Last Sunday proved conclusively that things have moved on in Gaelic football. And it is up to the rest of us to try and catch up with the new All-Ireland champions - which won’t be easy. Tyrone last Sunday played the game at a higher level and with a greater intensity than the best of the rest and they don’t look like they intend going anywhere fast. Indeed listening to Mickey Harte being interviewed during the week, he sees last Sunday’s success as a beginning rather then an end in itself. No more than with the Kilkenny hurlers, there is no point in carping on about how good they are, we have to assess and analyse where our own counties are in comparison with them at this juncture.
The difficult question about what needs to be done to improve our systems and approaches in an effort to compete at the top level has to be asked. Tyrone had never won a senior All-Ireland title prior to 2003, now they have three in the bag. They must be doing a lot of things right. And by looking at their template for success perhaps we in the west and beyond can improve our position in the chasing pack somewhat. Many counties are a long way back, however they must have the ambition and belief to try and take the measures that are required to raise the standards of excellence required to compete at the top level.
Even in Kerry, a county with 35 All-Ireland titles, they feel that there is a need to move things onwards and upwards to try and stay up with the exceptional work that is going on in Tyrone and some other northern counties.
Former Kerry great John O’Keefe pointed out in his column in the Irish Times last Monday morning that they need to take cognisance of the need to improve their grass roots structure. He wrote; “There is a lot of work being done in Tyrone at underage and in the schools system to provide players from a very young age with the correct skill set. Kerry could take a leaf out of their book. There is no academy system in Kerry to produce proper coaching, the structures are too team and match orientated. There is a widlye held view in Kerry that great players will just appear year upon year, but that is not enough any more.”
If that is how they view things in Kerry, the question has to be asked: what is the quality of the structures in counties like Mayo, Westmeath, Galway, Roscommon and the other western counties.
We must keep improving
Some people will accuse me of being a naysayer, however, despite recent glorious successes at minor level by Roscommon in 2006 and Galway in 2007, and hopefully Mayo next Saturday in Longford, my view is that we are quite a distance behind as regards coaching structures and positive inputs at national school, second levels and at under-age levels in many counties.
Tyrone have also won three All-Ireland minor titles in the last decade, 1998, 2001 and 2004, and a lot of the players they had on display last Sunday came from those squads. For example, Sean Cavanagh, Joe McMahon, Martin Penrose, Tommy McGuigan and John Devine all won All-Ireland minor medals in 2001 in their victory over Dublin.
For five players to progress from one minor team to win a few senior All-Irelands is a is a terrific return.
Getting a top minor or U-21 team together who win All-Irelands can provide a solid foundation for senior teams of the future if they are nurtured and held together. However ,the work has to go in a lot earlier than that at under-age levels in clubs and with schools of excellence or summer coaching academyiesfor the top players and quality coaching across the board.
All that takes time, money and massive commitment from county boards and clubs, and people have to take the strategic view rather then looking for quick fix solutions. However, unless there is a lot of top-quality coaching going on around the place and youngsters being looked after very well and in a professional way it is highly unlikely that counties will have success on the biggest stage.
Indeed to even compete with the many other attractions, both sporting and non-sporting, that face our youth these days we will have to raise our game and bring the fun back into skill development.
If Tyrone can go from a county that used to come down to Dublin every now and again and timidly knock on the big front door at Croke Park before they went home empty handed, like they did in 1986 and 1995, to a panel of men who come down now and blow the door off the hinges with the quality of their work rate, intensity and skill levels a decade later to win three All-Irelands in six years, surely they are doing something we should observe and learn from.