Friday 25 May 2018

People's game redeems itself

Eamonn Sweeney

We're spoiled really. This morning we can look forward to a great game between two great teams after a great year in one of the world's great sports. In the words of Ira Gershwin, who could ask for anything more? It's, well, great.

This is the year that Gaelic football got its soul back, largely because Jim Gavin and James Horan had the courage to eschew negativity and to try and win games by playing to their own team's strengths instead of trying not to lose them by cancelling out the strengths of the opposition.

One notable result is that the 2013 championship produced probably the best match in the history of Gaelic football, something which also owed a great deal to the positive approach of new Kerry boss Eamonn Fitzmaurice. Dublin's 3-18 to 3-11 win over Kerry in this year's semi-final will come to be seen as the ultimate benchmark in terms of the game, in the same way that the 1977 semi-final used to be.

Hindsight, and All-Ireland Gold on TG4, led to revisionism which argued that the 1970s match wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Such is the enormous condescension of posterity. But it's going to prove very difficult to find fault with this year's classic. For one thing, it took place at a time when we were told that the exceptional fitness of modern-day players meant forwards would never again find the kind of room they enjoyed back in the 1970s.

Well, they said the same thing about soccer before Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo started scoring goals at a rate which suggested they'd been transported by time machine back to the days before catenaccio. No defensive system is fully proofed against flair. That's why even in a game where room was at a premium for forwards and each ball was ferociously contested, Dublin and Kerry managed to produce between them a score every two minutes, many of them of the highest quality. Tactics didn't matter a great deal because the teams basically just blazed away and played off the cuff. It was sublime.

Equally so was Mayo's quarter-final destruction of Donegal, a tour de force of power, adventure, pace and ruthlessness which made you think of the Total Football played by the Dutch soccer teams of the '70s. It had that same shock of the new feel about it, the fluidity of Mayo's game and the seamless way their defenders became attackers made Donegal, who'd been lauded for inaugurating a new style of football less than a year previously, look absurdly old-fashioned.

In the aftermath of last year's championship there seemed to be a consensus that Gaelic football was progressing inexorably towards a brave new world of defensively orientated negativity and that the Donegal way of playing the game could not be beaten but only joined. The idea that football should be in the business of entertaining the poor unfortunates who paid into the games was dismissed as hopelessly naive. Instead it was there to provide opportunities for analysis nerds to rub their chins and say 'fascinating' or 'absorbing' as though they were explaining the importance of an exhibit at the Irish Museum of Modern Art consisting of two bricks and a piece of a string to John Kelly. God help us all.

Dublin and Mayo have shown this notion of negativity as authenticity to be a complete fallacy. Last year the Donegal half-forward line spent most of the game back in its own half to the extent that their starting trio contributed a grand total of 0-3 in their quarter-final, semi-final and final victories put together. Mayo's defenders, on the other hand, have already notched up 1-8 in the quarter-final and semi-final. Corner-back Chris Barrett on his own has equalled the tally of the Donegal half-forwards.

That when Mayo were struggling against Tyrone Barrett sallied forward to score two points from play says everything about the way today's finalists play the game. And so did Dublin's goal against Cork. For a moment it looked as though the attack had stalled with the Rebels having picked up all of Dublin's forwards. But that was the moment when wing-back Jack McCaffrey took a risk, got forward and was rewarded with the pinpoint pass from Cian O'Sullivan which gave him the chance to score a wonderful goal. On a less positive team the wing-back would have stayed where he was and the move would have bogged down. Dublin's willingness to throw caution to the winds has, as Kerry showed, its drawbacks but it also carries the possibility of massive rewards.

The McCaffrey goal was just one of many moments this year which showed us what a great game Gaelic football is. This is worth emphasising because it's often forgotten. But there are few sports which could have provided a spectacle like the Dublin-Kerry semi-final, a game whose combination of skill, physicality and almost perpetual motion made Aussie rules look crude, rugby union look static and even soccer look a bit naff by comparison. There have been poor games in this year's championship to be sure, but how many of them have been as boring as last week's AC Milan-Celtic Champions League match? And this season Sky have already provided us with a couple of live matches tedious enough to make Cavan v Fermanagh look like The Bourne Identity.

