One brutal game won't ruin the Championship
Ulster opener was dreadful, but stand-alone stinker in Ballybofey doesn't mean standards have slid into gutter, writes Colm Keys
Why should anybody be surprised, or even dismayed, that the football championship got off to the start that it did on Sunday in Ballybofey when Donegal met Antrim? Hasn't that always been the way? Did anyone honestly expect it to be any different?
Just because two Ulster teams do what two Ulster teams almost always do in a preliminary round of their provincial championship in early May, when everyone else is just about opening their eyes to the fact that the championship is upon us, doesn't mean that the game is plagued with the ills that were so much in evidence last Sunday.
That people had to pay €27 into the stand to watch it when one of the main protagonists involved says afterwards that he wouldn't have forked out that money to watch it is a different argument, and a very serious argument at that.
It calls into question the ticket-pricing structures that exist in provinces for a game like this that is still three rounds away from a provincial final. No wonder there was a dip of almost 5,000 from the corresponding game two years ago at the same venue.
But put two Ulster teams into the bear pit in the middle of May when everyone else in the country has nothing else to look at and you'll get all the forensic analysis that can be drummed up to prove the point that they are cautious, fearful and almost paranoid about making mistakes.
Let's recall the last couple of years to illustrate our point. Derry and Armagh got the show on the road 12 months ago in Celtic Park with one of the most drab encounters you could expect to watch. Twelve months before that it was Down and Fermanagh in an Enniskillen free-fest, 59 in all awarded by John Bannon.
A week after in Celtic Park, there was probably the nadir of recent Ulster championships clashes when Derry edged out Monaghan by 1-10 to 0-10 in Celtic Park, a match that brimmed with a cynical overtone and dark arts of the game. On that occasion, there were 49 frees and 12 cards.
It's worth recalling the comments of the then-Derry manager Damian Cassidy afterwards, comments that probably paint the most accurate picture about how teams and managers approach these games.
"People sitting at home may be complaining about the quality of football, but we are not in the business of entertaining people," said Cassidy at the time. "This is an amateur game -- you sacrifice your working life and your family life and we don't get paid for entertaining people. All we care about is the result."
The business is winning, getting the job done. Players and managers have long since forgotten any wider obligation to the game.
Put yourself in Donegal manager Jim McGuinness' position in the build-up to this match. It's your first championship match in charge of your native county. Your county has been beaten in their last three Ulster championship matches at the same venue in successive years. Your opponents came here two years earlier and against all odds turned you over. You have just won a league title three weeks earlier and that sets you up for the potential of a big fall.
So caution abounds. McGuinness and his sidekick Rory Gallagher have put a lot of thought into how they want to play the game, particularly against Antrim.
Liam Bradley responds in kind. He knows his team's limitations. He hadn't a forward that could break a tackle and score regularly. If he had two or three they would have won the game, he claimed afterwards. So they play with caution and fear too.
Sunday wasn't about cynicism. In fact, the free-count and the card-count was much lower than average for a match of its nature. The lack of ambition from either team was perhaps the most startling element of the game, even more so than the massed defences that have become so customary.
That lack of ambition is the product of coaching and a product of the video room that some management teams turn to. Stray passes are collated into a neat package for the following Thursday night where the message is clear that the ball can't be given away at any cost.
Eventually, the message seeps in and the risk of the 30 or 40-metre pass is slowly eradicated, replaced by a possession based on 80:20 deliveries. No risk and hence no entertainment.
But not every team is following that template. Cork are All-Ireland champions playing a relatively orthodox style through an orthodox formation. Kerry will find ways to subvert heavy defence and generally the best teams will rise to the top. Donegal will be among them too. They'll realise the need to ditch the shackles in a few weeks' time. Ballybofey on Sunday will resurrect the old argument about launching the championships with a bit more impetus.
Had the Donegal versus Antrim game taken place next weekend when there is action at six other championship venues, there would scarcely have been a second thought about it.
The All-Ireland champions of the last two years and two of the bigger hitters in Leinster are in action, so their presence would dilute the column inches and TV time devoted to a stand-alone fixture such as the clash last weekend.
Last year in his annual report to Congress, the GAA's director general Paraic Duffy launched quite a vociferous defence of the relatively staggered start to the championships. The slow nature of the start in 2009 had drawn criticism that was sharply responded to.
"The fact is that most competitions of a knockout nature start small and build big -- the RWC 2011 launched with the meeting of the Cayman Islands and Trinidad and Tobago and this year's FA Cup with Huddersfield Town and Dagenham and Redbridge," he wrote.
"To imply -- as was done by some commentators in several media outlets last summer -- that this is uniquely a GAA phenomenon is inaccurate, unprofessional and unfair."
The structures of the championship don't allow for much manoeuvre with fixtures. But with provincial councils dictating the early part of the season, some more joined up thinking is required. Could, for example, the Leinster first-round fixtures slated for Portlaoise this weekend not have been played last Sunday too?
One brutal day in Ballybofey does not constitute a new malaise in Gaelic football or a portent for what is to come.
Sure it wasn't good to watch; sure it wasn't palatable and worthy of 27 quid. But one bad Ulster championship match doesn't demand rule changes. The time to panic is not now.