Wednesday 21 February 2018

Carrying the torch through dull days

There were few reasons to be cheerful in a largely forgettable Gaelic football season

Bernard Brogan:
Bernard Brogan:

Dermot Crowe

In an often mediocre football year, governed by caution and a surfeit of mismatches, the lowest point is a matter of personal choice. To win, Dublin were compelled, like most, to employ a sweeper and more aggressive defensive edge, but they are still capable of hammering the vast majority of teams in the country. At the end of March, Derry came to Croke Park to face them in the National League. Derry didn't come to win; they came to avoid a hiding.

As a reflection of that tactical abyss football seems to be forever inching towards, this was a prime example. Twenty-three minutes into an unspeakably dreadful match played in heavy rain, with Derry terrified of taking any risk, the crowd could suffer no more and began booing in disapproval. Derry, becoming ever more removed from the spirited traditions of the county that won the All-Ireland in 1993, were reduced to this: playing the ball backwards, afraid to break ground.

They came to avoid a hammering and did that; the match finished 0-8 to 0-4 in Dublin's favour. When those present started booing the scoreboard read one point each with almost a half hour played. The customers looked at their plates and while they weren't expecting Michelin Star fare on a League night in March, they hadn't ordered this dish. They weren't prepared to wait until the pub afterwards or when they got home; now was the time and the place to make their feelings known.

Maybe there is some salvation, some hope, to be found in those protests which demonstrated that the public still has some taste and standards. If this is the kind of game they are going to be teaching the next generation on Saturday mornings then maybe it is time to find some other pursuit. In that respect, Dublin were good champions. They are fortunate in population size and player resources, and this is a golden era, but they set out to play the game in a manner that salutes its better virtues.

In the summer Longford ran into Dublin and Jack Sheedy was ridiculed for not setting up defensively to avoid the inevitable thrashing that ensued. The trick is to find the balance between both extremes but the truth is that it hardly matters when Dublin are so superior to most teams outside the top six. This year has brought sporadic moments of delight that made you jump off your seat but essentially it was defined by Dublin's dominance of League and Championship, their total redemption after the torment of losing to Donegal in August 2014.

In May, Bernard Brogan spoke of the six-step path facing the Dublin football team, the half-dozen games that they needed to win to regain the All-Ireland and bury the disappointment of Donegal. Brogan's ambitions were unambiguous but his calculations weren't pinpoint - they would need a second attempt to overcome Mayo. After four steps which left them little the wiser about their fitness for the final few, it was the sixth, the semi-final replay, that earned them the match-time needed to be ready for the ultimate leap.

But these seeds are sown and resolutions made long before the summer and players often sprout unexpectedly. Brian Fenton won man of the match in the All-Ireland final, having watched last year's defeat to Donegal from Hill 16. A year before it was Paul Murphy picking up the award; a year later he watched most of the final from the bench and only saw action when his club-mate Aidan O'Mahony picked up a black card late in the game. The glorious Kerry homecoming when the train stalled in Rathmore for those two players last year was followed by a more sombre return 12 months later. Within two weeks of losing to Donegal, Dublin were back plotting their return and vindication. Kerry face the same challenge now.

The choice of Fenton as man of the match is good for football generally and in a year in which discipline again proved a blight on the game, this gives hope that players like him can prosper. He is not the finished article, and looked slightly startled when selected on the team of the year, but he is undoubtedly the sort of footballer who might encourage a young lad to want to follow in his footsteps.

His kicking, movement and intelligence make him the find of the year. A player who didn't feature for the county minors, and only joined the squad last November, has been Dublin's most consistent midfielder, a major influence in their last three games. But most of all, the boy can play.

Earlier matches and moments tend to be blurred by the narrowing focus on the latter stages but Westmeath's first Championship win over Meath stood out as a day of real historical significance. The manner in which they overturned a ten-point deficit by going for the jugular, and the quality of the football they played, was a credit to them and a relief from the many predictable outcomes elsewhere. The same might be said of Sligo's win over Roscommon, another local affair, but cold realism was restored in the provincial final when Mayo won by 26 points. Connacht has become an extended warm-up area for Mayo and Leinster is scarcely that for Dublin. Munster is as Cork-Kerry as ever. Ulster remains bawdy, no playground and certainly no warm-up but Monaghan got stiffed again by Tyrone. Their performance in Croke Park was inexplicably timid.

Traditional teams always reassert themselves of course and heavy beatings didn't start in 2015. But is it really only five years since Louth should have won the Leinster Championship? To see them massacred by 23 points by Tipperary in Thurles in the qualifiers in July, having earlier been relegated to Division 4, was another troubling spectacle. Tipperary's heavy defeat in the All-Ireland minor final went down as the heaviest minor final defeat since 1967. But their progress at underage is generally encouraging. They were unlucky to lose the All-Ireland under 21 final and slowly a culture seems to be bedding in where football is no longer seen as a worthless pursuit. For all that, the gap to making a mark in senior football remains substantial as Tyrone demonstrated in the second half of their qualifier meeting in Thurles.

From the All-Ireland under 21 final, which was also cursed with rain, to the end of the senior championship, discipline and sportsmanship has been a recurring theme. Nod and wink still pertains and undermines the best efforts of those who are genuinely striving to remove cynicism and skulduggery from the game.

Aidan O'Mahony's black card in the All-Ireland final reminds us that this particular initiative is working, as did the myriad obstructions and body-checks that disappeared almost overnight. Corofin scored a goal in this year's All-Ireland club semi-final against St Vincent's which involved a run from deep.

Without the black card it's probable the player would have been dragged down at source. Inconsistent application and some rule definition needs to be examined, but to say the black card isn't working is to miss the point. It is.

The Diarmuid Connolly business reminds us that in many ways nothing has changed in terms of attitude and selective engagement with the rules and spirit of fair play. Now Philly McMahon, not for the first time, is facing a possible investigation into an incident from the final in which, otherwise, he gave an exemplary footballing performance. The GAA needs to regain its disciplinary credibility and respect, not just at national level, and decide what playing these games is essentially all about. Can the GAA in all conscience say that their disciplinary system is satisfactory on the evidence of the 2015 football championship?

Back to Bernard Brogan last May, looking ahead to the Championship. On the issue of cynicism he had this to say. "We try not to be cynical, we try to be honest. Like, our forwards, you very rarely see a lad go down softly looking for frees. Definitely I would never do that. I'd always try and go at a man. If I get by him I'll go by him and if he pulls me down I'll try and get up and go past him. I won't feign injury for a free. The culture that Dublin has, led by Jim (Gavin), is we are known for playing honest football and hard football.

"He (Gavin) was very adamant that we are holding the jersey for the next generation. My dad had it. Some of our kids will have it. You have no right to create your own way, there is a culture there and that's where we are. We have to appreciate that and respect that."

That is a noble aspiration and in Brian Fenton they have found a new model ambassador. But they would do well not to lose sight of those ideals, no matter what - or who - is involved. There is more than Dublin's good name at stake. They are carrying the torch for the game itself.

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