Gaelic football remains underappreciated. The unique appeal of hurling is used as a stick with which to beat its less glamourous sibling. Yet there is a certain amount of lip service about our worship of a game which isn't played at a serious level in the majority of our counties. Hurling fever may be gripping Cork and Clare at the moment but in the western portions of those two counties the game, in a playing sense, is almost as marginal an activity as it is in Louth and Longford.

Hurling is like the Irish language, more admired than practised. But Gaelic football is the people's game and perhaps that's precisely why it gets such a hard time from the naysayers and doom-mongers who believe that if Irish people like something there has to be something wrong with it. It's probably no coincidence that so much of the hand-wringing about football is creepily similar to all that 'we're the laughing stock of Europe' – 'if this happened anywhere else there'd be war' – 'we're not fit to govern ourselves' bullshit which turns up so often in newspaper letters' pages and comment sections.

The tendency to always focus on the negative side of Gaelic football was never more apparent when, in the aftermath of memorable quarter-final displays by Mayo and Dublin, all the talk was about the moral panic whipped up in the wake of a foul by Seán Cavanagh.

In reality, the Cavanagh flap was a fake furore manufactured by phonies. Because the real story that week, as it is today and has been all summer, is the change wrought in their teams by Gavin and Horan. The former has performed the difficult task of making Dublin lovable to an extent that, were they not playing football's perennial heartbreak kids in the final, few neutrals would begrudge them the Sam Maguire. The braggadocio, the sledging, the showboating and all the other worthless stuff which once fell under the general rubric of swagger has been eliminated from the Dubs' game.

Two moments late in the semi-final displayed just how conclusively the character of the team has changed. The first was the moment when, with the game nearing the final minute of normal-time and Kerry a point ahead, Dublin were awarded a free in a scorable position and Stephen Cluxton began the long march from his goal. In previous years Dublin would have judged it tactically astute for Cluxton to take plenty of time and cut down the chances of further Kerry scores. But this time Diarmuid Connolly waved Cluxton back, took the kick himself, scored it and kept the remorseless Dublin momentum rolling on.

The second was when, four points up with time almost up, Dublin refused to play keep-ball and instead kept playing positive attacking football and were rewarded with Eoghan O'Gara's goal. This is what Jim Gavin has done.

What James Horan has done is to react to the trauma of last year's final defeat by making Mayo a more expansive and exciting team. The temptation must have been there to embrace negativity, especially after the concession of those two early goals in the 2012 decider, but that would have been the easy way out. Instead Horan has chosen the path of bravery, skill and adventure with the result that Mayo look an infinitely better side this time round.

For that matter the current Dublin side looks way better than the team which won the All-Ireland two years ago. In fact, both teams in today's final are probably far stronger outfits than the last few teams to win the Sam Maguire. It is their bad luck that they are coming up against such tough opposition when in any other recent year they'd have been shoo-ins. But it is our good luck to have the two best teams in a final since Tyrone took on Kerry in 2005.

This is a vintage year for Gaelic football because the game shouldn't be the equivalent of some Scandinavian thriller about the dark recesses of the human psyche. It should be as passionate, immediate and exciting as the scream in James Brown's throat. And this year it has been.

Here's hoping for a classic and also that Joe McQuillan, whenever at all possible, keeps his cards in his pocket and a loose grip on the whistle and remembers that no one is coming to the game today to see him in action.

They are coming to see the guile of Diarmuid Connolly, the opportunism of Cillian O'Connor, the blistering pace of Jack McCaffrey, the skill of Alan Freeman, the elegance of Bernard Brogan, the brio and élan of Keith Higgins, the tireless enterprise of Paul Flynn, the authority of Donal Vaughan.

And above all, perhaps, to see the gladiatorial combat at midfield between Aidan O'Shea and Michael Darragh Macauley, the two footballers of the year so far, two phenomenal athletes whose battle may well decide which way the pendulum swings for these evenly matched teams.

Let's get it on.

Sunday Independent

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