Saturday 19 October 2019

Pat Spillane: 'The narrative around the Sunday Game pundits regarding the state of football is utter nonsense'

RTÉ analysts Pat Spillane, left, and Ciarán Whelan. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
RTÉ analysts Pat Spillane, left, and Ciarán Whelan. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Pat Spillane

I think we can agree on one thing: the standard of football in the All-Ireland series has been pretty mediocre in recent years.

Furthermore, the results have been predictable, with a high percentage of one-sided games as the gap between the best and the rest widens.

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The provincial championships in Leinster and Munster were a cakewalk, with Dublin and Kerry miles ahead of the rest.

With the introduction of the Super 8s last year the emphasis was on the elite teams and their ability to generate money.

The GAA failed to address the problems bedevilling the weaker counties, who continue to struggle despite the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of euro on their inter-county teams.

And who is to blame for this state of affairs? Well, yours truly and my colleagues on The Sunday Game are held responsible in some quarters.

One popular narrative is that our negative views are the reason why Gaelic football is perceived to be in such a poor state.

This is utter nonsense. We have been merely reflecting what has been happening in front of our eyes in Gaelic football in recent years. We have been fed a diet of conservative, safety-first football in which the hand pass is king.

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Let me state again that we are not cheerleaders of the GAA and I will never attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

However, having watched an awful lot of football matches over the last six months in all grades I’m beginning to like what I’m seeing.

The caveman defensive tactics are being replaced by a game plan which is closer to the true philosophy of Gaelic football with a greater emphasis on attacking football.

This season’s league, in all divisions, provided superb entertainment and more competitive matches than the hurling league.

I’ve told anybody I’ve meet in the last few weeks that they could be surprised by what they’ll witness in the 2019 football championship.

It could be far more competitive, less predictable and produce football of a higher standard than in recent years.

The early indications are promising. While last weekend’s matches won’t merit a mention in the end of year review, I thought they were very enjoyable.

Apart from Roscommon v Leitrim, the other six games were competitive right up until the final whistle.

Waterford lost by a point to Division 2 side Clare in Ennis; Wicklow were narrowly pipped by Kildare, who played in the Super 8s last year, and Derry, who played in Division 4 this spring, put it up to beaten All-Ireland finalists Tyrone.

John Maughan’s Offaly, who narrowly avoided relegation to Division 4, also gave Meath – who will play in Division 1 next year – a serious scare.

None of the above matched the achievement of Limerick, who beat 2016 All-Ireland semi-finalists Tipperary.

What annoyed me, though, was that it was Leitrim’s 14-point mauling by Roscommon which dominated the TV analysis, with renewed calls for the introduction of a tiered championship.

I agree that we urgently need a tiered championship – like the junior, intermediate and senior divisions in club football – but I thought the story of last weekend was the performance of the minnows.

The bottom line is the weaker counties need more games during the summer. Despite their heroics last weekend, the odds are that Wicklow, Waterford and Offaly will have exited the championship by June 8.

However, a tiered championship is not a silver bullet. For starters, any notion it will equalise all counties is far-fetched. Regardless of the format, there will always be strong and weak teams.

Before the GAA launch a tiered football series everybody involved ought to take note of what’s happening in hurling’s four-tiered championship.

I would question its success. The games in the Joe McDonagh, Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher Cups receive scant publicity in the national newspapers and virtually no TV coverage until the finals.

By all accounts last weekend’s McDonagh Cup game between Laois and Offaly was the hurling match of the weekend. It featured 50 scores, with Laois edging out their neighbours 4-22 to 3-31. Yet it didn’t merit a mention on the Sunday Game.

The other lesson to be learned from the hurling competition is that the games in a tiered competition must be played as curtain raisers to big championship matches in order to attract crowds.

It must be soul destroying for hurlers from lower tiers to be playing their finals in a near empty Croke Park.

So if a tiered championship is to work in football the GAA must market it properly. 

The weaker teams won’t improve by playing more games against teams of their own or of a poorer standard.

This is why I believe the provincial championships must be retained and all teams should be allowed play in one round of the qualifiers. This means every player can still dream of provincial and All-Ireland glory. If they fail they could then enter a tiered system.

This system would mean everybody is treated fairly and we don’t have the tokenism which has become a feature of the tiered hurling championship.

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