Tuesday 21 May 2019

Joe Brolly: Fans around us were leaving in droves, taking their bored kids with them

Pádraic Cunningham of Galway in action against Dan O'Donoghue of Kerry during the GAA Football All-Ireland Junior Championship Final match between Kerry and Galway at Cusack Park in Ennis, Co. Clare. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Pádraic Cunningham of Galway in action against Dan O'Donoghue of Kerry during the GAA Football All-Ireland Junior Championship Final match between Kerry and Galway at Cusack Park in Ennis, Co. Clare. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

The referee should have stopped the game halfway through Kerry versus Galway last Sunday (I write 'game' for want of a better word) so that a public announcement could be made: "Attention, attention. This is an announcement on behalf of all GAA members. Could the players on both teams and their managements bear in mind that there are people watching."

There we were, sitting like eejits in our waterproof ponchos, rain bouncing off us, bored stiff. The problem with the blanket defensive format is that spectators become irrelevant. The teams play as though there was no-one there. And if things continue like this for much longer, there won't be.

Midway through the first half of what was supposed to be the big game of the day, Monaghan and Kildare people around us were leaving in droves, taking their bored kids with them. By the 31st minute, the score was Galway 0-3, Kerry 0-2. Changed times when Galway are playing Kerry in Croke Park and no-one is excited. Thoroughly modern Galway have that effect on football. Jim McGuinness may be "fascinated" but what about the rest of us?

Eamonn Fitzmaurice's decision to employ a full-time sweeper turned Kerry into Fermanagh, and their final tally of 1-10 flattered them. Their young superstar David Clifford can score 1-5 on scraps. What would he be capable of if Kerry - God forbid - played an attack-based game?

As it was, Fitzmaurice, like most managers nowadays, lost his nerve and decided to play Galway with a safety-first system that Galway are better at. So Kerry laboured to a depressing, inevitable defeat in a game that had the sort of atmosphere normally found on the moon. Bring back Carlow, all is forgiven.

What a difference it would have made had he put Kieran Donaghy at number 14, flanked by Paul Geaney and Clifford. Donaghy, unlike Michael Murphy, does not wander around the no man's land of the middle third in big games, giving the odd handpass and taking the frees. Throughout his career he has stood tall on the edge of the square and embraced the pressure, his body language screaming 'Bring it on'.

Last year he butchered Galway, putting on a freak show of high catching and destructive finishing. It's a pity he wasn't introduced on Sunday. He would have given us all a lift. He would have put the Galway management into a panic. ('OH MY GOD, THEY ARE KICKING THE BALL IN LONG. WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON PADDY?')

Kerry's outfield players would immediately have begun to kick long, and the big man would very likely have caused havoc. Also, us spectators would have got something for our money. But this is Gaelic football 2018, and all sense of adventure has been removed. So we had to endure another A v B training game, boredom reigned, the rain rained, and by the end the stands were almost empty.

What would David Clifford be capable of if Kerry — God forbid — played an attack-based game? Photo: Sportsfile
What would David Clifford be capable of if Kerry — God forbid — played an attack-based game? Photo: Sportsfile

Playing rule changes are urgently needed to curb the zonal defences that are ruining Gaelic football. Here are some I have been advocating for several years now:

1) Kick-outs must go beyond the 45, and for the kick-outs, both teams must go to their throw-in formations, with only the four midfielders between the 45s. Once the ball is touched, only then can the other players break the 45. Each linesman will stand on the 45 ensuring no-one breaks the line. This will mean that between 35 to 50 times per game, a midfielder has the ball in the centre, in space, with six forwards ahead of him. This will curb the blanket defence, will not disrupt the skills of the game and we know it will work since it's more or less what we used to do until 10 years ago.

2) No passing back to the 'keeper.

3) No passing back over the halfway line.

4) No sweeper allowed in front of the full-back. This, in tandem with the kick-out rule, will mean that it is very hard to stifle the game. This was Jim McGuinness's key innovation and makes it very difficult to play the game with real attacking rhythm since it prevents a direct ball to the danger area. Again, this will be easy to police since the linesman and umpires will immediately see the sweeper and the referee is constantly looking anyway to see if a forward is being held. A free-in from the 21-yard line will do the trick.

5) Play 13-a-side at inter-county level. We have a lesser cup competition in Derry which operates a 13-a-side rule and the games flow better, with more kicking and skilful players given a better opportunity to strut their stuff. They also play 13-a-side in Boston, where the games are very entertaining. The game urgently needs to be sped up. Hurling goes at 100 miles an hour from the throw-in. In Gaelic football, we tend to dawdle and slow the game down, then speed up going into the final stages. This change encourages quick movement of the ball and adventure because there is more space.

