Sunday 20 October 2019

The Couch: Ulster's car-crash football retains morbid fascination

Tommy Conlon

Rarely if ever has a match that promises so little entertainment been anticipated with so much expectation.

Hundreds of thousands of GAA fans nationwide will turn on their televisions to watch the proceedings in Ballybofey this afternoon, more out of morbid fascination than any hope of a classic football game.

Donegal and Tyrone are among the top teams in Gaelic football but viewers will be tuning in to watch a car crash rather than an exhibition of the game's skills. They have been warned, they know what to expect, but they will tune in anyway.

This is the third year in succession the teams have clashed in Ulster. The 2012 edition was a pig of a match. The priority on both sides was to stop the other team from playing. Building a score of one's own came second. It was two mutually-obsessed teams trying to cancel each other out. It became a protracted exercise in stalemate.

Both defences were stacked with personnel, all of them committed to closing down space and eliminating time on the ball. It was group tackling, strategic fouling and claustrophobic endeavour all the way. There wasn't even a token gesture, the mere pretence at constructive football. It was an unashamed display of non co-operation from the two teams and their management. Both parties were happy to collude in taking this defensive mindset to its extreme – the point where it becomes an end in itself.

In Ulster's incestuous GAA culture there are many coaches, players and pundits who see a game like this as the height of tactical sophistication. It is football as chess, no less; a strategic thinking man's game; a series of cerebral manoeuvres between two brilliant managers on the sideline, moving their players around the field like army generals in a war room moving battalions of toy soldiers around on a map.

If that's the case, the pitch in Ballybofey today will be more like a no man's land, with nothing happening for long periods of time and bodies strewn across it after intermittent spasms of action.

Grand. Fair enough. If that's how they want to play it, then let them at it because ultimately it's their business, not ours. Donegal and Tyrone are coached by brilliant managers; they have plenty of intelligent players on the field too. Both parties have spent a lot of time thinking about each other and have decided that this is the only way to do it: mutually-assured negativity, suffocation and cynicism.

And both of them expect to chisel out sufficient scores amid the attrition to edge it in the end. Given how punishing the process will be, it would be more appropriate if every point was recorded by a stonemason etching them in granite, than on an electronic scoreboard.

One way or another, it is an indication of the perverse mindset at work here that the scoreboard seems to be almost an afterthought. When stopping the opposition becomes the all-consuming goal, then scores on the board are almost a luxury, rather than the whole point of the exercise.

Tyrone's Seán Cavanagh said as much during an encounter with the media last week. Cavanagh is one of the greats of the modern game, and a bright, articulate citizen too. He was probably speaking for both sets of players when he said that this was one game which would have to be survived rather than enjoyed. He made no bones either about what was in store for viewers and players alike: a "negative" match, a "tactical" game that wouldn't be much fun for anyone.

"You don't always enjoy games like this," he explained, "but you understand the importance of it and why it is happening and you just have to do your best for the team and try and get over the line, whether it be by kicking points or making tackles."

Then he added: "And on Sunday, probably tackles are going to be more important than kicking points." Maybe he shouldn't be taken literally on this but it's still close enough to the mutual mindset: tackles will be more important than points.

It will therefore be a painful experience watching someone like Stephen O'Neill, a player of consummate style and class, getting hounded and harried every

time he goes near the ball. One fully expects to see him drifting out from the full-forward line, starved of possession by the phalanx of Donegal defenders in front of him, and trying to help his team by running himself into the ground. His beautiful array of skills will probably be redundant.

It will in all likelihood be played in a mean and nasty mood. There will be cheap shots, late hits, verbal abuse, rampant fouling.

We have been warned, we know what's coming. And still, it will pull in a big TV audience. Why? Because everyone wants to see two heavyweights go toe to toe and slug it out for 70 minutes. There is some serious talent on both sides. The two most charismatic managers in the game will be patrolling the sidelines. It will have drama and controversy.

There will also be flashes of brilliance, moments of sublime skill quarried out of the maelstrom. And the result will have a big bearing on the rest of the championship. The All-Ireland champions are facing the first major examination of their reign today.

It will be hard to watch but impossible to ignore.

thecouch@independent.ie

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