Gaelic football, played at its brilliant best, excites me. It is a game that provides heroes and role models, moments of glory, and great sporting occasions, with the potential to lift the spirits of whole communities and providing a focus for local loyalty and a real sense of community. Unfortunately this year’s championship hasn’t yet done any of that and has provided only one game of real quality so far, that of Cork v Kerry.
The quality of matches is definitely declining at an alarming rate. The traditional skills of our game are disappearing as managers are under enormous pressure to deliver success at any cost. I heard Damien Cassidy, the Derry manager, suggest on The Sunday Game two weeks ago that he didn’t care if his team failed to entertain the paying supporters. He doesn’t mind how his team plays as long as they win. That to me is wrong, and as one pundit pointed out last Sunday evening, comments like that do a disservice to our game. But that is the way football has gone and in addition to the poor fare on offer we are also witnessing a huge increase in the cynicism that has also become the ‘norm’ of modern football. Pulling and dragging, and players falling to the ground trying to have an opponent sent off is all part and parcel of most matches these days. Tactical fouling is also killing our game. The modern ‘win at all costs’ smart team will ensure that the players receiving yellow cards are spread throughout the 15. In other words a manager doesn’t want to see the same player committing regular fouls. The idea is to have a relay system in operation that will ensure no one gets sent off.
The reality of all of this is we are not offering an attractive viewing experience to followers of Gaelic football. The standard of play has deteriorated alarmingly over the last few years and if we don’t change something soon we will see fewer supporters parting with their hard earned cash to go and watch games. It is an exception these days to witness free flowing end to end football action that generates the type of excitement that only a hard, close fought match can generate. How often do we see high fielding, long-range points, classy goals, accurate passing, and quality defending? Teams have become so defensive orientated these days with 10 or 12 behind the ball at any one time that we are left watching a series of short hand passing over and back the field that looks dreadful. Then we have coaches/trainers/managers screaming at their team not to give the ball away, which more or less means players are practically afraid of kicking it for fear the ball might be intercepted by an opposing player. So over and back we go! We owe it to the next generation of players to highlight all that is positive in Gaelic football. How can we attract new members or our young players to the game of Gaelic football if we present an ugly afternoon’s viewing? Now let’s be honest here for a moment. We are facing one hell of a problem if we don’t address the issue, because in a freer recreational market with competition from other sports we might just discover some day when it’s too late, that Gaelic football will no longer be the first choice of sport for our youngsters.
Our game needs a radical overhaul and I hope we appoint a task force of some kind or other at the conclusion of this year’s championship to seriously look at a few rule changes that just might help improve things. I will identify a number of areas in a later article in which I would propose change.
Minor matters and black and white pants
I was in Sligo early last Sunday for both minor and senior matches. I took up a position on the ‘Hill 16’ side of the ground, where I enjoyed great banter with a gang of Sligo supporters. They were great characters and serious supporters of the Sligo footballers. They were dressed for the occasion too, with several of them wearing black and white chef’s pants for the occasion. I spotted Gerry Costello from Balla lurking in the distance and this proud Mayo man was also sporting black on this occasion.
His son Alan lines out for Sligo these days and understandably dad and family were there in numbers to support their boy. It was an excellent location to view the game as I had entertainment both on and off the field. The Sligo boys on this occasion were supporting the Mayo minors and after the first 20 minutes of this game I thought we would need them in full voice to see us over the line. Its very hard to know what type of performance you will get from minors and I honestly hadn’t a clue as to how good or bad Mayo were going to be. I was pleasantly surprised as they played exceptionally well, particularly in the second half, and fully deserved their win. When the pressure was at its greatest they scored a couple of cracking goals to distance themselves from a disappointing Galway side and now head into a Connacht final against Roscommon, who themselves disposed of a feeble challenge from Leitrim at the weekend. Ray Dempsey and his backroom team had their boys spot on for this match and the win will have given them a great confidence boost for bigger tests ahead.
Galway get there, just about, and Antrim roll on
The main fare was the Galway v Sligo encounter. Galway, understandably, were outrageously hot favourites for this match (Division 1 v Division 4 ) and after their blistering start you could understand why. They raced into an early lead, kicking points for fun and with Sligo looking awkward and cumbersome; I feared the worst when Galway led by 0-8 to 0-2 early into the first half. Everything indicated a mismatch akin to others we have endured in recent weeks. But I shouldn’t have worried because Sligo shook themselves from their slumber and literally tore into Galway for the remainder of the game. They reduced the six point margin to two by half time and within minutes of the resumption had Galway in all sorts of trouble. They had a great goal opportunity at the start of the second half and an even better one towards the end of the game from the aforementioned Alan Costello that would surely have won them the game. Sligo eventually lost by four points but, going into injury time when they were level with Galway and pressing for a winner, their lack of big game experience probably caught them. They were likely shattered afterwards knowing they left Galway off the hook. And that is exactly how they should have felt as they had a mighty opportunity to beat the Tribesmen. While driving to Crossmolina for a league match immediately after the game I listened to the first half of the Dublin v Westmeath match on Radio 1. The Westmeath resistance was shattered within two minutes of the game starting as the Dubs kicked three points from play in the first 100 seconds of the game. Westmeath were in disarray and it was obvious in the early minutes that Westmeath’s defensive game wasn’t going to be near good enough on this occasion to deny a comprehensive victory for the Dubs. It was so easy in fact that a number of ordinary Dublin footballers played brilliantly. This result will, needless to say, create enormous hype and the big question now remains how will they handle the buzz? There is no doubt that Pat Gilroy, the Dublin manager, has widened his options this year with a number of substitutes playing well last Sunday.
Lots of football people will be happy for the Antrim footballers. They beat Cavan last Saturday to make it through to their first Ulster final since 1970. This is a success story in itself and I expect they will thoroughly enjoy the occasion. They should enjoy these couple of weeks, as I anticipate that Tyrone would almost certainly have little difficulty in winning another provincial title.
It’s a big weekend in the local football championship. Space doesn’t allow me to go into the various encounters and I don’t want to be accused of gamesmanship by highlighting that I am in bad form at the time of writing as we have picked up several injuries this week in Crossmolina. I will review next week.