Sunday 22 April 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Pat Spillane and Joe Brolly haven't just seen worse games, they've played in them'

Joe Brolly in 1998 and (inset) Pat Spillane in action against Roscommon in 1980
Joe Brolly in 1998 and (inset) Pat Spillane in action against Roscommon in 1980

Eamonn Sweeney

I get a bit defensive about the Connacht football final. It perhaps stems from having spent so much of the 1980s watching Dublin-based journalists treat the game as a platform for the display of their most cherished derisory bons mots. This irritated the hell out of me in the same way that Dubliners referring to Connacht as 'the Wesht' and thinking they're hilarious does.

My attitude was not an uncommon one among Connacht football fans. A mate of mine had committed to memory chunks of an especially risible article which called Connacht 'The Dark Province', which he sometimes repeated after a rake of pints as we cackled at its condescending stupidity.

So it was a bit like old times to see last Sunday's draw between Galway and Roscommon being treated as though it marked some new low in the history of Gaelic football. Which it didn't. Because two of the foremost witnesses for the prosecution, Pat Spillane and Joe Brolly, haven't just seen worse games, they've played in them, the former in Kerry's 1-9 to 1-6 1980 All-Ireland final win over Roscommon and Brolly in Derry's grim 1-7 to 0-8 victory over Donegal in the 1998 Ulster final. The 2016 Connacht final was pretty awful, but there was nothing unprecedented about it.

Read more: 'Roscommon are useless': Awful eyesore of a Connacht final gets a harsh review from fans and pundits

There have been lots of other brutal provincial finals. Dublin's 0-11 to 0-7 win over Kildare in 1994, Armagh slogging past Donegal 1-9 to 0-10 in 2004, Donegal's tedious victory over Derry in 2011, the amazingly dull Meath-Laois Leinster final of 1991 and many more. In the interests of fairness I can admit that the worst provincial final I've ever seen was the 1988 Connacht final when Galway beat Mayo 0-8 to 0-7 in Castlebar (Mayo's 1-5 to 0-7 win over Roscommon in 1993 in the Hyde was almost as bad but '88 gets the nod because there was a Macnas performance at half-time.)

Kerry's Tomas O'Se, third from left, tussles with Cork's Jim O'Donoghue (21) in 2002
Kerry's Tomas O'Se, third from left, tussles with Cork's Jim O'Donoghue (21) in 2002

But it's not the worst game of championship football I've seen. That booby prize goes to the 2002 Munster semi-final between Kerry and Cork, an absolutely stultifying 0-8 each draw on a wet day in Killarney beside which last Sunday's debacle was a thrill-a-minute feast of skill and invention. Football was never pukier.

Similarly bad games of football don't all provoke the same level of opprobrium. Pundits feel much freer to have a pop when the bad game is in Connacht. This may also explain the full-steam-ahead pillorying of Aidan O'Shea last week. I'm not going to push the conspiracy theory that O'Shea was actually shot by a Fermanagh man named Grassy Noel, but when Pádraig Hughes awarded Kerry an outrageous penalty against Cork in last year's drawn Munster final, the focus was on the referee rather than on the fall by James O'Donoghue which forced him into making a decision. What's sauce for the Connacht goose should be, but rarely is, sauce for the Kerry gander.

Last Sunday's final was pretty dire, though no more so than several Ulster deciders which have been excused on the grounds of 'intensity'. I love Monaghan but to be honest their last two provincial final wins didn't offer very much to anyone from outside the county.

Read more: Caution the calling card in dire stalemate

Roscommon’s Ciaran Murtagh comes under pressure from Galway’s Eoghan Kerin during the drawn Connacht SFC final in Pearse Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile

There were extenuating circumstances last Sunday. It was an almost impossible day on which to play good football for one thing and the conditions were exacerbated by Pearse Stadium, which once again proved that while a links course is a fine thing in golf it's no help to footballers or hurlers.

