Tuesday 30 August 2016

Colm O'Rourke: Our game is in a sorry state and crying out for reform

Dublin's All-Ireland win can't gloss over the mess that football has become, says Colm O'Rourke

Published 02/10/2011 | 05:00

Crisis, what crisis? That would be the general feeling after the All-Ireland final.

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Before it many supporters of the game would have looked on 2011 as the year of change -- and not a nice change either. Yet a warm glow persists from the final, a splendid contest between the two best and most consistent teams of the year and with Dublin winning there was a sense that persistence had gained its rightful reward.

Yet take a closer look and there were few games of good quality while the dominant memory is one of defence and boring, repetitive handpassing. In a sense, Dublin saved the year because a final with Donegal and Kerry would not have appealed to many.

However, the Dublin style is not a million miles from Donegal's, even if it is a more refined version and relies on wing-backs covering in front of their full-back line and the half-forwards running marathons every day to cover any gaps on the pitch. And of course they had forwards who played as forwards, even if Alan Brogan did spend a lot of time in the final in a very withdrawn role.

So Donegal may wonder why there was such a fuss about their tactics while Dublin are lauded at every turn. The critics, including myself, had a field day with Donegal and heavily criticised their methods. It was not the defensive strategy in itself that bothered me -- every team is entitled to set out its stall to play as it wants -- but the lack of ambition in trying to actually win the semi-final as distinct from stopping Dublin playing was depressing. Having a negative outlook on a big game like this is the same as having an inferiority complex -- you can't just change horses in midstream -- while holding up the play, diving and getting involved in trying to get Dublin players in trouble with the referee did not add anything to the Donegal appeal. In many ways, I had a sense of a team who never really thought they could win and were hoping to avoid a big defeat.

The reaction to the criticism afterwards was telling. The critics are the critics are the critics. They don't count. Yet Jimmy McGuinness used it as a sort of rallying force from early on in the championship. It is easy to create a siege mentality with a new team, especially if they are winning against teams they would traditionally lose to. But that is a one-way street and loses its effect very quickly. After Dublin were destroyed by various sides over the last few years, Pat Gilroy never mentioned how harsh the stinging criticism of him or his players was. He was self-confident enough to know that all the words, written or spoken, were absolutely irrelevant and this is one card Jim McGuinness cannot play again. If he does, he has a problem. Any manager can easily get paranoid in the GAA as most of the critics are close to home and it is a test of how comfortable a manager is in his own skin when the arrows start flying.

If Donegal even think of arguing that they are following closely on the northern model of Tyrone and Armagh then they are misleading themselves. In the early days Tyrone did suffocate teams but forwards like Peter Canavan, Eoin Mulligan and Stephen O'Neill played as forwards. So too did Ronan Clarke and Steven McDonnell with Armagh. Football is not draughts, it cannot be worked out and winning means taking chances that sometimes don't come off.

Donegal next year must be different. They can be defensive if they want but there is nothing worse than losing without giving it a real go. No matter what anyone says -- and the Donegal players will say publicly that they had a great year -- there must be the realisation that they did not really go about winning the semi-final the way they should have. They may never get a similar opportunity, but if they do, the attitude all round must be be different. Ultimately, there is no future in this style as it won't win an All-Ireland and players and supporters would get fed up of the tiresome monotony.

Quite how the Dubs evolve will also be interesting. Their system depended on low scoring by the opposition but there were occasions, like the Tyrone game when they let themselves off the leash, that they looked a very formidable side. The final was never going to be about winning in style but drama is more important than style any day. And Kevin McManamon will always remember that small things can change big games. When the referee ignored him hopping the ball twice with a couple of minutes to go in a position where Bryan Sheehan would probably have scored a point, then he knows that some guardian

angel is smiling down on him. Presumably, he has been to Lourdes in thanksgiving since the final.

Yet no matter how the final is dressed up it cannot ever cover the multitude of flaws present in intercounty football. This year's championship had a great match to end a bad year. The game itself is an unholy mess. It now resembles when I started playing juvenile football where everybody just ran after the ball and most players wouldn't kick it under any circumstances.

The refereeing early on in the championship was dreadful too with any amount of poor decisions on yellow and red cards which kept the disciplinary bodies busy. As time went on someone obviously told the referees to lighten up and games did improve but there are very few redeeming features in county football for me at present and it is a million miles removed, thankfully, from most other games at underage and club level that I watch every week.

Hope for the future rests with the new rules committee who must make some restrictions on the handpass, otherwise bedroom slippers with grips could be the new football boots. The game is crying out for reform. Even a couple of things like limiting it to three handpasses in succession, no playing the ball back across half way and of course getting rid of the current square ball rule, could improve things in a big way.

Like all men we live in hope.

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