While watching the Allianz Football League last weekend I kept getting flashbacks to when I played in the competition.
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Times have changed – and for the better I hasten to add. We had what could be described as a laissez-faire approach to the competition – particularly the first three rounds, which were then played before Christmas.
There was a lot of dirty petrol to be burned off as fitness levels weren't great.
The pitches were heavy and mucky and the intensity of the games were comparable to a challenge match.
And had we won the All-Ireland the previous September we were still in party mode.
For the away fixtures – particularly if they were played north of the border – it was customary to have a rake of pints on the eve of games.
Terms like rehydration, recovery sessions or inputting personal data had yet to be coined. They were truly innocent times.
Last weekend's first-round fixtures couldn't have been more different.
I’ve never seen so many inter-county footballers in such superb physical condition in the month of January.
Dublin and Kerry were on team holidays in Bali and Thailand respectively earlier this month.
At most, they had four field-based training sessions since their return. Nonetheless, the football in Croke Park was top drawer.
It reflected the professionalism of modern-day county footballers and how well they look after themselves.
The scoring stats and the closeness of the majority of the games across the four divisions made impressive reading.
Division 1 featured two draws and a one-point victory, while Tyrone’s five-point win over Meath was the most one-sided game. The average score in the four games was 36 points, with seven goals being scored.
Division 2 had one draw, a one-point and a four-point win while Armagh’s 13-point victory over Cavan was the biggest margin in any division. The average score per game was 34 points and 12 goals were scored.
Division 3 featured two draws as well as a three-point and a seven-point win. Interestingly, they had the lowest average score – 26 points and just four goals.
Perhaps the stats reflects how cut-throat the competition is in the division – as only the top two teams are guaranteed a place in the All-Ireland Championship.
In Division 4 the victory margins were two, three, six and 12 points. The average score was 27 points and nine goals were scored.
Equally impressive were the attendances. In Division 1 on Saturday night there were more than 42,000 in Croke Park and almost 9,000 in Ballybofey.
These figures underline the appetite which exists for county football.
Sadly, it wasn’t the quality of the football which was the main topic of conversation afterwards.
Rather, it was the impact of the new rules and how referees coped with their additional responsibilities.
In the event, the impact of the advanced mark was minimal – not because it worked well, but because teams used it sparingly.
There were three reasons why it was mostly ignored.
1) Coaches are reluctant to risk giving the ball away.
2) Teams have done little field training so have had few opportunities to work on set plays to deploy the mark.
3) There is a deficiency in the kickpassing skills of the majority of county footballers.
Up to now the most common kick pass was a jab kick over a short distance that bounced in front of the forward.
With the mark, more distance, power and follow-through are required by the kicker.
It was noticeable how many attempted marks failed last weekend because the kick dropped short and bounced in front of the intended recipient.
Match statistics underline how little it was used. In seven of the 16 games there was no score from the mark.
London was the only Division 4 team to score from a mark. Kerry’s first mark against Dublin was achieved by Paul Geaney in the 66th minute, even though Tommy Walsh – an obvious target-man – was deployed on the edge of the parallelogram.
Geaney’s mark underlined another potential problem with the rule. Defenders will attempt to prevent a player who has made a clean catch from raising his hand in order to claim the mark.
In Geaney’s case, he was awarded a free but the rule is far from clear-cut.
So, let me again express my disdain for the advanced mark. It is a solution to a problem that didn’t exist.
Worse still, it could change the dynamic of Gaelic football, turning it into a stop-start contest. It must be ditched sooner rather than later.
We witnessed mixed performances from the referees.
However, such is their workload, it is nearly humanly impossible for them to be on top of everything.
Too often last weekend they were the centre of attention, which is never healthy.
Timekeeping and, in particular, the amount of time being added on to the announced figure for injury time at the end of games is set to become a major issue.
We again witnessed cards being issued for what I would describe as ‘Mickey Mouse’ offences.
For instance, in Croke Park Sean Hurson flashed two blacks, 10 yellow and two red cards in the second half.
The black card Kerry’s Graham O’Sullivan received was particularly harsh as his clash with John Small was purely accidental. But I imagine there will be more controversies before the springis over.
Although she is still just 25, Grace Clifford is a seasoned campaigner with Kildare's footballers. She has played in an All-Ireland intermediate final with a torn cruciate ligament, and sat out another as she recovered from it. Kildare lost the first, and won the second. "I'm trying to make up for that now, and get to another All-Ireland final and actually win and play," she says.