Wednesday 18 October 2017

Ciaran Whelan: I'm putting my eggs in the Super 8 basket - it needs to be given a proper chance

Games between the top teams in the football championship are all too rare. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Games between the top teams in the football championship are all too rare. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Ciaran Whelan

Jackie Tyrrell on The Sunday Game the other night got me thinking.

Like all hurling men, Jackie thinks hurling is the greatest game in the world.

But listening to him talk about the structure of the hurling championship and how hurling had a better product but the GAA wasn’t promoting it, I realised it was hard to disagree with him.

Jackie was spot-on.

And in lots of ways, as somebody who loves football, I’d be jealous of that fact.

The hurling championship has been brilliant.

You have one of the fundamental elements necessary for a good competition; several teams capable of winning it after producing entertaining, competitive matches.

There was a great air of positivity about the inter-county hurling scene last weekend when the lads spoke about it on RTÉ.

I started to think forward to two weeks’ time, when the football analysts are sitting on that same couch and Des Cahill asks us for our highlights of the year, we won’t have too many.

If you’re honest, it’s going to be a struggle.

We haven’t played the final yet and there’s more negativity around the inter-county football scene at the moment.

It’s easy to slag off football pundits and criticise them for constantly talking down football but there is a cohort of us who are trying to be as positive as we honestly can.

I’ve defended the Super 8s.

I think it’s hugely important to try and reinvigorate the championship and I think it will change the dynamic in July and August.

We will get more competitive games and big matches in smaller venues, two things severely lacking from the competition at present. That should, in theory, throw up a few more surprises, a painful rarity this year.

My hope is that the extra games will bring all the top teams to their true levels at the same time which should see compelling semi-finals.

But at the moment, it can be hard to defend something that’s indefensible. It’s impossible to simply smell the flowers in the garden while the house is burning down.

What are your football moments of the year so far?

Mine is Con O’Callaghan’s goal against Tyrone for its level of skill, its significance in the context of that moment in a game that was still competitive.

We spoke so much about systems of play and what Tyrone were going to try and do but this just blew it out of the water with a young footballer’s individual audacity.

Other than that?

Galway and Mayo was a decent game in Castlebar. Roscommon ambushing Galway the following day was a surprise but it didn’t really gets hearts racing.

Down taking out Armagh? Maybe.

Outside of that?

We had a fiasco about Aidan O’Shea having a photograph taken after a challenge match that generated more comment than any match until the All-Ireland semi-finals.

We had the Diarmuid Connolly affair that lasted weeks upon tedious weeks.

Controversies that had people talking more than any of the football on offer.

It took Mayo playing O’Shea at full-back for us to have a real talking point that was actually about football.

So as much as you’d like to be positive, it’s difficult. If Dublin win on Sunday week, we’ll have more talk about them being too far ahead of the pack, splitting the county and financial mismatches than about a great team completing a historic achievement.

But it’s important that if Dublin do make it three-in-a-row, we celebrate it for what it is rather than immersing ourselves in hysteria about the state the game is in.

Hurling went through the same thing with Kilkenny a few years ago yet they have a more inclusive, competitive championship now than they have had since the 1990s.

If Mayo win, it will obviously give the game a lift. They’re already the story of the year. They’ve kept us entertained. They’re the one team that have kept us interested throughout the year, with their high-wire act through the qualifiers all the way back to yet another final.

But otherwise, it just hasn’t been a positive year in terms of the spectacle.

You have to stand back and look very closely to appreciate the logic managers are employing when it comes to setting their teams up in conjunction with the players they have and the systems they put in play.

Their objective is to get as far as possible in the championship and at the moment, that isn’t compatible with entertaining people.

That has led to the abandonment of the sort of football that attracted us all to the game in the first place. It has resulted in conservatism being the prevalent mind-set in the inter-county championship.

Yes, it’s fascinating at times. But it can be boring to watch too and mostly, it goes against players’ natural instincts and contradicts much of what they have been taught. That all adds up to tense but uninspiring matches.

No adventure. No real inspiration. Players with flair being inserted rigidly into systems that don’t exhibit their talents.

So rather than jumping on the bandwagon in two weeks’ time and lamenting the state of the game, I’m putting my eggs in the Super 8 basket.

I accept it’s not a solution to the plight of the weaker counties. But I do think in terms of our product, in terms of matching what hurling currently has, the Super 8 will invigorate the football championship. It’s badly needed.

Herald Sport

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