Pat Spillane's Highlights and Low points of 2016 in GAA
It’s that time of the year when I cast my ‘expert’ eye over the GAA year and sort the wonderful from the woeful.
In the process of reaching my verdict, I asked myself four questions: Did the cream come to the top? Did the best teams win? Did the winning teams play football the way it should be played? Were the top players given a chance to display their range of skills?
The answer to all four questions is an emphatic yes.
From a personal point of view, what happened in 2016 will never be surpassed.
The remarkable journey which my beloved club Templenoe embarked on was well underway this time last year, as we had already won the Kerry and Munster junior titles.
Then, in early January, we brought 300 supporters to Birmingham for the All-Ireland quarter-final against John Mitchels.
The dream culminated on February 6 when Templenoe were crowned All-Ireland junior champions in Croke Park.
I’ve made this point before in my column, but I believe it is worth repeating.
Sean Kelly was rightly lauded for his role in opening up Croke Park to soccer and rugby during his term as GAA President.
I believe, however, that his lasting legacy will be his role in introducing an All-Ireland championship series for junior and intermediate clubs.
This initiative afforded players from every small village and rural parish in Ireland an opportunity to play in Croke Park and to secure an All-Ireland title.
Hand on heart, seeing the Templenoe players run out on the Croke Park pitch on the evening of the All-Ireland final, watching my son and nephews play in the game and then observing team captain Tadhg Morley climb the steps of the Hogan Stand to receive the trophy, made me the happiest man on the planet.
So, regardless of what happened during the rest of the season, 2016 was always going to be a memorable year for me personally.
The Dubs won the All-Ireland playing football the way it should be played. Their wonderful attacking philosophy was a joy to behold. It was a case of the cream coming to the top.
Not alone are the Dubs brilliant footballers, they are excellent role models as well.
Better still, the Jim Gavin football philosophy is gaining traction. Apart from winning All-Ireland titles in their respective competitions in 2016, what have St Brendan’s College, Killarney, UCD, the Kerry minor and junior teams and the Mayo U-21 squad got in common?
They all won their silverware playing an attacking brand of football. There’s a lesson there for all teams.
Despite playing in Division 3 they reached the All-Ireland semi-final for the first time in 81 years, achieving three shock results along the way with wins over Cork, Derry and Galway.
Better still, they reached the last four playing wonderful attacking football. Their philosophy was underlined by their demolition of Connacht champions Galway in the All-Ireland quarter final.
All but three points of their 3-13 came from play and they had a record 42 shots at goal.
Brilliant individual displays
Take your pick from Clare’s Gary Brennan, Philip Acheson (Tipperary), the Tyrone pair of Sean Cavanagh and Peter Harte, Kerry’s Paul Geaney, Ryan McHugh (Donegal), Brian Fenton (Dublin) and Lee Keegan (Mayo).
The perennial whipping boys in the All-Ireland series nearly pulled off what would have been the biggest shock of all time when they lost by one point to Roscommon.
The All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Kerry was the pick, while the All-Ireland final and replay between Dublin and Mayo fell into the memorable category as well.
The Kerry minor squad
They completed the All-Ireland hat-trick thanks to their devotion to kick passing.
Clare created history by reaching the All-Ireland quarter-final and beating Division 1 side Roscommon in the process. Even though they played second fiddle to the hurlers in terms of resources, Colm Collins has assembled a useful squad.
He is poised to become one of the greatest GAA football coaches of all time. What a record! His team are on a 29-match unbeaten run and he has endured only one championship defeat in 25 games.
Better still, Gavin is a low-key manager who allows his team to do their talking on the field. Other managers ought to take note.
Though much maligned, this year they threw up more decent matches than normal. We had Laois v Armagh, Longford v Down, Derry v Cavan and all the games involving Clare and Tipperary.
Dean Rock’s free-taking
His marksmanship from placed balls played a key role in Dublin’s success story.
He kicked 10 out of 11 against Kerry and eight out of eight in the All-Ireland final replay, which more than made up for his blip in the drawn decider.
The performance of Mayo veterans Andy Moran and Alan Dillon
Moran and Dillon’s best days are behind them and they lack the pace to last a full game, but the pair’s intelligent movement on and off the ball and their wonderful kick passing unhinged the much-vaunted Tyrone blanket defence in the All-Ireland quarter final.
Not enough quality games
Only three of the 63 championship matches passed my admittedly high quality test – not good enough!
Lack of All-Ireland contenders
The number of serious contenders for the All-Ireland continues to dwindle. We’re down to four for next year; Dublin, Kerry, Mayo and Tyrone. Nobody else will challenge this quartet.
The provincial championships
They were mostly poor and definitely underwhelming. Leinster is a complete joke given Dublin’s utter dominance.
Bar Tipperary’s shock defeat of Cork, the Munster series was predictable.
The drawn Connacht final between Galway and Roscommon was one of the most forgettable matches of the year and standards have slipped in Ulster.
The stats make grim reading: There were 14 games in which the winning margin was more than 10 points; two in Munster, three in Ulster, four in Connacht and five in Leinster.
Soccer’s bad habits are creeping in. We had Aidan O’Shea’s dive which earned Mayo a crucial penalty in their qualifier against Fermanagh and an even more theatrical collapse from Donegal goalkeeper Marc Anthony McGinley against Monaghan in the drawn Ulster semi-final.
The black card
It caused confusion and overall referees were woefully inconsistent in how they applied it.
Roscommon’s football tactics
Having lit up the spring with their wonderful attacking football, Roscommon changed tactics after losing heavily to Kerry in the league semi-final. They opted to play defensive football for the rest of the season.
The players clearly weren’t happy and their performances went downhill. The sight of them running down the clock rather than trying to secure the winning score in the drawn Connacht final summed up their attitude.
The Ulster final
An extreme case of paralysis by analysis as both teams set up defensively and played with fear. Donegal had six shots on goal in the second-half, which sums up the poverty of the game. If that’s top-class coaching, get me the puke bucket!
It wasn’t a vintage year for the men in the middle. At least Maurice Deegan admitted he got it wrong when he missed John Small’s black card offence in the All-Ireland final.
Meath’s performance against Dublin in the Leinster semi-final
This was an anaemic, damage-limitation exercise, which didn’t even achieve its objective of keeping Dublin’s winning margin down. I’d imagine former Meath players were embarrassed as they left Croke Park.
Fixing Dublin v Laois game for Nowlan Park
This game should have been played in O’Moore Park in Portlaoise, but at least the Leinster Council has acknowledged their error. If Carlow beat Wexford in the Leinster championship next year, guess where the quarter-final against Dublin will be played? O’Moore Park!
The introduction of the mark will not improve the quality of Gaelic football. The Rules Revision Committee ought to have dealt with the real problem – the overuse of the hand pass.
They continue to decline. The reason is simple: the quality of the fare is suffering at the hands of defensive-minded, possession-obsessed coaches.
The GPA new financial deal with the GAA and the Government
Of course, it is good news for inter-county players, but I wonder about its long-term implications. Are we on the slippery slope to some form of pay for play in the future?