Martin Breheny: Tyrone and Donegal's poisonous battle sums up need for change
WHEN the draws for this year's football championships were made last October, the Donegal-Tyrone pairing in an Ulster quarter-final glistened brightest of all amid the early-season nuggets.
The meeting between the defending All-Ireland champions and rivals, who won three All-Ireland titles in the past decade, whetted appetites well beyond Ulster. May 26 became a date to note, an occasion to make sure the afternoon was left clear to either attend the game or watch it live on RTE.
Five months on, the clash remains as important as ever in terms of deciding which of the neighbouring giants stay on the direct course through Ulster and who heads for the turbulent All-Ireland qualifier waters. However, if last Sunday's Allianz League clash between them is any indication of what to expect in 11 weeks' time, then it might be worth considering revising your plans. Frankly, go look elsewhere.
Two dismissals, 13 yellow cards, frequent flashpoints, mouthing and a general sourness, all washed down by a throaty spit from a spectator, hurled in Karl Lacey's direction as he headed for the dressing-room, doesn't exactly augur well for the summer reprise, now does it?
What it does suggest is that we can expect a dour, negative game where the emphasis will essentially be on stopping the opposition. After that, it will become a battle to deliver enough creativity to gain a winning edge.
Not much to look forward to then from two ultra-talented panels, presided over by two of the finest coaching minds in the game. Is that where Gaelic football has gone?
We're repeatedly told that the league is largely irrelevant when the championship rolls around, but nobody is naïve enough to believe that last Sunday wasn't all about laying down markers for the Ulster quarter-final. And if that process produced so much acid in March, can we expect a massive explosion in May?
Remarkably, there were those who blamed referee Joe McQuillan for flashing so many cards last Sunday. What was he supposed to do? Discard the rules so as to facilitate the marker-placing exercise which was under way? Be a willing accomplice in a destructive environment? In fairness, he chose to work for a solution rather than ignore the problem. That's his job, of course, but in the eyes of some observers it equated to a lack of common sense.
It's not McQuillan's fault that the rules – as they stand – reward the aggressor rather than the aggrieved, a situation which has inevitably led to a grim determination everywhere to be the bully rather than the victim.
The current climate is not helped by the ever-expanding circuit of ex-players working as media pundits. The majority of them appear to carry major anti-referee prejudices, probably born of what they regard as bad personal experiences.
Their attacks on referees might appear to be hard-hitting stuff, but, in reality, it's nothing more than a populist cop-out, often designed to provoke. It's certainly not harmless, though, as it feeds into growing disrespect for refs which, ultimately, is damaging the game. Of course, some referees are better than others, but then the same applies to players and managers, too, but it's much easier to criticise officials than the high-profile names.
Still, something good may come out of the Omagh game. Certainly, the Football Review Committee (FRC) were handed new ammunition to bolster their case for tougher penalties for cynical play. And if they check out the video of the Armagh-Longford game on Saturday night, it will further strengthen their argument.
On one occasion, a Longford player was rugby-tackled as he bore down on the Armagh goal. The offence was committed just outside the square; Longford were awarded a free, which they pointed while the offender was handed a meaningless booking. Under the rules, that's the only action the referee could take.
Longford lost by two points, so a goal from that attack might well have earned them a draw, which could be crucial in their battle against relegation. Indeed, it may well have been a league-defining moment for them and all because the rules allow for a player to get away with a deliberately destructive tackle at no real cost other than conceding a point. That's pretty small when it prevents an almost certain goal.
The FRC proposals have come in for consistent criticism from several managers, but this is no time to be intimidated. Donegal v Tyrone last Sunday proved that.
If that's what we can expect from two of the top All-Ireland contenders then the need for change is unquestionable. And before anybody claims it has always been so between top dogs in Ulster, consider this: one of the best games in Gaelic football history featured Derry (then reigning All-Ireland champions) against Down (their successors) in the 1994 championship.
Can we expect something similar from Tyrone v Donegal in May? Not on last Sunday's depressing evidence.