Saturday 20 January 2018

88 reasons to look forward to summer

Diarmuid Connolly
Diarmuid Connolly
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

We can't be sure of its origin, nor do we know if it's a one-off or the start of a new trend but, whatever the circumstances, the burst of scoring enterprise delivered across the country's football fields this spring has provided a fascinating introduction for the championships.

That the most dramatic impact of attacking liberation was experienced in Division 1 of the Allianz Football League makes it all the more intriguing. This is elite territory, complete with the most sophisticated security systems, yet they were de-coded as easily as if the pin numbers were flashed up on scoreboards before games.

By the time Diarmuid Connolly hit the last of 3,338 scores in the final minute of last Sunday's Division 1 final, the difference between this and last year was so vast as to become a thing of wonder. Fittingly, Connolly's strike yielded a goal, thus maintaining an unusual pattern this season.

Remarkably, it was the 88th Division 1 goal, an increase of 39 (almost 80pc) on last year. The points return was up from 733 to 898 (23pc). The combined impact was that spectators enjoyed, on average, an increase of nine points per game in total scoring.

ENTERTAINMENT

That's a massive surge which greatly added to entertainment levels. The goal-glut is especially interesting, suggesting that there has been a subtle shift towards a greater sense of adventure, both from a tactical and execution viewpoint.

Certainly, there seems to be more emphasis on attempting to create goal openings from half-chances, rather than taking the safe option by tapping over a point. Mayo were Division 1's top goalscorers on 15 (eight games) followed by Dublin and Derry on 14 each from nine outings. Cork (eight games) landed 11 goals, with Tyrone and Kerry (seven games each) on ten.

Of course, the big question is whether this year's Division 1 campaign was a maverick, which lived by no norms, one which will disappear as quickly as it arrived. After all, it displayed its eccentricity by sentencing some counties to the indignity of returning home as losers despite racking up scores that would normally ensure easy wins. Mayo (2-18 v Kildare), Kildare (1-21 v Tyrone), Derry 3-14 v Cork), Cork (2-14 v Mayo), Galway (4-11 v Meath), Fermanagh (4-10 v Roscommon) and Tipperary (0-22 v Wicklow) all experienced that empty feeling after good days from an attacking perspective.

Scoring patterns below Division 1 sent out confusing messages. All three groups showed an overall increase but Divisions 2 and 3 were only marginally up on last year, whereas Division 4 increased by an average of 4.6 points per game.

Why such a variation between Divisions 1 and 2, homes to the best teams where one would expect some degree of uniformity? Obviously, most of the top finishers were in Division 1 but then so were most of the best defenders. Not, mind you, that there's much wrong with the Monaghan and Donegal defences in Division 2.

Naturally, the impact of the black card, introduced this year to counteract cynical fouling, takes some of the credit for the higher scoring yields. Players are keen to avoid being sent off for one cynical foul and, consequently, are thinking more carefully about their tackling. Coaches are conscious too of the need for greater vigilance in how their players behave, while also recognising that the opposition have to be more careful. That encourages a more enterprising environment, with the emphasis on creativity.

That, at least, is the theory which is supported by the increase in scoring among the elite. However, it does not provide concrete proof that the new rules are leading to a new world, since the black card applied in all divisions, yet 2 and 3 showed only marginal scoring increases.

Still, the main focus is always on the top end of the market, which enjoyed scoring feasts most weekends. An average goal rate of 2.84 per game, as opposed to 1.6 last year, is a massive difference, especially in the context of an era when the goal rate had dropped.

Interestingly, it made something of a comeback in parts of last year's championship but moved on to a different level this spring. Was it a league phenomenon only? How much impact did the black card have? Are the locksmiths already at work fitting stronger bolts for the championship?

We simply don't know. However, we're very much aware that the Division 1 campaign showed just how exciting football can be when the balance nudges towards the creative side. Hopefully, it will remain there for the championship.

Donegal not only county to mess clubs around

Jim McGuinness made a fair point when he queried why Donegal's club fixture arrangements get so much attention compared to many other counties.

"Every single team in Ulster called their championship off (last year) until their county team was out. We were the only team that came out and said we were going to do it," he said.

Donegal even attracted Croke Park's attention when it emerged that no senior club championship games would be played this year until the county team completed its All-Ireland programme.

So why do Donegal attract attention when other counties, who run pretty erratic club schedules, tend to escape?

"I know it's coming from certain quarters – let's put it like that," said McGuinness.

Quite true, but they're all from Donegal and various factions therein. Other counties tend to do it in private.

Mayo exit blessing in disguise

Would Derry have been better off if they had lost the league semi-final narrowly to Mayo and taken encouragement from running the All-Ireland runners-up so close, despite being a man down for 45 minutes?

It would have spared them the trimming they took from Dublin, which may damage their confidence heading into the championship.

Are Mayo better off to have lost to Derry, even if it did raise questions about their capacity to exploit advantages? Dublin's performance last Sunday suggested that Mayo were best clear of Croke Park. Things could be different later in the year but the last thing Mayo needed was a big defeat in a league final.

They would have done much better than Derry but the signs hinted that Mayo were priming for championship than league. In the circumstances, it may have been the right decision.

Irish Independent

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