a yellow.
It was that kind of foul that the black card was brought in to eliminate and on that, it has been largely successful. It’s the kind of foul The Sunday Game boys don’t review because they don’t have it to review, at least, in the first 60 minutes of a game anyway.
In that sense the black card is working. We have less cynical fouls. We have less fouls in general.
What the black card should not have been brought in for though was so that Mattie Donnelly would be dismissed from the field for what he did last Sunday. This column made this point before that Congress of 2013 that innocuous body checks would leave innocent players vulnerable to being dismissed, especially with the speed modern half-backs are moving at and how opposing players have little time or means to avoid getting out of their way.
The black card should be replaced by a black ball; a foul like Freeman’s — as opposed to Donnelly’s — should result in a yellow card and the ball being moved to a spot where a free is highly scoreable. Punish players and teams on the scoreboard. If a ref makes a mistake as in the case with a Donnelly, at least a player’s day hasn’t been ruined.
A game like last Sunday also strengthened the case that kickouts have to go beyond the 45 to increase the number of contested ball and physical challenges. Because for sure the game, and that game, can be better.
But there was and is a lot right with the game as well. That needs to be recognised too.
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