Tomás Ó Sé: Seems to me there's a perfect storm brewing and it's not bringing good news for the GAA
Published 16/07/2016 | 17:00
I got a text from 'Ricey' McMenamin during the week, wondering if I was around for a pint in Ventry.
He found it hilarious when I responded that I was in Cork, training for a game with Nemo. 'Ricey' obviously believed I'd have grown out of that kind of madness by now. "Will just have to have your pints as well as my own so!" he replied.
And I had to smile at the thought of that, of 'Ricey' cruising around West Kerry looking for mischief with those of us who, at one time in our lives, would happily have had him tarred and feathered for even setting foot in our neck of the woods.
There's a genuine bond there now though. Whenever he comes down, he's looked after like an old family friend. As a player, he had a mouth on him that would start a row in a passport photo booth and it was easy to hate him. Bad enough that that Tyrone team kept raining on Kerry's parade, but to have to listen to one of their corner-backs shouting the odds was enough to drive us near demented.
But that's a funny thing about the GAA.
It's as if the lads you have the hardest, most lawless battles against eventually become the ones you form the strongest bonds with. When it's over, you can see the bigger picture. You might go to war for 70-odd minutes, but then you lift your head out of that inter-county bubble and get on with being a normal member of the human race again.
And I'd have liked nothing better than to sink a few pints with 'Ricey' this week of all weeks.
Because I suspect we're heading into the mother of all Ulster finals tomorrow in Clones. I never thought I'd say this about an Ulster game, but thank God for Tyrone v Donegal.
It feels as if the game is in the dock all the time now, doesn't it? Nobody's happy. The Connacht final was a contest with all the cut and ambition of an embroidery class. Just endless knitting of lateral passes over and back, over and back. Line-dancing with a football.
Maybe the worst thing about it was a sense that it had reduced the players to robots. They played strictly as they were programmed to play. That is without any reference to individualism or risk.
You remember that image of Roy Hodgson during England's game with Iceland at the Euros? The moment he catches a glimpse of the stadium TV and suddenly realises that that big face staring down at him is his own? His reaction is to stand there, rubbing his chin, like he's some kind of nuclear physicist trying to figure out a complex puzzle.
England, with all their superstar millionaires, were on their way out - having been outplayed and outsmarted by a bunch of journeymen - and all Roy could think to do was start rubbing his chin.
That was his way of trying to communicate some kind of intellectual level to his grasp of a game that everyone else knew was being decided on brutally simple terms. That is, one team knew what they were doing. The other (Roy's) didn't.
Now it seems to me that everyone in Gaelic football wants to be the next Jimmy McGuinness. But all they're doing is showing themselves up as another Hodgson.
That is, they want to be seen as having some kind of defensive masterplan that completely flummoxes the opposition. And they seem to think that what McGuinness did with Donegal was no more refined that just getting bodies swarming back to support an orthodox six backs, then bombing forward when they have the ball.
Now Jim himself must have had tongue firmly in cheek with his newspaper column this week where he more or less said that defensive coaches had become a blight on the game.
In many ways, he's the one who created that monster. That said, I could see some logic in what he was trying to argue. Seems to me that the key word in all of this discussion is 'transition'. Just packing your defence is tantamount to an admission of defeat unless you have players who have the skill-sets to then transition into attack at a moment's notice.
Jim's Donegal team had success, not because they simply sand-bagged their defence, but because they counter-attacked brilliantly. Same with Mickey Harte's Tyrone.
But last weekend we got two teams, Galway and Roscommon, doing a hopeless impersonation of what Donegal and Tyrone have been doing for years now. It was imitation but it sure as hell wasn't flattering. Tomorrow, thankfully, we get the real deal. We get an Ulster final contested by two teams who know how to go for the kill. To me, Harte's achievement in rebuilding Tyrone yet again after the departure of greats like Canavan, McGuigan, Gormley, Jordan, McMenamin, Mulligan, Dooher, Hughes and O'Neill must go down as one of the best of modern times.
I really like the way this young Tyrone team has been playing. They are 100pc comfortable with the very kind of system that so many other managers are trying and failing to deploy.
There's a new generation of footballer in that jersey now and they're all serious athletes who look like they're bouncing off the ground.
Delete the names listed above and replace them now with McRory, McCarron, McCann, Sludden, Harte, Donnelly, McShane and O'Neill and you don't have any dramatic fall in quality.
That's some tribute to how much Tyrone GAA has its house in order. But it's an even bigger one to Harte's uncanny ability to reinvent a team.
One common denominator of all Harte teams is that they don't give a fig what others think of them, whether in terms of style or scruple.
That's something that was noticeable in McGuinness too and, now, in his successor, Rory Gallagher. They keep the media at arm's length. They take the view, 'Write what you like, it's immaterial to us.'
We see that with Jim Gavin and the Dubs as well, a complete indifference to how the outside world views them. They're not in this business to be liked. They're in it to succeed.
Now I'm maybe leaving myself open to the charge of hypocrisy here given my own reluctance to be interviewed during my time playing for Kerry, but it seems to me there's a perfect storm brewing here and it's not good news for the GAA.
Niall Sludden in action
I mean I saw this week that Niall Sludden was provided for a group media interview at Tyrone's GAA centre and, reading it, it struck me that I'd previously known next to nothing about a county player who is already 24.
As a GAA fan now, it strikes me that there are so few windows opened into the world of our biggest stars and, in the vacuum, maybe all we're getting is a succession of laments for how bad the game has become.
Let's be honest, there were always brutal football games in a championship summer, there just wasn't the same breadth of reaction to every bad one.
But, if the players are going to remain largely invisible to media (and, accordingly, public), something has to fill the void.
Maybe if I was a manager, I'd be preaching the polar opposite to what I'm saying here, but I'm really coming round to the conclusion that we're marketing our games damn poorly at a time when they've never needed to be marketed more.
I mean I'd love to know more about Tiernan McCann, the prototype of the modern half-back. Or about Mattie Donnelly, a perfect example of the modern midfielder. But all you get is tiny bits and pieces. So the biggest stars in our games today are virtual ghosts. It makes no sense.
Anyway, for what it's worth, I fancy Tyrone tomorrow.
I think Harte will have it in Tyrone players' heads that they're the younger, fresher team and he'll want them to hit the ground running.
He'll be telling them to use their legs, to be aggressive, to get into the heads of Donegal's key players and make them doubt.
They'll be out to stop Michael Murphy, of course, but also the McHughs, Reilly, McGlynn and Mac Niallais who all love to run from deep. Gallagher on the other hand will want his defenders to rip into the Tyrone forwards, make them feel that they've all but invaded their pores.
It's a game that's so hard to call for the very reason that both sides are absolutely comfortable with what they're being asked to do.
So, to me, this is by far the biggest contest of the year so far. A genuine shoot-out between heavyweights. And it's absolutely right and proper that they resisted all suggestions of bringing it to Croke Park. This is Ulster's baby. This is their day. The rest of us should just feel thankful that we can, at least, tune into it.
Still, bottom line, only four of this Tyrone panel have senior Ulster medals to their name and I think that'll instil a manic hunger in them.
I can't wait to see it. Because this is championship, no bluff, no mimicking, no empty imitation. This will be two real heavyweights slugging it out to the bell.
A pity we had to wait until the middle of July to see it.