Like Páirc Uí Chaoimh, the Salthill venue is a ground so unlovely and depressing that a poor game seen there seems twice as bad as it actually is. Which may account for some of the virulence of the criticism. As may the fact that the match seemed a perfect microcosm of what is wrong with the modern game because it demonstrated with an almost laboratory-like precision its two most unappealing features, Negativity and Fear.

The negativity came from Galway. Because when Paul Conroy's long free put them into the lead 13 minutes into the second half there seemed to be no other likely result except a handsome victory for the Tribesmen. Galway had defended well against the wind and knocked over four points since the break. Playing the better football and with the momentum behind them, it seemed as though all they had to do was kick on.

Instead, during the very next Roscommon attack, Galway withdrew all their players into their own half of the field. It was the oddest retreat since Bonnie Prince Charlie marched his troops back into Scotland as the English fled before them. It beggars belief that Galway decided the best tactic was to defend a narrow lead in depth when they had a strong wind behind them against off-form opposition. Yet that's what they did and in doing so they handed the visitors back an initiative they'd previously looked unable to seize themselves.

The effect of this mentality on players was perhaps most graphically illustrated when, with Galway leading by a point and the end of normal time approaching, Thomas Flynn found himself carrying the ball in the direction of the Roscommon goal with defensive cover thin on the ground. Flynn is a fine player who has finished runs like this with goals in the past, but instead he hesitated and passed laterally to a flatfooted Shane Walsh, whose shot was blocked by Roscommon's John McManus.

Supporters enduring the rain during an underwhelming contest between Roscommon and Galway last Sunday. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Supporters enduring the rain during an underwhelming contest between Roscommon and Galway last Sunday. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Roscommon came in for the bulk of the stick last weekend but there was something admirable about their ability to recover from a two-point deficit with three minutes left when playing into the teeth of a strong wind. The Rossies never lack fight. However, it has to be said that handpassing the ball 300 times in a 70-minute game isn't a tactic, it's Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Watching Roscommon go through this was like witnessing a kind of collective nervous breakdown. As the ball passed minute distances from hand to hand it was as though one player was transmitting anxiety to another. It was the first time I've seen a team who were behind running down the clock.

At one stage after a particularly ludicrous elongated sequence, Donie Shine got hold of the ball and drove it well wide from a difficult position. I'm not sure that an experienced player like Shine wasn't thinking that the ball was as well going wide as being held up indefinitely out the field.

Yet when Enda Varley put Galway two points ahead with three minutes left, Roscommon switched immediately to a direct approach which yielded a quick point from Cathal Cregg. It was as though with defeat looking almost certain, a weight had come off their shoulders and enabled them to play a bit of football.

The irony is that Roscommon possess their most gifted set of forwards in at least a couple of decades. They have players who would prosper in the Dublin or Kerry attacks. Yet last Sunday they seemed paralysed by fear. This isn't the first time we've seen a team play like that this year and I wonder if social media might have something to do with it. You could almost see players thinking 'if I give this away, I'll get slaughtered', as they quickly passed responsibility to the next guy in line.

For whatever reason, young players seem to have very little resilience in the face of social media criticism at the moment. Yet watching Roscommon you felt like grabbing these fine footballers by the shoulders and saying, 'Listen, you're not going to be remembered for the rest of your life as the man who gave the ball away in the 61st minute of the Connacht final and even if people do criticise you, fuck them, you're the inter-county player and they're not'. Players have to be a little bit braver in these situations. They have to think of inter-county football as an opportunity for self-expression rather than an ordeal to be endured. The failure to do so by players who in the league were an absolute joy to watch was at the root of Roscommon's problems last Sunday.

Today both teams have the opportunity to do a bit better and redeem themselves. They have the ability, the barriers to their doing so are more tactical and psychological than physical.

They also have the opportunity to prevent another shower of condescension raining down on the heads of Connacht football fans everywhere.

Do it for The Dark Province.

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