When my four-year-old son Ryan came home from school last week to tell me he wasn’t as fast as two of his classmates, my immediate reaction was, do I need to get him in the back garden with the therabands, maybe some resistance running? Perhaps even a sleigh with some light weights on it?
That’s the warped thinking of the modern day, the thinking that in the last 20 years has infiltrated all our GAA minds. I was completely unaware my own thinking was changing, but changing my thinking is one thing — passing it on to others is another kettle of fish.
It’s very easy to see how we have been made believe there is a structured hierarchy when it comes to the most important values of a Gaelic footballer. When we watch our elite footballers, big physical and well conditioned athletes are what we are used to seeing. Players like Ryan McHugh, Gooch Cooper and Martin Reilly buck this trend but they are very much a break from the norm. When we think of our inter-county players, we think of their commitment, their dedication, their drive and the constant strive to be the best that they can be.
I love people trying to be as good as they can be, regardless what they do. I do, however, believe there are a few ways to skin a cat. Football, in itself, is a very simple concept. Yet we forget the most important thing in our game is still the ability to kick the wee white thing between the posts.
Forwards dictate the winning and losing of big games. To tease my Armagh team-mates when we used to pick teams to play a game, I used say ‘defenders on one side and footballers on the other’. The difference saying that in the group was that I played with players who were proud to be a defender, knew their jobs and respected our system enough not to get above their station. There was a real pride and collective responsibility in what they wanted to achieve, keep the opposition to under 10 points. A team within a team.
Every year I see a new bunch of young lads enter Dundalk Institute of Technology, and I’m excited for their prospects as young sportsmen.
However, there’s been a serious sea change in the last five years. At the first training session every year I ask each player for their age, their club and their position.
Last time I conducted this player audit with 25 players, I got two goal keepers, four half forwards and 19 wing half backs. Yes 19, because wing-backs meet that stereotypical template for the modern footballer — strong, physical, athletic and quick.
Add to that the fact that in the majority of systems, a half-back can go forward at will with no fear of being exposed behind him because he has at least 10 team-mates minding the house.
Last Sunday, Tyrone picked their most attacking half-back line of the year to take advantage of the lack of mobility in the Derry half-forward line, but none of McCann, Sludden or Harte are man markers or anything like it. Nor are they burdened with any great deal of defensive responsibilities — more like they are there for their attacking pace, and in Peter Harte’s case, a large degree of creativity.
When Armagh and Cavan pull up at Breffni Park on Sunday and the stern-faced modern day gladiators walk off that bus in preparation to do battle, you can be guaranteed they would do justice to any medieval body armour.
My own county have gone from early season unrest, looking fairly disjointed and mediocre in the early rounds of Division 2 all the way to three decent results against Tyrone, Galway and Derry. That Derry result looked a lot more positive before last weekend.
Armagh don’t have their best players in the squad. Like many other county squads not on the elevated Division 1 plateau, they are struggling to attract the top footballers within the county, that lure of silverware apparently as far away as ever.
What Kieran McGeeney does have is a panel of players who will fight tooth and nail for the Orchard. My genuine fear is that, commitment and desire alone won’t be enough. Injuries to Kevin Dyas and Andrew Murnin haven’t helped.
They will, unsurprisingly, be defensive and hard to break down, Cavan on the other hand have played alternative attacking football through the league. Interesting to see does that change when it matters most? I suggest it may be a slight reversion to type.
It still begs the question: Which team are more capable of kicking between the posts when the heat rises. Who has less manufactured footballers within the body of a cruiserweight boxer. If you’re looking for a feisty, no holds barred Ulster championship match, then tune in. If you are after a classic old-fashioned shoot-out with a 10 stone corner forward kicking a goal and eight points, then Breffni is best scratched off your Sunday ‘to do’ list.
Meanwhile, back in a small village in south Armagh I am going to put away the U 6 tackle bags and let Ryan develop the way I and many more were allowed to develop — honing those skills and love of the game naturally with that sense of joy and wonderment.
More the dinosaur me.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved