Sunday 25 August 2019

Pat Spillane: 'It's time to fact check the line that hurling is sexy and Gaelic football is in crisis'

Last Sunday's game between Down and Armagh came as a pleasant surprise
Last Sunday's game between Down and Armagh came as a pleasant surprise

Pat Spillane

I used to treat what appeared on social media with a pinch of salt.

Of late, though, I have begun to wonder how a small minority can drive a particular narrative without backing it up with facts.

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Worse still, their assertions are rarely challenged. Earlier this year I launched my own unofficial 'fight against the narrative' campaign.

So this morning I want to fact check a few theories which are popular on social media at the moment.

Top of the list is the line that hurling is sexy and Gaelic football is in crisis.

Granted, in terms of live television exposure the hurling championship is sweeping the boards at the moment.

However, for the second consecutive weekend there were far more exciting games in the much maligned provincial  football series.

Of course this doesn't fit the prevailing narrative. Neither does the fact that in general the minnows have been punching above their weight in football.

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So Offaly's heroic effort against Meath, Derry's battling performance against the 2018 beaten All-Ireland finalists Tyrone, or London – who finished bottom of Division 4 – giving 2018 All-Ireland semi-finalists Galway a real fright scarcely merited a mention.

Instead, all the focus has been on the hammerings which Leitrim and Sligo endured against Roscommon and Galway. Why? Because it feeds the narrative that Gaelic football is in a dire state and we need a tiered football championship.

It gets worse. I read on one social media outlet that "Spillane and Brolly had made controversial comments on the first Sunday Game programme of the year".

Really! I haven't appeared on the show so far this season.

Read more here:

Then there is the constant 'Spillane is anti-Ulster' narrative. Well, let's put that one to bed for the umpteenth time.

I have repeatedly written and said that the Ulster championship is the most competitive of the provincial series – and has been for years – though I've felt that standards have slipped in recent seasons.

However, this year's Ulster championship has been the best for many years. It continues to be competitive, but it is now featuring some class football as well.

Last Sunday's game between Down and Armagh came as a pleasant surprise. Okay, the two teams set up defensively and played a lot of keep-ball, but they managed to produce edge-of-the-seat entertainment in a contest which was in doubt until the final whistle sounded at the end of extra-time.

The individual displays from two of Armagh's newcomers, Rian O'Neill and Jarly Óg Burns was as good as you will see in this summer's championship.

The contest had everything one expects to see in a proper championship game. Unlike their rugby counterparts, the 15,000 supporters in the Marshes didn't need to have flags put on their seats or a band playing to create an atmosphere.

By their deeds and the pride they showed in the county jerseys, the players delivered.

Armagh will be delighted to finally get the monkey of having never won an Ulster championship match under Kieran McGeeney off their back. They showed great character and kicked some excellent scores.

However, serious questions will be asked about their game-management skills. Despite playing with an extra man for over half the game and being five points up with less than five minutes of normal time remaining, they still needed extra-time to prevail. And they were almost caught at the death in extra-time as well.

The Cavan versus Monaghan game was equally entertaining. And what has really pleasing from the three Ulster championship games I have witnessed is the increase in the frequency of kicked passing.

Rian O'Neill's long pass for Andrew Murnin's goal in extra-time, or Martin Reilly's brace of long kicks to Conor Madden which led to a penalty and point were real gems.

I think coaches are finally beginning to move on from their safety-first approach. Wisely they are using the long, kicked pass as a means of unlocking packed defences.

The Cavan versus Monaghan tie was decided in the first-half. Six different players contributed to Cavan's 1-8 tally and they converted 60 per cent of their chances. In contrast, Monaghan failed to score from play. They managed 0-4 from placed balls and their shooting efficiency was just 29 per cent.

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Monaghan's Conor Moynagh scoring a first half point. Photo: Sportsfile

I wasn't really surprised that Monaghan became the first Division 1 side to exit this year's provincial championship, but I was shocked that their first-half performance was so lacking in work rate, physicality and passion. It was most unlike them.

Last year they suffered a surprise defeat to Fermanagh in the Ulster semi-final, before they subsequently did well to come through the qualifiers and reach the All-Ireland semi-final. 

I doubt if they can repeat the feat this summer.

For starters, the draw will hardly be as kind to them. In 2018 they beat three teams that had played in Division 4 that spring – Waterford, Leitrim and Laois – in order to reach the Super 8s.

They have been on the road a long time and like Mayo did last year, I fear they will hit the wall in the qualifiers.

Correctly lauded for being so competitive for so long despite being a tiny county, the calibre of player now coming through is not of sufficient quality to keep them at the top table.

Their Achilles heel is their attack, which is too dependent on Conor McManus for scores. The others are industrious, but don't score enough on a regular basis.

And to cap it all they have an injury crisis which has left them woefully short of match-fit midfielders.

They had their best chance of reaching a first All-Ireland final in half a century last year, but they missed the boat. Their best days are behind them.

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