Saturday 17 March 2018

Positive thinkers will prosper

Last year’s final seemed less a triumph of impermeable defensive systems than a struggle between a Donegal team who froze and a Kerry team who weren’t playing particularly well (Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE)
Last year’s final seemed less a triumph of impermeable defensive systems than a struggle between a Donegal team who froze and a Kerry team who weren’t playing particularly well (Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE)
Supporters at 2014 All-Ireland final

Eamonn Sweeney

There's simply nothing else like them in Irish sport. From today when the action gets going in earnest till the Sunday in September when the very final whistle goes, more people will turn up to watch the championships than attend any other sporting event on this island.

Last year 845,742 people attended the championships, forking out €23.6m in gate receipts and giving an average attendance of 18,844. This average is higher than that of America's National Basketball Association league and National Hockey League, Brazil's top flight Serie A soccer league, Australia's National Rugby League and the Heineken Cup in rugby, which has never in its short history topped the 15,000 average mark. The competitions which rank higher than our GAA championships in terms of average attendance are all played in countries with vastly bigger populations.

The combined population of the 32 counties is a paltry 6.4 million. Only two other domestic sports competitions played in countries with populations of less than 10 million top the 10,000 average attendance mark. And in fairness to the premier soccer divisions of Switzerland (10,772) and Scotland (10,008), they're only trotting after us.

In other words, the GAA Championships are almost unique in the effect they have on the country where they take place. Things may change socially, politically and economically in Ireland but the allure of the championships abides. They will conclude with two finals, both in front of over 82,000 spectators, more than attended this year's Super Bowl. But before this denouement, the championships will touch every part of the country down here and most parts of the one above.

Perhaps one reason we care so much about the championships is that they seem to announce the arrival of summer. The arrival of the competitions is up there with the lengthening of the evenings, kids getting the school holidays, days at the beach, belated application of sun screen, peeling skin, beer gardens, ice cream cones and trying to work a barbecue without poisoning anyone as confirmation that the good months are upon us.

The fact that it's raining as I pen this optimistic encomium may indicate that there is something slightly oxymoronic about the phrase 'The Irish summer,' yet it's fair to say that most of our championship memories and expectations involve sunny afternoons, hard pitches and water carriers working overtime to counter dehydration.

But just as we all know someone who when it rains one day in June will be quick to lament, "We didn't get much of a summer this year," there is never any shortage of people to proclaim the lamentable decline of the football championship. My favourite quote in this connection came from Tommy Carr, then Dublin manager, at a press conference before the 2000 campaign when it was put to him that the previous year's championship had been the worst ever. "Sure it's always the worst football championship ever," said Carr, neatly capturing the perpetual tendency to caricature the country's most popular sport as the ugly sister of the GAA, an unlovely abomination scarcely fit to stand next to the aesthetic joy which is hurling.

A lot of this happens because people always like to have something to whinge about. As the American writer Randall Jarrell said, "The people who live in a golden age usually go around complaining about how yellow everything looks." I'm old enough to remember when the Kerry and Dublin teams of the O'Dwyer and Heffernan eras, subsequently lionised, were lambasted for "turning the game into basketball," and not giving the opposition a look-in. And I can remember at least three All-Ireland finals in the 1980s which were described as 'new lows,' for the game and as normally perceptive a critic as Breandan O hEithir suggesting the jig was up and the GAA might be better off starting to promote rugby rather than Gaelic football.

Well, Gaelic football is still here and despite excitable talk about the rise of rugby, still holds a higher and more secure place in the public affections than its oval ball counterpart. And that's probably because, as Mick O'Dwyer was wont to say, there's nothing wrong with the game if it's played properly.

Last year's championship, after all, gave us three of the finest semi-finals in the last 30 years, titanic tussles from which negative tactics were almost entirely missing. They followed on from the Dublin-Kerry semi of 2013, which is as good a game as has ever been played at the penultimate stage of the championship. And I don't remember many complaints about tedium when Donegal were making their unlikely run to glory the year before that.

Last year's semi-finals averaged almost 42 points a game. Go back 10 years and the average is just over 25. Go back 20 and it's around 31. Which would seem to indicate that the portrayal of a game headed down a one-way road to negativity is largely illusory.

The notion that Gaelic football has become almost unbearably defensive is this year's Big Piece of Conventional Wisdom. It is The Thing Everyone Knows, and evidence to the contrary be damned. Last year's TTEK was that Dublin were going to walk away with not just the 2014 football championship but all football championships in the future. Their demographic superiority, financial clout and awesome underage strength gave an unfair advantage. That particular drum was banged every bit as much as the 'football in decline' bongos are being clattered this year. The year before, we spent a lot of time hearing about how Donegal had brought football to a new level of expertise and wouldn't be stopped either.

Conventional Wisdom is a dangerous thing, as is talking about things which have not happened yet as though they already have. I'd wager that the 2015 football championship will not be anything like as a dull as the nattering nabobs of negativity have forecast, even if today's Donegal-Tyrone clash is unlikely to be a stirring illustration of the Corinthian ethic.

