Friday 18 October 2019

Pat Spillane: 'New era of attacking play leaves Gaelic football in a good place'

David Clifford of Kerry in action against Michael Fitzsimons of Dublin during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
David Clifford of Kerry in action against Michael Fitzsimons of Dublin during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Pat Spillane

THE dust has finally settled on Dublin’s historic fifth All-Ireland win on the spin.

So it is an opportune moment to reflect on the 2019 football championship. How was it for you?

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Well, I enjoyed the season even if my native Kerry fell at the final hurdle. Overall, Gaelic football is in a decent state. There has been a definite improvement in standards in the inter-county game in terms of fitness and skills level, the quality of the football and, in particular, the positive approach adopted by the majority of coaches.

Whenever one team or individual is utterly dominant in their sport, there is a danger of a knee-jerk reaction to their superiority.

Rather than applaud their achievements there is a tendency to undermine what they have achieved.

I remember after last year’s All-Ireland final my ‘Sunday Game’ colleague Colm O’Rourke outlined why he believed there was an urgent need to split Dublin into two due to their dominance.

He certainly presented a valid argument to support his contention. At the time I didn’t think it was the time, or the place, to rain on the Dublin parade.

Since their All-Ireland final replay win last month there has been a lot of negative articles focusing on the dominance the Dubs enjoy over other counties, in terms of the population and financial clout they have.

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It is a fair point and it is a matter I will address over the coming months. But it is worth noting that for all their inbuilt advantages, Dublin have only won one All-Ireland minor title in the last 34 years.

For now, however, let’s praise a brilliant Dublin team we are privileged to be seeing at their peak in our lifetime. As I have previously written, they are probably the greatest GAA team of all time.

The challenge for all other counties is to try and emulate and, ultimately, better the standards of excellence which Dublin have set.

Of course it is a tall order, but wallowing in self-pity and looking for excuses won’t bridge the gap.

Gaelic football is no different from any team sport. There is an inevitability about the fact that the cream will rise to the top and the best team wins the All-Ireland every September.

And that’s exactly how the 2019 championship panned out. But what has excited me so much about Dublin’s dominance is they achieved their five-in-a-row success by playing the game the way it was meant to be played.

They are an exhilarating team to watch. So my message to all GAA fans is ignore the begrudgers and just admire this group of superb footballers.

Aside from the brilliance of the Dubs, there were many other reasons why the 2019 football championship was a good one.

Tactically, the game is evolving in a positive way. The ‘cave-man’ tactics exemplified by a sort of football-by-numbers approach is slowly fading, having dominated the game since Donegal’s All-Ireland victory in 2012.

The tactics favoured by managers such as Rory Gallagher, Kevin Walsh and Turlough O’Brien has been found out. It is good for achieving moral victories but ultimately won’t deliver the big prize.

The standard of coaching has improved. Better still, coaches are thinking outside the box. And, crucially, they are concentrating on producing game plans which are suited to their players’ strengths.

No longer are they totally obsessed with stopping the opposition from playing. Most teams now have a Plan B for their forwards and everything is geared towards trying to outscore the opposition.

In Ulster, where the blanket defence was born and nurtured, there was a remarkable renaissance this summer.

We witnessed wonderful attacking football being played by Armagh, Cavan and Donegal. So hats off to Kieran McGeeney, Mickey Graham, Declan Bonner and his influential coach in Donegal, Stephen Rochford.

Even Tyrone’s Mickey Harte went the extra mile by putting two men in his full-forward line.

Apart from Dublin, other leading counties are also focusing on playing positive, attacking football with Mayo and Kerry being prime examples. Meath boss Andy McEntee put a lot of trust in young talented forwards and was rewarded with a place in the Super 8s.

In mid-season, Cork boss Ronan McCarthy ditched his double-sweeper system, which had contributed to the team’s relegation to Division 3.

His new approach yielded a decent dividend, with the Rebels giving Kerry a fright in the Munster final and gaining a place in the Super 8s.

There are three other positives to be taken from the season. As I alluded to earlier, two of the game’s traditional powers – Meath and Cork – showed signs of being on the comeback trail, with the Royals back in Division 1.

This is good news for the GAA because both counties have big populations and both the Munster and Leinster championships badly need teams to emerge and challenge the dominance of Kerry and Dublin.

We saw some brilliant young footballers emerge this summer, including the Mayo trio Matthew Ruane, James Carr and Fionn McDonagh, Killian Spillane (Kerry), Shane Walsh (Meath) and two gems from Armagh in Jarlath Óg Burns and Rian O’Neill.

And finally, taken collectively, the All-Ireland semi-finals and the two finals compared favourably with the concluding games in any All-Ireland series in the past.

But let’s not get carried away. The All-Ireland championship is far from perfect. There were too many mismatches, which supports the argument that the gap between the best and the rest is widening.

There were two games (Cork v Limerick and Mayo v New York) where the winning margin was more than 20 points.

In Round 1 of the All-Ireland qualifiers, the average winning margin was over eight points and in 24 of the 59 matches played in the championship the average winning margin was over 10 points.

There are now probably three tiers of teams in the championship.

At the top there is Dublin and Kerry with Mayo, Donegal and Tyrone just about hanging on. A second tier would include the best of the rest, including Roscommon, Meath, Galway, Monaghan and Cork.

But there is a third tier where London, Leitrim, Limerick, Louth, Carlow, Waterford, Wicklow, Antrim and Sligo would be candidates for inclusion. And though I make no apologies for admiring Dublin, it’s not healthy for one sport that one team is so dominant. The Leinster Championship has become a wasteland due to Dublin’s magnificence.

As everybody involved in the GAA is only too well aware, the fixture calendar is all over the shop. Mayo, for example, had to play seven championship games in eight weeks, which is a grossly unfair burden for amateur players.

There is an undue haste in running off the championship. At the other end of the scale, 20 counties – including all the Division 3 and 4 teams – had exited the championship by June 20.

But it is the teams who operate in the lower divisions that need more games at that time of the year and sadly, the proposed Tier 2 competition won’t solve this conundrum.

Thankfully the anomaly which guaranteed Dublin two games in Croke Park in the Super 8s next season will be addressed at the GAA Congress in the spring.

I’m already looking forward to the clash between Dublin and Kerry in round 2 of the Super 8s in Páirc Uí Chaoimh next summer!

As for a final verdict on the championship, I’m reminded of Bertie Ahern’s campaign slogan ‘A lot done. More to do’.

If the 2019 series was a version of ‘The Restaurant’ and I was Marco Pierre White, I’d give it 3.5 stars.

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