Again, in tandem with the other rules I propose, it would make blanket defending very difficult. Instead, nothing has even been trialled. Keeping our heads in the sand has meant that the game has become hijacked by a few high-profile managers and coaches, a malaise that has ruined most county football and has spread to the clubs.

In Donegal on Thursday night, Gaoth Dobhair met St Eunan's in a top-of-the-table Division 1 league clash. Both teams play the 1-13-1 formation pioneered by McGuinness. At half-time, the score was Gaoth Dobhair 0-2, St Eunan's 0-1. In fairness, St Eunan's will have been heartened by their second-half performance, during which they put on a scoring spurt that brought their final tally to 0-3. Worrying times indeed for the Gaoth Dobhair management.

The evening before Galway v Kerry, we started with another training game. Tyrone brought their formidable defensive structure, plonked it down in front of Roscommon, and made the Rossies look as though they had turned up in Croke Park by mistake. It was a highly efficient, well executed training ground performance by Tyrone. Again, the game was not in the slightest bit entertaining or exciting. Blanket defensive football never is, since the imperative is not to look bad, not to make mistakes and not to take risks. So, when Galway win (for example against Mayo in front of a full house in Castlebar) it looks awful, and when they lose, it looks awful. And so on and so forth.

Even Dublin are succumbing to the safety first malaise, with retention of possession the be all and end all. Faced with Donegal's blanket defence last week, they played the ball around the middle third for ages in the last quarter and took a lot of stick for it. It was very boring, but this is what blanket defensive football does. As Tomás Ó Sé said to me, why should Dublin take the blame? Donegal were five points behind and instead of coming out and pressing, they still sat back. Yawn, yawn.

So the Dubs were able to run the clock down, hand-passing and kicking the ball backwards and sideways, while Donegal had a few players outside the blanket running about after them like dogs chasing aeroplanes. If the Dubs are playing like this, then the idea that the game will, in due course, evolve back towards excitement and skills is a fallacy.

The Roscommon/Tyrone game brings me to another point. Tyrone won by 18 points. It was desperately embarrassing for the good people of Roscommon and their team. If you rewind 12 months, to this exact time last year, Tyrone did precisely the same thing to Armagh. Only that time, they won by 19 points, on a scoreline of 3-17 to 0-8.

Roscommon and Armagh are not bad teams. They are very good, entertaining footballing sides. They played a brilliant, adventurous, epic last-16 game a fortnight ago. Only, if the GAA were doing anything other than keeping their heads in the sand hoping for the best (a theme running through the organisation at central level) this should have been the Tier Two final (I advocate calling it the Páidí Ó Sé Cup), played on All-Ireland final day before the battle for Sam Maguire.

Last year, Armagh lost by 19 points at this stage. This year, Roscommon lost by 18, and it's only going to get worse for them. Who, bar the sadists amongst us or the Japanese tourists, will be in Croke Park to watch them against the Dubs in a fortnight's time?

Like the playing rules, we urgently need to take action. A tiered championship is an absolute imperative. Emlyn Mulligan, who has graced the Leitrim jersey for over a decade, revealed last weekend that he has never played in Croke Park. I was lucky to be in Gaelic Park a few months ago to see their championship opener against New York. What a game of football! When Leitrim came from three behind at the end of extra time to win it, with Mulligan prompting them like a great quarterback, we were jumping and shouting.

The third tier could be the Kevin Heffernan Cup, again played on All-Ireland final day. The counties in the finals should be treated exactly the same way, regardless of their tier, in terms of ticket allocation, holidays, All Stars etc. What a festival of football that would be. Instead, we have an entirely elitist system where the Super 8 comprises seven of the Division 1 teams from this season and one team (Roscommon) newly promoted to Division 1.

A fellow from Armagh tweeted me last week to say Armagh don't want to play in a tiered championship. Yet they turned up and played their hearts out in the Division 3 final. At the moment, Armagh would be thrashed by 20 points in the championship by all of the big teams. This is destructive to morale, publicly humiliating, disenchants the supporters, affects fundraising, and often causes players to decide that a summer in America is a far better option, something we know all about in Derry. But with the tiered system, as Armagh progress to Division 1 and / or win the Páidí Ó Sé on finals day in front of a packed Croke Park, then they would be in the Sam Maguire. At the moment, like most counties, they have as much chance of competing at the top level as a statue doing a crap. Cinderella is a fairy story.

The Super 8 at least achieves something: It highlights that we cannot go on the way we have been, hoping for the best. In 2014, we had the worst All-Ireland football final ever played, with Kerry copying Donegal's system in order to compete. Nothing much happened until a bad kick-out handed Kerry the victory, if you could call it a victory. Since then, the state of the game has been glossed over by the epic rivalry between Mayo and Dublin (with four classics involving Kerry and Mayo thrown in). These incredible finales to each season since 2014 have created an illusion that all is well. But with Mayo out, we are able to see things as they really are, and it is very, very worrying.

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