Kingdom withstands Ulster's rise
New contenders but rich-poor divide still grows, writes Martin Breheny
THE headline figures from the first decade of the new millennium present a healthy picture of Gaelic football but, as always, it's necessary to sift through the details to get a clearer image of exactly how things stand.
Put it all together and the findings are mixed. Positives abound in many areas, not least in the emergence of Armagh and Tyrone who finally made the All-Ireland senior breakthrough. Westmeath's delivery in Leinster and the return of Laois after 57 years without a provincial title were other notable high points.
Dublin and Armagh each won the All-Ireland U-21 title for the first time while, at minor level, Armagh took the title for the first time in 60 years and Roscommon bridged a 55-year gap. Eleven counties won an All-Ireland title in at least one grade while 19 counties won an All-Ireland and/or a provincial crown.
Armagh, Galway and Tyrone were the only three counties to win All-Ireland titles at senior, minor and U-21 level. Surprisingly, Kerry missed the triple hit, having failed to win a minor title.
However, they emerged as the dominant force on the senior scene, winning five All-Ireland titles, a haul last achieved by Mick O'Dwyer's great Kerry team in the 1980s. The circumstances were, of course, different as Kerry won the 2006 and 2009 titles, via the All-Ireland qualifiers, having been beaten by Cork in Munster.
There are traditionalists in Kerry who contend that there should be an asterisk alongside the back-door victories on the basis that the team suffered a defeat before relaunching the campaign, a facility not available pre-2001. Conversely though, it could be argued that many of Kerry's All-Ireland finals won prior to that were achieved in easier circumstances than currently exist.
With Cork the only consistent opposition in Munster, it was possible for Kerry to win the All-Ireland title in three competitive contests pre-2001. That's no longer the case as the erection of the All-Ireland quarter-final fence has made life much more difficult for all provincial champions.
Titles are there to be won under whatever systems exist at the time so Kerry's achievement in taking five All-Irelands has to be taken purely on its merits. Besides, they also reached three other finals, underling the level of consistency that applied. And they washed down those fine meals with the pleasant wine provided by three Allianz Football League wins.
For all that success, Kerry end the decade with a stone in their shoe, placed there with great glee by the Armagh-Tyrone axis in 2002-2003-2005-2008. If Kerry were told at the start of the decade that they would lose three All-Ireland finals and one semi-final to Armagh and Tyrone they would have assumed it was at under-age level.
But just as Down successfully attacked Kerry in the 1960s, Armagh and Tyrone annexed large chunks of the kingdom this decade. Armagh started the campaign with a second-half surge in the 2002 All-Ireland final, but it was Tyrone who went on to really challenge Kerry for the team of the decade accolade.
Indeed, having beaten Kerry under three different managers (Paidi O Se, Jack O'Connor and Pat O'Shea) in the championship, Tyrone would assert their right to be regarded as No 1 but, since every All-Ireland title is as valued as the next, the final tally is all that counts.
It shows Kerry beating Tyrone 5-3 this decade so the Kingdom are entitled to be regarded as No 1.
However, in terms of the historical dimension, there's no doubt that Tyrone's achievements were quite remarkable. Having failed to win any senior All-Ireland since the foundation of the GAA, it was quite an advance to take three in six seasons. What's more they're primed to start the new decade as leading contenders to continue the exciting run.
The power surge from Armagh and, especially, Tyrone was based on a style of football that came in for some criticism as it faced the charge of being negative and defensive. In many ways, that's very unfair. Yes, Tyrone place huge emphasis on ball retention but what's wrong with that?
Ultimately, the challenge facing any coach -- and indeed any team -- is how best to maximise their prospects of winning while operating within the rules. Tyrone did that with spectacular success so it was up to others to respond.
Every game is constantly evolving. There's always a better way of doing business and, while no system lasts indefinitely, it can be profitably exploited for a period. Kerry discovered that with one of the most basic ploys of all when they posted the giant figure of Kieran Donaghy at full-forward at a time when their 2006 championship campaign appeared to be lurching towards the sidings.
The result? He changed the course of that campaign and once Kerry won the All-Ireland title, the big full-forward became the new 'toy' on both the county and club scene. It has, to a large degree, run its course now, thanks to re-adjusted defensive systems.
There's also the reality that simply placing a big man on the edge of the opposition square won't achieve a whole lot unless he has fetching ability, a good positional sense and a cute football brain as was the case when Donaghy made his move in 2006.
The Kerry-Tyrone rivalry was one of the more fascinating aspects of the decade but there's no disguising that there have been major disappointments too. Dublin still can't get into an All-Ireland final, let alone win one; Mayo's misery grows ever more acute; Galway and Meath have dropped back alarmingly since contesting the 2001 All-Ireland final; Laois looked set for something special after winning the 2003 Leinster final but ran out of ambition very quickly from there on.
The All-Ireland qualifiers certainly added impetus to the scene and, among other positives, took Fermanagh and Wexford on magical adventures all the way to All-Ireland semi-finals. Westmeath, Sligo and Wicklow were others to use the back-door to good effect.
For all that, it has to be noted that 13 counties failed to win either an All-Ireland or provincial title in any grade during the decade while five others took just one prize. Of the 150 All-Ireland and provincial titles available throughout the decade, 125 (83.3pc) were won by eight counties, leaving just 25 titles (16.6pc) to be shared between the remaining 24 counties.
That's quite a gap between rich and poor. It may have always been so but it's disappointing to see a new millennium continue on the same trend. What's more, it's difficult to see much change over the coming decade.