Championship verdict 2010
Has there been a better football championship in recent memory? From start to near conclusion, the 2010 offering has bowled along at a hectic pace.
There have been more shocks, thrilling finishes and talking points to ponder and for quality it's right up there with 2005 when Tyrone shook off Dublin (after a replay), Armagh and Kerry in four magnificent games to claim a second All-Ireland title.
The spectator and viewer has been engrossed since last May.
Above all, there has been the quality of the play and this season has underlined how, despite the innovations in defence, more teams are finding more ways to generate better scores.
1 Changing of the guard
It doesn't necessarily point to a rise in quality, but a lick of paint always does more than you might imagine.
For two distinct blocks of the last decade, football was dominated by three teams -- first Tyrone, Kerry and Armagh, then Kerry, Tyrone and Cork. No one else really had a look-in.
In terms of All-Ireland titles, Tyrone and Kerry had it their own way, carving up the last seven between them.
On Sunday, barring a replay, a different name will be on the cup. Much as the dynasties of Kerry and Tyrone are respected, football welcomes novelty, even if it's to be a Cork team that has had to be very patient.
What's more, the playing field looks to have levelled. Dublin bridged their gap with the 'big three' quite impressively and Limerick have Kerry and Cork firmly in their range now.
The All-Ireland semi-finals were won by a point and two points, so Dublin and Kildare could argue that they too are close to the top. Next year, any one of eight teams could conceivably win the title.
The 2010 season may not have broken the dynasties, but at least there has been some deregulation. Just as there is change at the top, there is movement in the middle and lower tiers, too, pointing to a rise in standard of several counties.
Sligo beat Mayo and Galway, Louth toppled Kildare, Longford ushered Mayo out of the championship and almost did the same to Down. Louth really should have plunged the knife into Meath; Roscommon did just that against Sligo.
2 Thrilling finishes
They sprung up just about everywhere this summer. From Colm Cooper's nerveless conversion of a free in Killarney to force another Kerry/Cork replay, to the Kingdom's stirring comeback victory in extra-time in Cork a week later, there have been some gripping finales.
Sligo looked to have blown a Connacht semi-final against Galway in Pearse Stadium, but six days later in a Markievicz Park replay, they produced a wonderful conclusion, with Colin Magee's late point completing a turnaround.
Eight matches required either a replay or extra-time, and another 19 were won by margins of three points or less.
Both All-Ireland semi-finals went to the wire. Could there have been a more dramatic finish to a game -- (Meath Louth apart!) than Rob Kelly's stinging shot off Kalum King's fingers and the crossbar?
A month that has been pilloried so often in the past for being inert, of no consequence and a poor appetiser for the real business in July and August. On top of that, it had the World Cup to contend with.
But June 2010 bucked all recent trends for football.
On one Saturday night, Louth toppled Kildare out of Leinster and Sligo showed Mayo the door in Connacht.
Eight days later, the three main football matches all ended in draws and required extra-time -- the Cork/Kerry Munster semi-final replay and the Meath/Laois and Dublin/Wexford Leinster quarter-finals
It didn't end there. The first half of the Tyrone/ Down Ulster semi-final was as entertaining as any 35 minutes of football all season before it fizzled out. And of course there was Meath hitting Dublin for five goals in a dramatic Leinster semi-final.
4 Long-range missiles
Never mind the quality of the goals -- David Kelly for Sligo against Galway, at least three of Meath's quintet against Dublin, Bernard Brogan against Cork -- the quality of long-range points have underpinned this season more than anything and are the best indicator of all of how high the standard has been.
It wasn't just confined to the marquee teams and marquee players. If you were Alan Costello from Sligo or Hugh Lynch from Kildare, 50 metres was your domain as much as it was for Brogan or Benny Coulter.
Defenders did it at their ease, Paudie Kissane twice for Cork in the drawn Munster semi-final against Kerry, Michael Shields to put Cork five points clear in the replay, thunderous efforts each from a different parish.
Rookie Dublin corner-back Philip McMahon even got in on the act against Tyrone, hoisting one from 50 metres.
The list is endless. Dick Clerkin's brace against Armagh at Casement Park, Joe McMahon's wondrous effort from the sideline at the same venue against Down, Donie Shine's opener against Cork hugging the Cusack Stand sideline, Joe Sheridan's booming effort later that day, described by Kieran McGeeney as the point of the championship. It was still rising as it caught the rigging from 45 metres out.
Kildare mixed the erratic with the spectacular, but range was never an issue: James Kavanagh and Eamonn Callaghan against Monaghan, Johnny Doyle against Meath.
And then there was Coulter's outrageous effort against Kildare. With barely a glance and little room to manoeuvre he sliced one over from close to the Hogan Stand sideline.
To the many we omitted, we wholeheartedly apologise.
They were a joy to watch.
5 An absence of real cynicism and just enough controversy
More teams are coming to the table, with more thought put into their games. Every one has some form of plan, some idea about how they want to play the game.
Whether it's Dublin's heavily populated defence, Kildare's attacking formation, Down's use of Martin Clarke and the universal search for the Dooher/ Galvin prototype, almost everyone has tried something.
But almost everything was carried out without the cynicism we have become accustomed to in recent seasons. True, there were isolated incidents that Paul Galvin and Tomas O Se paid the penalty for and the accusations from the Kingdom about imbalance are still ringing in the air.
But cynical acts haven't been as plentiful.
And then there's the controversy. There might be too many GAA officials in agreement with the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity, especially after the debacle of the Leinster final.
But these things catch attention, they provide talking points when the 'oohs' and 'aahs' of the great scores and great plays have died down. The debate over technology, the introduction of the handpass all engage people at a different level.
