Monday 5 December 2016

Enjoy the view as football elite hit new heights

Individual brilliance of top stars not getting due recognition

Published 04/08/2015 | 02:30

Diarmuid Connolly scored two superb points during Dublin's victory against Fermanagh
Diarmuid Connolly scored two superb points during Dublin's victory against Fermanagh

When Tiger Woods claimed his first US Open title 15 years ago, he broke just about every record imaginable.

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From the biggest ever winning margin in a golf Major to the first time a US Open was won in double-digits under par, Woods didn't just spreadeagle the field behind him, he crushed it.

He completed the four rounds in 12-under. Everyone else was over par. Every shot around Pebble Beach that weekend he hit with coldly despatched venom designed to take himself as far away from his rivals as possible.

It was his first Major in what became known as the 'Tiger Slam', the possession of all four golf Majors at the same time, taking his winning sequence to the following year's US Masters.

Predictability

His dominance was unbreakable for that year.

Was it bad for the sport? On the contrary. TV figures held firm. Rather than being a turn-off on the grounds of predictability, Woods in his pomp became a magnet for the game. How could you not be enthralled by a sportsman who was taking a game to such levels of excellence.

For sure everyone loves to be kept on the edge of their seat. But there is so much to admire too when someone like Woods at any stage in the first 12 years of his professional life, or any individual or team, routinely hands down such merciless beatings to their opponents.

There weren't too many among the 84,000-plus in Croke Park on the edge of their seats on either day over the weekend when the cumulative winning margin for four games was 52 points. But should the desire for greater parity alone determine the levels of entertainment?

The weekend may have been a reminder of how the gaps between the elite and the rest is getting greater but the levels of excellence the top players are reaching is being too easily lost in the communal and now annual decrying about structures, standards and the disadvantaged.

Three of the four games were effectively decided by moments of sheer genius that were worth the journey alone.

Will we see better team-work and understanding from any team that Donegal's for Ryan McHugh's goal?

What about a more accurate 40-metre pass than Jack McCaffrey's for Bernard Brogan's early goal or Colm Cooper's glorious awareness and passing for Darran O'Sullivan's first goal?

If you're not entertained by Michael Murphy's exceptional leap and turn or Diarmuid Connolly's two points, especially his second one, then you're hard to please.

The standard of foot-passing was, at times, exceptional from the likes of Odhran MacNiallais, Colm McFadden, Connolly, David Moran and of course Cooper. Dublin in full flow can be a joy to watch, their propensity for attacking football not diluted yet by any greater commitment to resourcing their defence.

Can we really talk about a poor quality Championship with some of these snapshots in mind? It may not be popular to say it but the standard of some skills has never been better.

Admittedly, the standard of defence was shocking at times over the weekend, especially from Kildare.

But then every rule change in recent years has been designed to accommodate the attacking player, from the black card to the advantage, making one-to-one defending a hazardous and almost extinct practice.

Disproved

Mickey Harte's contention that it's most unlikely All-Ireland champions will come from outside Division 1 was almost disproved by Donegal last year but his point is well made.

The 'last six' is exclusively comprised of Division 1 teams. Division 2 has been a complete washout and the gap in standards between the top two divisions is arguably the greatest of all to bridge.

Since the leagues were restructured for the 2008 season, dividing teams into four divisions, the sense of elitism has hardened. By keeping such good company with each other in spring the richer are getting richer in the summer.

Any analysis of winning margins in Division 1 league games underlines this point. Tyrone drew three games with Derry, Dublin and Kerry and were still relegated. That's how tight and competitive it was.

Even allowing for weather conditions and pitch surfaces it's rare that margins of victory get into double-digits.

This year the average winning margin of the 57 Championship games played is 8.68, that's up almost two points per game from 6.86 to the same stage (58 games) last year. In all, 23 games in 2015 have been won by double-digit margins, four by more than 20 points.

The provinces have remained as competitive, or uncompetitive in some cases - 7.59 points per game in 2014 up to 8.12 this year. But the qualifiers have witnessed a sharper rise in average wins, more evidence that they are slowly but surely losing value.

The GAA is currently collating submissions aimed at restructuring the Football Championship with a view to having some consensus on the issue towards the end of the year.

The provincial championships will stay but some reform of the qualifiers may get enough support at least be floated.

But the admission of Fermanagh's Seán Quigley that he would have no interest in a B qualifier competition just hours after providing his own source of illumination to Croke Park highlights the problem of adjustment.

Thus re-examining the league structures should be just as great, maybe even greater, a priority in the context of trying to widen the base.

A 16-team Division 1/16-team Division 2 structure which was in place until 2007 may lead to a few mismatches but counties like Galway, Meath and Cavan need the likes of Kerry, Dublin and Mayo coming to their towns again in February and March if they are to prosper.

Irish Independent

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