Wednesday 16 October 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Overreaction to Kerry v Dublin shows why football is in trouble'

Brian Howard of Dublin is chased down by (from left) Kerry’s Jack Barry, Tadhg Morley, Paul Murphy and Jack Sherwood in Tralee. Photo: Sportsfile
Brian Howard of Dublin is chased down by (from left) Kerry’s Jack Barry, Tadhg Morley, Paul Murphy and Jack Sherwood in Tralee. Photo: Sportsfile
Kerry manager Peter Keane speaks to his players after the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 3 match between Kerry and Dublin at Austin Stack Park in Tralee, Co. Kerry. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Congestion was the name of the game in Monaghan. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The slightly hysterical reaction to Saturday night's Kerry-Dublin clash shows how much trouble Gaelic football is in at the moment. Insisting that one good league match in February proves the game isn't in such a bad way after all merely illustrates how desperate pundits and fans are for good news.

Ciarán Whelan suggested that the Tralee thriller shows the championship should be rejigged so Dublin and Kerry meet every year. But Kerry could have played Dublin last year if they'd just been able to beat Galway and Monaghan, the teams contesting yesterday's big match.

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Monaghan and Galway were two of football's top four last year. It would be a huge surprise were either to miss out on this year's 'Super 8s'. Yet their meeting was the polar opposite of Saturday night's encounter.

The game was played in Inniskeen, birthplace of Patrick Kavanagh whose most famous poem is 'The Great Hunger', a harrowing account of the miserable, frustrating and spiritually impoverished life of Rural Ireland in the 1940s. If that life was a football match, it would have been yesterday's game between Monaghan and Galway.

This was a match to endure rather than enjoy. The pace which had made things so exciting the previous night was entirely missing. Games like this are often excused on the grounds that they possess great 'intensity.' In fact, intensity is precisely what they lack.

Whenever Galway or Monaghan lost possession they retreated en masse to their own half, allowing the opposition to bring the ball forward at as leisurely a pace as they wished. Sometimes this was very leisurely indeed with much lateral and backwards movement before someone chanced a foray into the packed ranks of the opposition defence, usually without success.

There was a treat for fans in Tralee including eightyear- old Gary Parker who got Shane Murphy’s kicking tee. Photo: Sportsfile
There was a treat for fans in Tralee including eightyear- old Gary Parker who got Shane Murphy’s kicking tee. Photo: Sportsfile

The meagre tally of 1-11 from play, compared to 3-18 in Tralee, cannot be blamed on the strong wind.

Oddly enough both teams played better, enjoyed more possession and scored more when playing against the breeze.

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It was the kind of wind which enables points to be landed from 60 yards out yet neither team made much use of it. You'd have sworn they'd decided taking advantage of the conditions just wasn't cricket.

In the first half Galway defended in depth, as though facing rather than playing with the wind, and did most of their attacking on the break. In the second Monaghan persisted with short Rory Beggan kick-outs which left them having to work the ball laboriously upfield. It defied logic. Only after the home side fell five points behind with ten minutes left did they inject some urgency and directness.

Niall Morgan earned Tyrone a late draw with Roscommon. Photo: Sportsfile
Niall Morgan earned Tyrone a late draw with Roscommon. Photo: Sportsfile

Galway's win owed a lot to Shane Walsh who when the game seemed to be drifting away from them in the first half scored a couple of superb points, almost set up a goal for David Wynne with a gorgeous through pass and forced Beggan into a good save.

Walsh is wonderful but watching him search for chances to express himself in Galway's grim system is like witnessing someone bravely endure a loveless marriage.

His equivalent on the Monaghan team, Conor McManus, had a less happy time, missing a couple of chances he'd normally put away before also failing with a last-gasp effort for a tying point. He too deserves sympathy. That final move began near the Galway end-line from where Monaghan worked it backwards to leave McManus with a tough long-range shot. Too often it's not just the ball but the buck which gets passed to the Clontibret star.

Galway are the kings of winning ugly. They even managed to look unimpressive when scoring hugely important wins over Mayo and Kerry last year. Kevin Walsh is entitled to feel happy with the winning and the rest of us are entitled to point out the ugliness. Yet it's unfair to single out his team for criticism. The Roscommon-Tyrone match in Hyde Park wasn't very different.

Tyrone's defeat by Dublin in last year's All-Ireland final led to suggestions, based on their adventurous first-quarter display, that they might kick on in 2019 and adopt a more attacking approach. But this was just wishful thinking as is the idea that Galway will become a more expansive outfit when Damien Comer and Ian Burke return. Galway are what they are and their manager suffers no pangs of conscience about that.

Why should he? In these dog days for football well-drilled obduracy teamed with an odd flash of individual inspiration can be enough for a place in the Super 8s. As the wins for Fermanagh and Tipperary over Kildare and Donegal at the weekend show, true elite counties can be numbered on the fingers of one hand.

The problem is that, as Galway found out last year in the semi-final, their fearful and deliberate style is next to useless against Dublin.

The only way to challenge the champions, as Kerry showed on Saturday, is to play at pace and with courage. Mayo did that in the 2016 and 2017 All-Ireland finals and caused Jim Gavin's team more trouble than any blanket defence ever will.

Whelan's appeal for more Dublin and Kerry matches strikes a chord. You'd prefer to see the two teams from Saturday night play 20 more times before you'd watch Galway and Monaghan or Tyrone and Roscommon meet again.

Unfortunately it's not possible to have a championship top tier containing just two teams.

Saturday night's game didn't show that everything is alright with football. By being so good and so utterly atypical, it underlined everything that's currently wrong with it.

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