MIKE QUIRKE: Football is evolving - not dying

Novelist Mark Twain had set off on a speaking tour around the world back in the 1890s to raise money to cover a raft of debt he had built up in his native United States.

Shortly after arriving in London, word quickly spread back home that he had taken gravely ill and passed away. So sure it was true, one major US paper went so far as to write and print his obituary.

When the clearly alive Twain was told about this by reporters, he is said to have quipped: “The rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

It reminds me a lot about the current state of Gaelic football.

Can you recall when Gaelic football was becoming too be hard to watch? Remember when the players were supposed to be ‘indentured slaves’ — oppressed servants to a football game that was struggling to recapture its identity?

The GAA was always supposed to be about the players, but they just weren’t being allowed to express themselves either on the field or off it because of the growing demands of an over-commitment to a sport being hijacked by defence-first managers with a win-at-all-costs mentality.

The game had seemingly shifted to be more about containment rather than creativity. An epidemic of granite over guile.

The overwhelmingly negative narrative emerged and quickly swept across the association. It was suggested that the skills of the game were evaporating before our eyes, being replaced instead by gym bunnies and GPS systems.

Kicking was dead apparently and high-fielding would never again be seen. The players were too busy devoting time to developing big biceps for their tight jerseys instead of honing their basic ball skills.

The game, they said, was being poisoned by mass defending, an obsession with low-risk hand-passing and not giving away the ball.

Gaelic football was being suffocated by an emphasis on statistics over style and things were looking grim. Everybody was complaining.

But we really should have known better. Experience should have told us that you’re rarely as good as people say you are after a big win, nor never quite as bad as they make out after a heavy defeat. The truth normally lies somewhere in the middle. As it is in this case.

Fast forward a couple of seasons, and the landscape of the game seems to be regenerating an image of being something positive again, at least in my opinion.

Despite what we’ve been force-fed for a few years, the reality is that Gaelic football isn’t anywhere near the terrible state that some would have us believe.

There is no priest calling to administer the last rites to an ailing game, instead, I’d like to put it out there that it is alive and well and delivering as much enjoyment and entertainment now as it ever did. Of course, we’ve had some bad games and poor team performances in this year’s championship and we’ll have plenty more.

That’s sport. Westmeath and Offaly was probably the pick of the bunch. Indeed during the second half, with the hosts trailing 0-8 to 0-7, the official Westmeath Twitter account posted: “Garbage from both sides. Horrible to watch.”

Pretty much summed it up.

Luckily, the replay between the pair produced a more expansive and attacking show with a combined total of 3-32 posted.

Same two teams, playing the same game just one week later, producing a very different performance. That’s sport too.

So far in the provincial championships, we’ve seen some hugely enjoyable and competitive action from Munster to Ulster and everywhere in between. I was in Ennis two weeks ago to see a Clare side give Kerry loads of it on home soil.

Of course, those who just looked at the final score would think that there was a certain inevitability about the result, but with Gary Brennan driving on the Banner, their performance stirred uncomfortable Kerry memories of ’92 for at least 65 of the 70 minutes.

Cork, while only spluttering along, secured one point wins over minnows Waterford and an understrength Tipperary, but still managed to set-up a glamour Munster final date with Kerry in Fitzgerald Stadium.

The Munster championship has somehow turned into one of the most competitive and entertaining provinces from top to bottom in the country, thanks in the main to the excellent work done developing a sustainable football culture by managers Colm Collins and Liam Kearns in their respective hurling-first counties; Clare and Tipperary.

Indeed, what they’ve managed to develop with such limited resources and backing should be a template for other counties of similar ilk battling against the tide to rise up to the next level.

Take Connacht. The ‘sure Mayo will roll through it and put Galway back in their box’ seemed to be the popular thinking leading up to the provincial semi-final a few weeks ago. Galway had other ideas and produced a power-packed display that left 14-man Mayo skulking off towards the back door for the second year in a row after a one-point defeat.

And maybe the ‘Tribe’ will mangle Roscommon in the final, who knows, but after the Rossies put Leitrim to the sword in the other semi-final that contained another impressive 3-32 combined scores, Kevin McStay’s outfit have shown enough scoring power combined with an ability to be positive enough to try and go out to win a game as opposed to trying not to lose it.

What about Leinster? Dublin, even without Diarmuid Connolly are clearly still the best on show. But that province has already been treated to some high-quality championship football.

Kildare are one of the most improved teams in the country in Cian O’Neill’s second year in charge and they are playing a high-quality football that will see them face off against Dublin (probably) in the provincial decider.

Again, by tinkering with their approach to the game from last season, Kildare were able to rack up an impressive 2-16 to Meath’s 13 points last weekend. Last year, virtually the same group of players were locked in defensive mode and lost out at the same stage to Westmeath 1-12 to 1-11.

More scores. More skills.

Let’s not forget about Ulster. Dour, defensive bloody Ulster.

Last weekend’s war of attrition between Donegal and Tyrone never quite materialised. The projected 15-men behind the ball slug-fest instead morphed into one of the most electric attacking displays we’ve seen for years.

Against the much-vaunted Donegal system, Tyrone tore them to shreds with huge energy and some brilliant long-range point kicking that saw them put up 1-21 in total, with 1-19 of it from play.

If Dublin or Kerry had produced it, they’d be writing songs and poems about the quality of the performance. Much of their game plan was based on long booming kick-outs to the middle of the field by Niall Morgan.

It was heartening to see such traditional elements of the game being so effective in the ‘modern’ era, with big men competing for the dropping ball and using that possession to build their attacking platform.

If we’re being treated to such entertaining high-scoring football between these two, football must be in decent shape.

My central point is this — if we hear something often enough, even if that something is wrong, it starts to seep in and we start to believe it as the new norm.

We look for the negative aspects as opposed to the positive. We’ve been half brainwashed into believing that football was dead or at the very least dying… and I’m telling you that is not the case.

The game is evolving before our eyes if we care to look for it, and if anything, the quality of the fare is improving.

Statistically, not anecdotally, scoring is up across the board, with Rob Carroll of Gaelic Stats pointing out that this is the highest scoring championship campaign (after 28 games) that we’ve seen in the qualifier era started in 2001.

Yes, we’re still seeing teams set up defensively, but we’re also seeing teams become far more proficient at breaking it down and still put up big scores. For followers of Gaelic football, it shouldn’t be about whether the glass is half empty or half full, the point is it’s refillable.

And right now, the game is beginning to redefine a new normal for itself.


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