Blanket defences fell away as underdogs shone
At this time of the year I always compile my list of highlights and lowlights from the year about to end. This year’s highlight was very simple. About a year and fortnight ago, we were told we were going to have a meaningful Christmas.
Of course, thanks to so many reckless people – who tore the arse out of it and partied as if there was no tomorrow at Christmas 2020 – we instead got another lockdown and what was, well, another ‘annus horribilis.’
By February of this year, I genuinely thought we would have nothing in 2021 – no matches, no competitions, and, most certainly, no spectators at anything that might have gone ahead. Having fans at games, especially, for so much of this year, was a pipe dream.
But thanks to the GAA administration, the players, and the supporters who pulled together and made sacrifices and conformed, largely, to the rules and regulations we got to watch and enjoy the games we love. So that, above anything else, is the highlight of 2021
Getting games on and fans back was the most important part of the year, the rest pales into insignificance. But here, anyway, are my conventional highlights of the year.
1. The three most important matches, the two All-Ireland semi-finals and final, delivered the goods
Two of the three games went to extra-time, and the final, until Ryan O’Donoghue’s penalty miss that turned the match Tyrone’s way, was up in the air.
Yes, you can quibble with the quality in parts of those games.
It was interesting that no goal was scored by the beaten team in any of the three games.
But, at times, it was edge-of-the-seat stuff, certainly no spectator left early, because the games were all value for money.
2. The last four matches of the Ulster championship
It was the best sequence of games we got all year – Donegal v Derry, 0-16 to 0-15; Armagh v Monaghan, 2-21 to 4-17; Tyrone 0-23 to Donegal’s 1-14, (but only after the latter had a man sent off) and then the final itself, Tyrone 0-16 to Monaghan’s 0-15.
They were all proper football matches.
3. It was the year of the underdog
Tyrone seniors won after 13 years, the Offaly U-20s delivered 33 years on from their last triumph, Meath minors won an All-Ireland they had last taken in 1992 and Sligo minors won a Connacht crown last seen in the county in 1968, 53 years ago.
At club level, too, there were stirrings.
Cleggan Kickhams captured the Antrim football title after 67 years, Clann Eireann won in Armagh after 58 years and Mountbellew-Moylough triumphed in Galway for the first time in 35 years.
And can I gave a shout out to two very small ‘crossroads’ clubs, Shelmaliers of Wexford and Clough-Ballacolla hurlers of Laois?
The Model County’s champions almost got to the Leinster club football final, the latter did get to the hurling decider.
They were two great efforts by clubs with a fraction of the playing resources of so many others.
As Mullinalaghta footballers from Longford showed a few years ago, size isn’t everything.
4. Inter-county football tactics
I think the days of the blanket defence are gone at inter-county level.
Tyrone’s All-Ireland win, having abandoned the blanket defence, must give food for thought.
The last time a team that worried more about defence than attack won an All-Ireland was Donegal in 2012.
5. There were so many brilliant defensive displays, there were turnovers, tackles and great blocks
Peter Harte’s superb blockdown on my nephew Killian Spillane in the All-Ireland semi-final is still a painful memory in our house.
6. The Ulster U-20 football final between Down and Monaghan
That Down beat Monaghan in it hardly mattered.
You just had to admire the mental strength of the Monaghan players in playing the game just a few weeks after losing their captain Brendan Óg Duffy in a car crash.
1. The Leinster, Munster and Connacht championships were a mess
Surely they have to be ditched as a serious part of the GAA’s season.
I’d keep them – but not as a huge path to the All-Ireland series.
Take two early results in Connacht, Mayo 3-23; Sligo 0-12 and Mayo 5-20; Leitrim 0-11. Holy God.
In Leinster, Westmeath thrashed Laois, and Meath did the same to Longford.
My own Munster was worst of all. In four of the five matches played the winning margins were 18 points, 17 points, 11 points – and 22 in the Munster final as Kerry hammered Cork.
And the first four matches of the Ulster Championship were nothing to savour either. There were winning margins of 16, 13, 10 and eight points.
So we were shooting fish in a barrel in Ulster too until things got going at the end.
In all, 28 matches were played in the provinces this year – and 11 of them had a winning margin of ten points or more.
That’s not a proper competition.
2. There was no back-door
Fifteen counties got a single game this summer, ten of those never scored a goal, and the losing margin in their outings was over 12 points.
It would have taken two extra weeks to play a back-door system. We were told they couldn’t be found in the tight calendar!
Guess what, the GAA found them when Tyrone were in Covid trouble.
3. There was a serious lack of competitiveness
Only two counties beat a team ranked higher than them in the Allianz League.
Wexford saw off Wicklow. Mayo defeated Galway and Dublin.
The latter win was a shock, ok, the two that went before it weren’t.
David doesn’t beat Goliath in the provincial championships.
4. The lack of goals
In the 31 championship games played, 21 teams got no goal. The Ulster final saw no goal and Dublin won the Leinster final without scoring a goal.
What is wrong with teams setting out to try to raise a green flag?
5. Poor standards
Even though I praised the big three matches for their spectacle and excitement, there were times when the standards were poor for what ought to have been the best games of the years.
Take a few of these stats on board.
In the All-Ireland final, Tyrone and Mayo turned the ball over 45 per cent of the time.
In other words, almost every second time each of them got it.
Kerry turned over the ball on 56 per cent of the possessions they got in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Add in all the Tyrone blockdowns and it’s a wonder the Kingdom dragged the match to extra-time.
If you had told Dublin going out for the semi-final that they would take the ball off a Mayo man more than every second time the Green and Red got it, they would have expected to cruise to the final.
That’s what happened, Mayo coughed up 53 per cent of their possessions.
But Dublin surrendered the ball a staggering 60 per cent of the time.
If you want one reason why Dublin lost the match, there it is.
6. Water break
What is its function other than being a glorified time out like in basketball? Get rid of it.
7. Training breaches
The Covid training breaches by Down, Cork, Monaghan and Dublin, and, whisper it, those who got away with theirs.
8. Lack of full houses
If only the GAA bosses had held their nerve for a couple of weeks, we would have had full houses all through October and November at our biggest matches.
I said when the decision was taken that we ought to have gone club before county this year, as we did in 2020. Going county before club in 2021 cost the GAA a much-needed fortune in gate receipts.
9. The defensive mind-set has not gone away in club football
I watched a lot of club championship matches this year, in my own Kerry, in Dublin where my son was playing, and in other counties too.
There was far too much poor shooting and kicking, poor execution of the skills, no risk-taking, and too many teams playing with fear.
Jim McGuinness and his ilk haven’t gone away at the grass roots.
A chance introduction between Mickey Harte and Brendan Coffey by Harte’s nephew Conor Mallaghan has led to the publication of Devotion: A Memoir; one of the most unusual GAA books we have seen.
A photograph exists of Tom McLoughney in the victorious Tipperary dressing room after the All-Ireland senior hurling final win over Dublin in 1961. Seated to his left, in conversation, are Jimmy Doyle and Kieran Carey while McLoughney looks to be momentarily in his own world, blissfully sucking the last drags of a cigarette to the point where his fingers must be feeling the heat.
The Craggy Island Christmas draw for the blue Rover. Father Ted (clearing his throat nervously): The last raffle I was at was very interesting because the people who ran the raffle actually won it . . . so it’s not unusual for that to happen (swallowing hard).