IF international rating agencies were to assess the standard of Gaelic football on the basis of championship 2010, it could expect a similar fate to Ireland's evaluation on the financial markets.
Based on such fundamentals as quality, technical excellence, consistency and innovation, it would achieve a moderate ranking.
That won't matter to Sunday's winners. However, it's to be hoped that the final goes some way towards replenishing depleted stocks of genuine quality, which the championship is expected to pile high throughout the summer.
Don't be fooled by reminders about the closeness of many games, or persuaded by arguments about the significance of several upsets or impressed by claims that there was something wonderfully fresh about championship 2010. As the premier competition, it needs to be analysed under more rigorous criteria than those three issues.
And when it is, the results are not impressive
1 Race towards the bottom
A reasonable opening test is to evaluate how the defending champions performed. All the more so when it's Kerry, winners of five finals, runners-up in three others and twice beaten semi-finalists in the last decade.
Were they as good this year as at any time in the last decade?
Not from an All-Ireland viewpoint, since they failed to survive the quarter-final hurdle for the first time in that period.
But then there was an obvious reason for that. They lost Darragh O Se and Diarmuid Murphy to retirement, Tadhg Kennelly and Tommy Walsh to Australian Rules, and Paul Galvin and Tomas O Se to suspension for the quarter-final clash with Down.
Without six of the 2009 line-up, it would be some reflection on the rest of the field if Kerry had managed to retain the title. They fell three fences out; the defending champions were seriously handicapped, which inevitably left others with a clearer run.
2 Close games equate to
No, they don't. They equate to exciting games, but that shouldn't be mistaken for quality.
Which would you prefer to watch? Kauto Star, Denman and Imperial Commander rising together at the final fence in the Cheltenham Gold Cup with the rest strung out way behind or a blanket finish of nine or 10 handicappers in a low-grade race?
The former is class; the latter is exciting, but within mediocre confines.
There are dozens of close club games played around the country every week, but they're not all outstanding. The All-Ireland championship has different criteria and expectations. Of course, not every game will be a classic, but there has been a tendency to confuse quality and closeness this year.
Much will be made of the two extremely tight All-Ireland semi-finals and of three very competitive provincial finals (Ulster was the exception), but, in technical terms, how good were they?
Besides, there were also a large number of one-sided games, but they are being airbrushed from the picture by those who seek to portray 2010 as an excellent season.
For the record, 26 games were won by six or more points.
3 Standards plummet in many counties
It's a fact, not a theory. Consider the following unquestionable evidence: Kerry's drop was caused by losing so many top players, but what of the many others whose graph took a downward dip?
Cork may well win the All-Ireland title but, so far, they haven't reached the peaks of 2009 when they hammered Kerry in a Munster semi-final replay and beat Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final.
And then there's Galway, Mayo, Armagh, Derry, Donegal and Laois, counties that would have been regarded as genuine contenders for, at the very least, All-Ireland quarter-final places. None of them reached a provincial final or survived Round 3 of the qualifiers.
Tyrone won an Ulster championship, which was in keeping with the recent decline of what used to be the most competitive provincial race, before losing the All-Ireland quarter-final. Tyrone's league problems, which left them relegated, weren't really sorted in the championship and while they beat Down, their end-of-season share price is down on last year.
Monaghan imploded after looking good early on; Armagh are now trapped in the middle of the pack, making one move up and one move back; Donegal had even less going for them.
4 Could it be that other counties improved?
Down prospered after losing to Tyrone, but were blessed by the qualifier draw.
Kildare came close to reaching the All-Ireland final, but may not be much better than last year when they reached the quarter-final, but lost to a Tyrone team that played better than this year.
The decline of Galway and Mayo weakened Connacht, leading to Sligo reaching the final only to lose to Roscommon who had dropped to Division 4 in April. And if anybody doubts how poor Galway and Mayo were in Connacht, all they need to do is check what happened to them in the qualifiers.
As for Leinster, it's as confusing as ever while remaining locked in an All-Ireland drought which extends to not even reaching a final nowadays.
How can it be argued that the standard was up this year when there were so many odds results, ranging from Louth hitting Kildare for 1-22 and Dublin leaking five goals to Meath, who showed how much of a freak that result was in their next two games?
Were Dublin any better than 2009? As of June 27, they were considerably worse; as of August 29, considerably better. Question: which is the real Dublin? Answer: Nobody knows.
But then uncertainty thrives in a turbulent market and, in the case of 2010, suggests a drop across the nationwide index.
5 Anything to recommend 2010?
Sunday's final could provide a badly needed rescue package and, hopefully, it will. There were several very entertaining games throughout the season, but it won't be remembered for any great flair or innovative thinking.
How many goals did you marvel at for the imagination that went into their creation, the precision of the build-up and the clinical execution of the finish?
Very few, because despite the so-called sophistication that goes into devising tactics nowadays, it seems the old adage of "take your points and the goals will come" still applies.
And even when goal openings arise, many of them are converted into points by forwards who won't take a chance on beating the goalkeeper unless they can see the whites of his eyes.
Nor was it a particularly good season on the rules/referees front. The early controversies over inconsistencies in the application of the handpass led to serious frustrations and while they eased out as the season progressed, we're now back to a situation where referees are quite lax on what constitutes a legal transfer.
Also, the Leinster final was won by an illegal goal, while Down's crucial first-half goal against Kildare in the All-Ireland semi-final should have been disallowed -- two clear examples of where wrong decisions decided the outcome of one game and had a major impact on another.
All in all, some more negatives for the season.
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