OpinionPat Spillane

Spillane: Dubs and Westmeath show attack is the way forward

Pat SpillaneBy Pat Spillane
Michael Darragh MacAuley (Dublin) in action against Cathal McNally (Kildare)
Michael Darragh MacAuley (Dublin) in action against Cathal McNally (Kildare)

THE much-maligned game of Gaelic football provided the best three-and-a-half hours of entertainment witnessed anywhere in Ireland on Sunday the week before last.

Here again was proof that if Gaelic football is played by teams with a positive attitude there is absolutely nothing wrong with it.

The three games produced a stun­ning tally of 17 goals and 98 points – an average of 50 points a game and 38 scores. It was cracking stuff.

I want to focus briefly on the minor match in which Kildare beat Dublin. Last year I watched a physically power­ful Kildare side being taught a football lesson by Kerry in the All-Ireland minor quarter-final.

The Kildare players were clearly deficient in the skills of the game. Last Sunday, Kildare produced an exhibi­tion featuring all the best attributes of attacking football.

There is a lesson there for every GAA coach: Focus less on strength and con­ditioning and spend more time working on improving the skill levels of players.

Kildare will meet Longford – the smallest GAA county in Leinster – in the provincial final. So despite all the prophets of doom and gloom, Dublin are not dominating at every level of Gaelic football in the province.

So why are Longford punching above their weight? Well, they put a proper coaching structure in place several years ago and they are now reaping the benefits.

In contrast, the dinosaurs who ran the Meath GAA Board declined to fund a blueprint for the development of football in Meath which Colm O’Rourke drew up a few years ago. They are now reaping an inevitable, grim harvest. Their minors were beaten by Longford in the Leinster semi-final.

So let’s focus on the big winners last weekend, Donegal, Dublin and Westmeath.

The Ulster champions gave a flat, workmanlike performance. This was probably inevitable in the wake of the hype which their annihilation of Armagh generated.

The bottom line is that Donegal are not as good as people suggested after the Armagh match, but they are not as bad as their performance against Derry suggested. They are still the number three rated team in the country.

What can I say about the Dubs? I have run out of superlatives.

Of course the game against Kildare was a mismatch and the challengers never raised a gallop. Nevertheless, one could only sit back and admire Dublin’s play.

Dublin are turning into the Barcelo­na of Gaelic football. Their movement on and off the ball, their angles of run­ning and their pace sets them apart.

Defensively they’re in a different league this summer compared to last season. They’re more streetwise and right now they are the best team in the country by some distance.

The frightening thing is that I don’t think they hit top gear on Sunday.

Kildare went down tamely − it was as if they had accepted their fate even before they took the field − but then it’s a long time since Kildare have been real contend­ers. Remember, they haven’t contested a Leinster final since 2009.

Of course, it was the unheralded Westmeath that stole the limelight – and rightly so. Frankly, I didn’t think they had a prayer at half-time.

Their first-half defending was naive; they were way off the pace and decid­edly fortunate not to trail by more than eight points at the break.

However, their second-half perfor­mance, when they outscored Meath 2-12 to 0-6 and came from nine points down in the final 21 minutes to win by four, was a sight to behold.

They went short with their kick-outs, started to win the dirty ball in the middle third of the field and made vital positional switches − moving sweeper Kieran Martin up front was a key move.

But the main reason for the turn­around was that they threw off the shackles and just went for it. As was the case with Sligo the previous week it was great forward play which got them over the line.

It was uplifting to witness the joyous scenes at the final whistle. They de­served their day in the sun, but I fear for them in the Leinster final.

It was a sickening defeat for Meath, but in the first-half they produced as good a display of attacking football as I’ve seen this year and scored 2-12.

However, through a combination of players being too individualistic, poor shot selection and wrong options being taken they also missed 2-8, which was to cost them dearly.

Graham Reilly’s black card was harsh, but, like Kildare, Meath are no longer a GAA superpower. Once Westmeath pressurised them there was a lack of leadership all over the field and no amount of training can resolve this weakness.

I was so euphoric after I witnessed the action that the four-and-a-half hour drive home from Dublin passed by in a flash.

Still, I’m not entirely angry-free this week! I’m annoyed by the constant sug­gestions that Gaelic football analysts are more critical of football than their hurling counterparts are of hurling.

There is one obvious reason: there has been more high-quality hurling ties in recent years compared to football

However, what’s constantly over­looked is that, unlike its football equivalent, the All-Ireland hurling championship is seeded.

Only the top teams compete for the Liam MacCarthy Cup; the rest are consigned to the secondary competi­tions such as the Christy Ring, Lory Meagher and Nicky Rackard Cups

In football the minnows are thrown in at the deep end, so it is inevitable that there will be one-sided matches and this leads to much of the criticism.

Finally, I’m blue in the face listening and reading about the so-called master tactical plan drawn up by Derry’s Brian McIver to stop Donegal last weekend.

As Bunny Carr used to say: ‘Stop the lights!’ Donegal won the game, so Derry’s system failed. It’s as simple as that.

McIver is not the only football coach who favours this ultra-defensive ap­proach based around stopping the opposition from playing.

He has fellow disciples in Jim McCorry (Down), Kieran McGeeney (Armagh) and Terry Hyland (Cavan).

These gentlemen are all classified as innovative coaches, yet none of the teams they manage will contest the Ulster final on July 19.

As I have been saying for 20 years, forwards are the future of Gaelic football.

The surprise victories achieved by Sligo and Westmeath simply prove that my theory was correct.