OpinionPat Spillane

GAA's order is restored

Pat SpillaneBy Pat Spillane
COMPELLING: Anthony Maher and David Moran of Kerry battle with Padraig McNulty and Colm Cavanagh
COMPELLING: Anthony Maher and David Moran of Kerry battle with Padraig McNulty and Colm Cavanagh

ON THE day of the resurrection, Gaelic football lived to fight another day!

Indeed, the quality of the foot­ball on offer last Sunday was ar­guably the best we’ve witnessed in the competition.

On reflection, perhaps all of our reactions to the Dublin v Derry game were OTT. We need to reflect on a few blindingly obvious, but often overlooked, facts in this debate.

There were as many bad games in the past as there are right now. A tight, ul­tra-defensive game can be enthralling and occasionally entertaining.

Furthermore, the current crop of footballers are as good, if not better, than footballers from previous gener­ations. What’s different now is games are scrutinised in far greater detail.

Don’t forget that until less than 30 years ago there were FOUR live GAA football matches on television every year – the All-Ireland football final and semi-finals and the Railway Cup final on St Patrick’s Day.

Nonetheless, there is irrefutable ev­idence that the game is changing. The number of teams utilising the blanket defence is increasing, the scoring rates – particularly of goal scoring – are de­creasing and there is an inexorable rise in the number of hand passes per game.

So it would be remiss of the GAA’s top brass to classify all the recent criticism as mere rants which are best ignored.

Of course, one swallow doesn’t make a summer, but the quality of football on offer last Sunday was excellent. There was a variety of reasons for this – not least the improvement in the weather.

Furthermore, apart from the dead rubber between Derry and Cork – which attracted one of the smallest ever attend­ances (990) to a Division 1 encounter – there was something at stake in the other seven matches in Divisions 1 and 2.

There was an emphasis on positive, attacking football rather than dam­age-limitation, defensive tactics.

Take the Kerry v Tyrone game: For long spells it exemplified modern-day Gaelic football with lots of bodies be­hind the ball and overuse of the hand pass. Yet it was a really enjoyable game.

It was full of the passion and intensity which makes the game so compelling. Here was proof that fundamentally there is nothing wrong with the game, provided it is played in the right spirit.

Tyrone deserved to be relegated having failed to win any of their four home games.

Nonetheless, aspects of their perfor­mance were impressive. Their tackling, for example, was exceptional. They con­ceded no free within 38 metres of their goal and when they counter-attacked at pace they looked very effective.

They may not beat Donegal in their championship clash in May, but given a favourable draw in the qualifiers they could have a long summer.

Their weakness up front is illustrated by the fact that their score of 3-76 was the fourth worst in the league. Only Wicklow, Carlow and London scored less. Darren McCurry is their only quality forward. So, while they have become more competitive, their lack of forward power means they won’t win any silverware this summer.

Kerry, meanwhile, will be happy to have kept their place in the top flight. Other positives from the campaign were the performances of squad defenders Mark Griffin and Jonathan Lyne, the continued excellence of midfielders Anthony Maher and David Moran, and Bryan Sheehan’s wonderful, long-range free-taking.

Colm Cooper (right) and Darran O’Sullivan returned to action, Paul Galvin is back and James O’Donoghue and Donnchadh Walsh are expected to return shortly. Eamonn Fitzmaurice has an embarrassment of riches up front.

Kerry have cracked the code required to unlock blanket defences. Other coun­ties ought to take note. This is achieved through a combination of width in attack – wing-forwards and wing-backs hug the touchline – and variety in their forward play. Occasionally they carry the ball, they also use quick offloads and, most importantly, use kicked crossfield passes and floated kicks into Kieran Donaghy to telling effect.

Their Achilles’ heel this spring has been their defensive play. Their conces­sion of 9-90 leaves them with the fourth worst defensive record in the league – only Limerick, Louth and Wexford conceded more. It is hardly surprising that they missed out on a place in the semi-finals on scoring difference.

More worryingly, their tackling has been lazy and at times cynical.

Eight of Tyrone’s 17 scores came from frees and the overall free count was 31- 13 in favour of the home side.

But Fitzmaurice won’t fret over not qualifying for the semi-final. Right now they need training more than competitive games.

Tommy Walsh is still way off the pace and Fitzmaurice has to figure out a way of getting the best out of Cooper, O’Dono­ghue, Donnchadh Walsh, Paul Geaney and Donaghy.

As we saw last Sunday, too often they take the lazy option of lumping any kind of ball into Donaghy, which is far too predict­able and won’t stretch any self-respecting defence.

They sorted out a lot of issues during their training camp in Portu­gal last spring and will need to do something similar in the Algarve this spring.