Thursday 22 March 2018

Colm O'Rourke: A game so awful that it might just save football

Roscommon’s Ciaran Murtagh comes under pressure from Galway’s Eoghan Kerin during the drawn Connacht SFC final in Pearse Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
Roscommon’s Ciaran Murtagh comes under pressure from Galway’s Eoghan Kerin during the drawn Connacht SFC final in Pearse Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
Michael Murphy and Sean Cavanagh have both come in for some rough treatment form the opposition in these encounters. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Last Sunday saw the ultimate bastardisation (if you are allowed to use that term in a polite Sunday newspaper) of the once noble game of football.

 That may sound harsh, but I feel strongly about the great tradition of kicking, and the version of football that was served up in the Connacht final was nothing more than a continuous stream of hand-passes, with players kicking very occasionally, apart from a shot for a score.

It was a surprise, because the Connacht final was usually a match with a certain free-flowing innocence, but that has now changed. The experts tell us that there is nothing wrong with the game and smart coaches take it in different directions. Well there is no other game in the world which does not have guiding principles and lawmakers to intervene when things go completely off the rails. Football should now cease to be called football and renamed handball, given that 'innovative coaching' is taking it on a path of self-destruction.

What we are seeing this year in the GAA is the perfect storm. Issues of player burnout, difficulty with inter-county player retention, awful, uncompetitive games, falling attendances in most provincial championships and, of course, falling revenue. And that is without mentioning the word 'club'.

The last part, namely money, will focus minds most. Less money means a cut in coaching and coaches, the area which needs much greater investment.

So the world and its mother and every snot-nosed orphan knows the game of football is in peril. In many ways this is the best scenario to be faced. Sometimes things have to get so bad that there is a widespread clamour for change, a change to the structure of competition and playing rules before rigor mortis finally sets in. Perhaps the darkest hour before the dawn will see the men of vision take over.

Read more: Tomás Ó Sé: Seems to me there's a perfect storm brewing and it's not bringing good news for the GAA

The Connacht final replay today could hardly be as bad, though I say that more in hope than expectation. Conditions had nothing to do with it. When Roscommon decided on a policy of allowing Galway short kick-outs to a spare man it set the tone for the whole match. It was hard to credit that this policy prevailed, and when the Roscommon management went away and looked at the game again they must have kept their heads down for a few days.

Galway's Paul Conroy is tackled by David Keenan. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

It is not as if playing a sweeper system means you can't push up on kick-outs. One does not rule out the other. The best teams are able to mark everyone at the kick-out but can instantly retreat into a sweeper formation if they lose the restart. Perhaps there was a bit of fear of the Galway midfield pair of Tom Flynn and Paul Conroy, but there is no point advertising that.

Anyway, Galway were much the better team last week and unless Roscommon take off the handbrake today they will be left with the empty feeling you get when you don't really go for it. Galway had a much more inventive attack and displayed a far higher skill level. It did appear that Roscommon were completely bogged down in tactics - why Cathal Cregg played behind midfield baffled me. Hopefully we at least have a game today rather than shadow-boxing .

There certainly won't be any shadow-boxing won't be in Clones. This should be the match of the year so far, with a right bit of venom thrown in. Of course both sides will say nice things about each other but there is no love lost, and that is putting it very mildly.

Tyrone have lost their last four championship matches against Donegal and that really sticks in their craw, especially as some of the encounters were rather torrid affairs and there were complaints about the treatment of Sean Cavanagh in some of those games. Well Sean is a big boy and is well able to look after himself. The other side of it is that Michael Murphy has got the same treatment or worse from Tyrone and has kept his counsel.

Donegal have triumphed over the last few years by tying up the Tyrone forwards and keeping the score down. It won't be as easy this time. Against Cavan, Tyrone gave the best attacking display of the championship; they use Peter Harte and Tiernan McCann to get in front of the ball from deep positions and cause havoc. They start off around the half-back line and seem to be able to sprint forward on a continuous basis. If they are not tracked, they will open Donegal up for goals. Expect to see some of the McHughs acting like Cowboy Joe, who used to cut off the baddies at the pass.

Tyrone, now that they are concentrating on football, have the makings of an outstanding team; their real ability will only be tested against a top side and when they find themselves behind in a big championship match with ten minutes to go. That sorts out the men from the boys. At face value they look to have great individuals like the Cavanaghs, Mattie Donnelly - who is in line for Footballer of the Year if Tyrone keep moving on - Ronan O'Neill, Mark Bradley as well as McCann and Harte.

It will take a top team to beat them. On the evidence of the last two years, Donegal are not that side. Yet those two matches against Monaghan seem to have rejuvenated them and there is no doubt that the pace and running power of the three McHughs is exactly what they need. Frank McGlynn won't take any prisoners in the physical sense, and Odhran MacNiallais will hope to find the onion bag again.

Read more: Dermot Crowe: A lifetime spent on a collision course

There is still a hardness about Donegal which will trouble Tyrone, especially if they put Murphy into full-forward and kick in a bit of high ball to him and Paddy McBrearty. Yet Murphy is falling between several stools in an increasing variety of roles. He is now the fireman rushing around to various parts of the field wherever there is trouble, rather than causing that trouble himself.

Tyrone represent the future and it will probably come today.

Read more: Tommy Conlon: Diamonds still being polished in Tyrone's quest to shine again

Completing the line-up of provincial finals is the Leinster final in Croke Park. Many will not know it is on, and the best thing for Leinster football would be to ask the Ulster Council to invite the Dubs into Ulster. A bit like the way the Galway hurlers were taken into Leinster and then treated like second-class citizens by refusing to play them in Galway. They are either in or out and if they are part of the championship they deserve home games like everyone else.

Anyway, if Dublin moved North there would a great Leinster championship among the rest. None of them are much good but any competition relies on teams having fairly equal ability. The Dubs can relax as I jest at their expense and I hope that the day is not too long away that Meath can beat them in a Leinster final. Perhaps that is the definition of eternal optimism.

Westmeath can do two things. Die with their boots on by going full tilt at the Dubs and looking to score goals, although a shoot-out like that could mean a serious drubbing. The other option is to do what they did last year. This means keeping everything very tight and playing ultra defensively. It might mean keeping the margin below ten points but there is no glory or personal satisfaction in that.

Online Editors

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