Published 12/05/2011 | 05:00
At the beginning of the last decade it was a circle of power players that resembled middleweight boxing's greatest era of the 1980s. Kings.
For Hagler, Leonard, Hearns and Duran read O Se, Tohill, McDermott and Walsh. Only there was more than just this stellar quartet of great midfielders. Ciaran Whelan was just coming into his prime, Niall Buckley was comfortable in the slipstream, Paul McGrane was emerging, Liam McHale and Jarlath Burns had just exited without the nurture of All-Ireland medals, but with the knowledge that they had the capacity to take a game and dominate it.
You weren't in business unless you had at least one midfielder enforcer.
More than 10 years on, however, and midfield is a wasteland. The era of the fear laidir who could dominate kick-outs and consequently control games is fading. But there are remnants of it still there: Limerick's John Galvin is a throwback to those days in the late 1990s and early 2000s when those predators already mentioned were in their prime.
Even at 21, Aidan Walsh may emerge this year as the best midfielder around and Dermot Earley, the last man to really dominate midfield in the orthodox style, remains an inter-county player despite his aggravated knee trouble.
But the quality and quantity has diminished appreciably to the point where midfielders are no longer the pinnacles of their teams. As an entity they have lost their lustre.
Kerry were banking on David Moran emerging until injury put him out for the season, and they may now be on a wing and a prayer with their two central positions. In last year's All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Down, the first two players replaced were midfielders Micheal Quirke and Seamus Scanlon.
In other counties, adaptability has been in vogue. Dublin used Barry Cahill, a wing-back for most of his inter-county career, during the league; Galway switched Finian Hanley from full-back and then centre-back to midfield.
But like that iconic middleweight division of the 1980s, the landscape has just got too busy for that type of star to emerge again. Much of it is an evolution thing. The pace of the game has ramped up so much that the bigger, less mobile player is no longer suited to midfield play.
Teams have found different ways to play the game and that has brought significant consequences for the orthodoxy of midfield play.
Dublin's concession of almost every kick-out to Tyrone in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final (especially kick- outs that followed their own scores) had its basis in giving more time to their own players to filter back and position themselves for a massed defence of the next attack. It worked, helped by Tyrone's profligacy.
But it also said everything about how this Dublin management see the position of midfield in the modern game. There's no Whelan among their ranks to boss and enforce so they have cut their cloth to suit accordingly.
In the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork last August, Stephen Cluxton never once landed a kick-out further than 15 metres from the sideline. The idea of just bombing one with distance up the middle was never considered.
Maybe Dublin didn't trust themselves enough to get on the end of 60-metre restarts? Maybe they just don't see the risk in giving away possession in central positions when it is easier to defend from the wings?
Burns -- the Armagh midfielder who quit after their 1999 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Meath -- once heard a comment from Tyrone manager Mickey Harte in a radio discussion that burned deeply in his mind.
"Mickey maintained it was no longer about numbers eight and nine in the middle of the field, it was about the eight or nine that play in the middle of the field. The words stuck with me. I think the philosophy has stuck with a lot of other managers too," said Burns.
Hence Harte has never allowed height to underpin any midfield selection he has made. Kevin Hughes, the late Cormac McAnallen, Sean Cavanagh, Enda McGinley and Colin Homes aren't towering figures.
McHale cut his teeth in a Mayo team laden with big fielding men and still sees a place for them in any team. Sadly, he says, too many don't agree.
"I think the game has quickened so much there are coaches who are looking at a fella who is 6'5" or 6'6", maybe 17 stone, and they are drawing a line through him because he requires too much work," says McHale.
"I came from a team where Willie Joe Padden, TJ Kilgallon and Sean Maher were among the best midfielders of their era and I'd go with the old American basketball theory that you can't coach height."
Now working as a coach with Micheal McDermott in Clare, McHale thinks there is a distinction between Division 1/Division 2 teams and Division 3/Division 4 teams and how they set out their midfield.
"I'd notice in the lower divisions that the bigger man might get their chance, while it's the more mobile package in the top two divisions," he said.
"To me there's always room for the bigger player. I think there's a lot of risk in short, precision kick-outs. I've seen teams do a number on opponents. They've been able to crack it easily.
"If you work hard on the bigger player, you'll get the benefits. I can see where coaches are coming from. They want their players to move from end to end regardless of the number on their back. But I would still put faith and investment in the bigger player."
McHale thinks he would survive more comfortably now than he did in his own era.
"It's a strange thing. I would probably have struggled against the bigger midfielder of my own era, the fella 6'3" or 6'4". But I would have had the mobility to get out the sidelines and press them for those short kick-outs," he said.
"You were knocking into a lot of hard men in that era. I started out against Jim Ronayne of Dublin, Brian Talty of Galway, guys like that. But now coaches look at those dimensions and they run a line through it."
Burns was passionate in his argument at last year's Congress for greater debate to take place on the playing rule changes, centrally the mark.
He feels the the introduction of a mark from kick-outs could tempt longer kick-outs and a better standard of fielding.
"I went to a lot of league games during the experiment and the standard improved because of the mark. But there was very little of it in last year's championship. Aidan Walsh in the first half of the All-Ireland final, but after that?
"It's one of the skills that spectators enjoy watching most and that should be important to legislators."
It's also Burns' belief that with the versatility of the modern Gaelic footballer has come a dilution of the specialist positions: full-back, full-forward and especially midfield.
"The first requirement for a midfielder is a good engine. In some cases it has become nearly the only requirement. But a good midfielder doesn't have to be a big man. Darragh O Se and Paul McGrane didn't tower over opponents but they had serious presence. There are none around like them at present."