Thursday 30 March 2017

Where have all the midfielders gone?

Two of the great midfielders of the past decade, Ciaran Whelan of Dublin and Dermot Earley of Kildare, go head to head in last year's Leinster Final. As this generation of midfield talismen retire, there are few younger players to take their place
Two of the great midfielders of the past decade, Ciaran Whelan of Dublin and Dermot Earley of Kildare, go head to head in last year's Leinster Final. As this generation of midfield talismen retire, there are few younger players to take their place
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

They've given tees to goalkeepers for more elevated kick-outs and, for a few months at least, clean catches in the middle of the field are being rewarded with free-kicks, affording the catcher time and space to pinpoint his delivery.

But if the moves are designed to breed a new generation of midfield strong men, they aren't likely to succeed.

The 'fear laidir' is dead. The age of the great orchestrating midfielder is gone. The last rites have been offered up with the passing of the most consistent and most effective member of the club over the last two decades.

Darragh O Se's departure leaves behind a midfield wasteland in Gaelic football. What's left behind are a group of functional, purposeful and workmanlike foot soldiers. But none with the field general qualities of O Se and those of his genre that he shared the trenches with for so long.

tempo

The last year alone has whipped Armagh's Paul McGrane, Dublin's Ciaran Whelan and now O Se.

You know the prototype. Anything between 6'0" and 6'5", good hands, took no prisoners, took no messing, generally didn't stray too far from the territory bordered by the two 45-metre lines unless, in O Se's case, there was business to be done beneath the crossbar in the dying moments of a game.

They dictated games, controlled their tempo and understood what had to be done. O Se's former Kerry and An Ghaeltacht colleague Dara O Cinneide sat in admiration last August at how he was able to direct everything in their All-Ireland quarter-final against Dublin from virtually a standing position. Closing up on Stephen Cluxton's kick-outs, O Se's firm hand signals to colleagues mirrored the work of an air traffic controller that day.

The midfield strong man hasn't been indispensable by any means. Sean Cavanagh won successive All Stars in the position from 2003 to '05 and is generally regarded as one of the top two or three players of the last decade. But he plays a much different variation of the midfield game. Not for Cavanagh the soaring catch or bustle.

Conversely, you can't ever have imagined O Se, McGrane or before them, Kevin Walsh of Galway or John McDermott of Meath, cutting as a newly deployed full-forward as Cavanagh was in '08 or as an accelerating half-forward as he has been so often in his career. Whelan may have been more adaptable, but he was never more effective, and his team were never more effective, than he was as a midfielder.

When O Se and McGrane went head- to-head in that epic All-Ireland quarter- final in '06 it was one of the last great battles of the era. Eventually O Se got on top, making Kerry's victory possible and helping to erase some of the All-Ireland final memories from '02

O Se had a tough upbringing in the midfield jungle. In his early years he had Tohill, Walsh, McDermott and Kildare's Niall Buckley to contend with.

However, one by one they drifted away but weren't replaced. Meath and Galway have never returned to All-Ireland finals since the retirements of McDermott and Walsh, Tohill's departure from Derry at the end of '03 also left a void.

Even in counties like Westmeath and Cavan, fleeting success had foundations in the likes of Rory O'Connell and Dermot McCabe as midfielders, enforcers in that O Se mould.

Across the GAA landscape now the profile of the midfield anchor has changed.

The names of those left behind don't jump out at you. Kildare's Dermot Earley is enjoying an Indian summer to a career that is only three years shorter than O Se's. But in the years in between, illness, injury and a dip in Kildare's fortunes took the best out of him.

Galway's Joe Bergin never delivered on the promise he showed early in 2000 and '01, while across the border in Mayo Ronan McGarrity has the hands but doesn't have the presence to enter that realm of 'fear laidir'.

Nigel Crawford in Meath, Martin McGrath in Fermanagh, Fergal Doherty in Derry and Nicholas Murphy in Cork have all served their counties well at various points of the last decade, but none have or will live up to the billing. The best Dublin have to offer right now is Darren Magee or Eamonn Fennell.

Maybe in time that landscape will change. David Moran could step up to the plate, Tommy Walsh could be back before long to resume his life as a Kerry footballer in the engine room, while there's a few being talked about with potential in Cork. Joe Kernan has high hopes for Paul Conroy in Galway and maybe Aidan O'Shea is suited to a more central role in Mayo.

The prototype was based on more than just high fielding and strength. The genre that O Se was champion of carried great mental strength to the arena. They presented themselves for responsibility when the need arose.

Perhaps it's part of Gaelic football's evolution that Darragh O Se is seen as the last of a dying breed. Maybe that breed will rise again. But right now that landscape is barren, the breed virtually extinct.

Irish Independent

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