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Eamonn Sweeney: Dark Age theory just doesn't tally

The former Donegal player Brendan Devenney got a bit of notice for his comments after last Sunday's county senior football final, largely because they chimed in with the notion doing the rounds at the moment that the game of Gaelic football is gone to Hell in a handcart and shouldn't be mentioned in polite company or shown to the children.

Devenney had just managed St Eunan's to a 1-7 to 0-9 victory over Naomh Conaill but he moaned: "I said to people in advance, 'don't be expecting a good match'. I knew it wasn't going to be. Having to say to young Conor Gibbons (his team's corner-forward), 'you're not going to enjoy this match, that's just the way it has gone. It has become a dogfight'."

He also had an apparent dig at his county team: "It's a bit like the scenario with Donegal. If you play a normal game against them, they're going to beat you. I don't like that type of football."

Recalling how much better it once was, Devenney painted a Bergmanesque picture of what awaits the GAA in this Dark Age of football negativity: "It's getting to the stage where neutrals and people who are half-interested in club football are not going to come to games unless we do something about it and start improving the product."

Plague stalks the land, apparently. Now, I've nothing against Brendan Devenney. He was a fine forward who lit up many a game and fair play to him for steering St Eunan's to a county title. But, for one thing, the use of the word 'product' always makes me suspicious. And every time I hear someone invoking those old days of sparkling, attack-minded open football, I've got a problem.

You see, I just don't remember that golden age. Maybe the old memory just isn't what it should be, but as far as I recall, Gaelic football's always been composed of some exciting games, some boring ones and some that are in between.

So I had a look at a few figures. There have been three Donegal county finals played in this decade and they've yielded an average of 23 points a game. Like a lot in club football, it's not spectacular but it's not terrible either. In the last decade, when things were apparently better, the average was actually lower, 20 points a game. In the '90s, it was higher, 24 points a game. But in the '80s it was 19 points a game and in the '70s it was 20 points a game. What can you tell from those figures?

That things picked up a bit between the '80s and the '90s I suppose. But mainly that there's not any great difference scorewise between Donegal club football then and now. Because if the game was far more open in the past, it's not reflected on the scoreboard. Unless they were really bad shots back then, forwards who kicked the ball wide even though the marking wasn't particularly tight. But, as far as I remember, Donegal actually had some pretty good forwards back in the day. Brendan Devenney was one of them.

I'm sure you could repeat this same experiment in your own county and get a similar result. For example, there were claims after this year's Cork final that it also represented some ne plus ultra of defensiveness. Coincidentally, the score there was 1-7 to 0-9 too, 19 points. Castlehaven won the game.

Their previous final victories, in 1989, 1994 and 2003, came in games where a total of 16, 22 and 26 points were scored respectively. Not so different from this year really. Last Sunday they hit 1-15, almost all from play, in the Munster quarter-final against Drom-Broadford. That was a more open game. Sometimes they are and sometimes they're not.

The things which are wrong with Gaelic football are probably fundamental to the nature of the game. Because, if you look at the statistics, there doesn't seem to be any great realignment going on. And if you say, 'the stats don't show it but it is different, I know it,' you're just in the realms of fantasy. Or nostalgia.

I recall Tommy Carr, then Dublin manager, being asked prior to the 2000 championship if he'd agree that the previous year's competition was 'the worst ever'. "Sure," said Carr, grinning, "it's always the worst football championship ever." Wait till you see what they make of the great days of 2012 in ten years.

And if the Eunan's corner-forward didn't enjoy the game, well that's tough. Had he ran up a big score, chances are the corner-back wouldn't have been too happy. Defenders like a bit of a dogfight.

It's not just a corner-forward's game, you know.

Sunday Indo Sport