Eugene McGee: Rebuilding a dynasty is no easy feat
Published 07/02/2011 | 05:00
For many years, one of the few blemishes on the Armagh GAA scene was the poor quality of their main ground in Armagh City. But on Saturday that all changed when the resplendent new Athletic Grounds was shown to the public, and the wider television audience, and it really is a wonderful stadium.
Despite the terrible weather, the playing surface was excellent and more importantly perhaps, the facilities for the large following of Dublin and Armagh fans were first class and added greatly to the night's entertainment.
The players also provided an excellent night's start to the Allianz Football League with a high-scoring game of flowing football and plenty of excellent individual performances from both teams. Dublin were deserving winners, mainly because they were better organised for the conditions, made better use of their substitutes and were probably fitter in this early part of the season.
It struck me watching this game that the two counties have some common factors, the most notable being that they are trying to stitch in a raft of new players to replace recent former big names, and as normally happens in GAA teams, this is turning out to be a rather torturous operation.
It is all of nine years now since Armagh won their only All- Ireland and unsurprisingly the basic structure of that great team, with players such as McGeeney, McGrane and McConville, has been decimated.
Dublin have been almost as successful as Armagh in roughly the same period, with the obvious difference that Sam Maguire did not visit their county in the past decade, but they also are in the process of dispensing with former great servants such as Ciaran Whelan, Shane Ryan and Conal Keaney.
On Saturday night we had several examples of the rebuilding process that's going on in both teams -- with mixed results.
Dublin, of course, did their husbandry almost in one fell swoop last year when Pat Gilroy decided on drastic change in both personnel and tactical approach mid-season.
So every league game Dublin play this year is of crucial importance, as only players who prove themselves to consistently have all the qualities needed for a top football team can hope to be still wearing the blue jersey in six or eight months' time.
Early league games, particularly when several 'regulars' are not available through injury, or otherwise, provide opportunities for fringe players to show what they have to offer, and Dublin had several of these against Armagh.
Paul Casey, Sean Murray, Diarmuid Connolly, Tomas Quinn, Denis Bastick, Kevin McManamon, Bryan Cullen, Barry Cahill and James McCarthy would qualify for that list and there was no lack of effort from these players.
They all gave a good account of themselves with the possible exception of young Murray, who was played out of his best position at full-back and then was landed with marking one of the best young players in Ulster, Gareth Swift, who went on to score four fine points from play. That was one Dublin experiment that did not work out, but no doubt Murray will prove his worth in a more suitable setting.
Dublin were playing against the grain in the first half by trying to walk the ball around and through the Armagh backline in search of scores from close range, perhaps enticed by Connolly's goal in the second minute.
But with 23 minutes gone those Dublin forwards had only managed to score one solitary point, as it was midfielders Michael Darragh Macauley and Connolly who had posted 1-1 by then.
Gradually, Dublin settled back into the style they developed in the second half of the championship last year whereby they bring extra bodies back into defence, win the ball and then make a quick break downfield to avail of the space that has been created. It could be called 'hit and run' football.
Thus, the Dublin scoring system cranked into action and by half-time they had a respectable 1-7 on the board as opposed to just 1-4 from Armagh.
The work rate of the talented Charlie Vernon of Armagh in that half had limited the possession Dublin were getting but in the second half we saw a bit more of Macauley and it kept Dublin from ever going behind.
Still, they only scored two points in the opening 20 minutes of this half, again one from midfielder Connolly, and it took a flurry of well-worked scores (1-4) in the final 15 minutes to seal the victory.
Swift is clearly one of the great hopes for Armagh, who of course were also missing nearly half a team because of Crossmaglen's progress and injuries to players such as Ronan Clarke.
Stevie McDonnell has a lot of work to do to get back to his best but defender Brendan Donaghy is still a major player and Eoghan O'Gara had his work cut out, though he still put in some astute passes to Bernard Brogan.
Winning in a tight finish on a winter's night in February at a hostile away venue is a great test of a team's inner fortitude.
But at least the old (new) stadium should be rocking again.
And the noise of Jedward will be nothing compared to the sound of all the deceased GAA people revolving in their graves!
FOOTNOTE: The absence of Brian Kavanagh from the Longford team for the vital NFL game with Roscommon shows the lack of discipline in how the GAA is run.
The Kilmacud club didn't want him to line out for his county, even though Kilmacud do not play Crossmaglen for another three weeks. No club has the right to stop a player playing for his county within the GAA structure. GAA clubs do not own players.
Kavanagh should have taken his own decision to play for his native county and Kilmacud were hardly going to drop him, were they? His absence probably cost Longford a vital league home point.