The first few weeks of the championship are always a godsend for the naysayer, given that they usually contain a couple of mean-spirited Ulster scraps and at least one massacre in Munster. Though last year when Clare and Tipperary gave Kerry and Cork bags of it, this received much less coverage than a couple of one-sided defeats would have done. The idea that there is nothing in Munster apart from Kerry and Cork and in Connacht apart from Galway and Mayo and that this constitutes a terrible injustice to the Leinster counties who must play in a much tougher championship is another popular one.

But last year Tipperary went on to dispose of Laois in the qualifiers, while Clare came up a point short against Kildare after squandering a big lead. And this year Roscommon won a Division 2 which neither Meath nor Kildare managed to get out of. The suspicion must be that the overwhelming dominance of Dublin in Leinster is not entirely due to their own brilliance and that none of the other counties in the province would exactly be tearing it up were they moved either West or South. We'll see how they go this term. You can even argue that the third best teams in Connacht (Roscommon) and Munster (Tipperary) are better than the second best team in Leinster (Kildare? Meath?)

We will undoubtedly see some negativity in this campaign. But hopefully most managers will resist the temptation, if not for moral reasons then for the very good pragmatic one that it usually doesn't work. Last year's Unstoppable Dubs, after all, didn't lose because of Donegal's Blanket Defence, which they had dismantled without much effort while building up a big early lead. They lost because Donegal were forced to emerge from their cocoon, got an edge at midfield and ruthlessly exposed the fact that most of Dublin's defenders were better playing in the opposition half of the field than in their own. They were rewarded not for negativity but for bravery.

Even the final, Exhibit A for the prophets of doom, seemed to my mind less a triumph of impermeable defensive systems than a struggle between a Donegal team who froze and a Kerry team who weren't playing particularly well. Yet the lionisation of negativity and defensive set-ups of questionable efficiency goes on. I was amused to hear Cork being praised after their league semi-final win over Donegal for apparently having instituted a new system founded on hard-nosed defensive realism which was the key to their victory, something entirely at odds with a final score of 4-11 to 0-20.

Sure enough in the final the Rebels conceded 1-21 against Dublin, scarcely a massive advance from the 2-20 scored by the Dubs when the two sides met 12 months previously. The two sides represent two entirely different ways of approaching the game. Jim Gavin has continued to adopt what Eugene McGee termed the Blanket Attack; Cork, on the other hand, despite having some superb forwards and a pretty dubious defence, appear to have taken the novel approach of playing to their weaknesses rather than their strengths.

Negativity won't win anything but the temptation for a weak manager is the same as for a weak politician who goes down the route of austerity, even if he knows in his heart it won't work, because he feels happier hewing to the orthodoxy. Nobody likes to be criticised for naivete or not being streetwise. The negative manager can pretend he's executing a plan rather than covering up for a loss of nerve.

But it is the positive thinkers who will prosper in this year's championship as they did in the last one, and that's why there will be plenty of good games. Predictions that Gavin would embrace the new 'realism' in the wake of the Donegal defeat seem ill-founded. Dublin are as free-flowing as ever and they will sweep aside most teams.

But not all. They have three serious challengers. Kerry's 2014 victory was an object lesson in the Kingdom's ability to eke out an All-Ireland if they have any shot at all. The continuing resurgence of Kieran Donaghy, the return of Colm Cooper, Tommy Walsh and even Paul Galvin, who surely has a few telling cameos left in him, will strengthen them, and the experience of becoming champions should bring on the young defenders who were visibly growing in maturity last year.

Mayo flew entirely under the radar throughout the league but were arguably the best team in last year's championship, by no means have an aging squad and won't be far away. Neither, I think, will Donegal, even if they are slightly older. How good it would be to see Michael Murphy really cut loose as an attacking force and dominate big games again. In both cases a lot depends on how the sides cope after the departure of messianic managers, but Eamonn Fitzmaurice has shown that a low-key boss who keeps things ticking over with a minimum of drama can be very effective indeed.

Cork are good enough to take major scalps if they concentrate on what they can do instead of what they can't, but the dark horses I like are Monaghan. They are battle-hardened and experienced, and the single Ulster title they've won can hardly have slaked their appetite. Their display against Dublin in the league semi-final should have done their confidence a world of good and they have as easy a path into the Ulster decider as is possible in that fraught neck of the woods.

Roscommon have a fairly easy stroll into the Connacht final and are obviously a team on the up and up, as are Armagh, who could battle their way into the Ulster decider or be very dangerous back-door opposition if they don't. The latter also applies to Galway, who have the gumption to rebound well if Mayo inflict a Connacht semi-final defeat on them. I don't fancy Tyrone, Meath or Derry to do much, though no doubt at least one of them will make that look a very silly assertion before the summer is over.

It is the greatest show in Ireland. And while it may take time to get going, it does have a knack of creeping up on you till you find you're not talking about much else. There are counties who'll feel they've failed if they don't win the final and counties who'll judge the season to be a success if they win just one game. There's something there for everyone.

Best. Championship. Ever.

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