OpinionPat Spillane

Lukewarm knockout clashes must be stopped

Dublin take Monaghan
Dublin take Monaghan

Last Sunday’s league semi-finals left me scratching my head.

For starters just over 20,000 fans bothered to show up to watch four of the top teams bidding for a place in the final of the second-most important competition in football. 
Deep down I know the reason for the poor attendance: League semi-finals are a complete waste of time and should really be scrapped. There should either a straight final or simply award the league title to the team that finishes top of Division 1.
But the vital ingredient missing from the Croke Park action was a meaningful, competitive edge to proceedings. This was reflected, for example, in the free count of 28 in the first game between Donegal and Cork.
I’ve seen more intensity in a five-a-side kick around in the schoolyard. Worse still, it was played in a funeral-like atmosphere. Come to think of it, I’ve attended livelier funerals. The tell-tale sign that a game has failed to engage the spectators is when the only voices resounding around the ground are those of the team management shouting instructions to their players. 
Mind you, it was interesting to listen to the mantra that the Cork bosses were delivering to their players. There were three basic instructions which were repeated over and over again: ‘pressure’, ‘no kick’ and ‘don’t give them a run’. So the secret to a successful game plan is out! 
Monaghan did appear more committed than the other three, but as they had suffered two bad hammerings from Dublin in the last eight months that was to be expected.
However, their demeanour at the final whistle didn’t exactly reflect that of a team that was crestfallen. They looked like a side relieved that they had escaped another tanking and, indeed, had claimed a moral victory of sorts. Now they could get back to the serious business of plotting a way through Cavan’s blanket defence in their forthcoming Ulster quarter-final clash.
Cork looked moderately engaged. They will be satisfied to have put the nightmare of last year’s semi-final meltdown behind them. They will also be content that their new defensive set-up is working well. Better still, in Eoin Cadogan and Fintan Goold they might have stumbled on a decent midfield pairing. 
Finally, any time a team scores four goals against as defensively-minded a team as Donegal, it has to go down as a good display. Donegal played like a team preoccupied with their championship clash against Tyrone. They looked fairly disinterested and were very un-Donegal like in their defence. Their blanket defence certainly won’t concede four goals in any of their championship games.
This brings us to the Dubs. They did enough to win without breaking into a sweat. Down in Kerry we describe that kind of performance as ‘fluting around’ Well Dublin ‘fluted’ through this semi-final in second gear. This brings us back to the point I made earlier about the futility of having league semi-finals. The problem is that managers now view them as a distraction.
Progress to the latter stages of the league is viewed as eating into championship preparation time. It is a bogus theory because no training session can replicate the benefits of a competitive match, even last Sunday’s lukewarm ones. Furthermore, winning builds momentum and confidence, which are vital ingredients for any successful team. 
Flaws which show up in knockout matches won’t disappear of their own accord. Yet coaches tend to ignore what happens in these games. Remember last year’s collapse by Cork in the final 40 minutes against Dublin in the league semi-final. Nothing changed in the championship for the Rebels, apart from the fact that the collapse lasted 65 minutes against Kerry in the Munster final!
In the other 2014 league semi-final Mayo contrived to throw away the contest against 14-man Derry. And they did exactly the same thing in the All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry a few months later! There were redeeming features about the two matches. We witnessed brilliant individual displays from Monaghan’s Kieran Hughes, Fintan Goold from Cork and, in particular, Monaghan’s Conor McManus, a truly class act. 
There was brilliant long-range point-taking from the Donegal trio of Colm McFadden, Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty and, of course, McManus, and we got an insight into ways of breaching the blanket defence. Tactics used in basketball are having an increasingly bigger influence on Gaelic football. Getting the three-point shooter on the ball in a favourable position is a key tactic and this is now being replicated in football.
Teams are trying hard to get the ball to their best kicker in the scoring zone. At times this goes against the grain of the safety-first approach favoured by most coaches, but perhaps they’re starting to remember the old adage: ‘You’ve got to speculate to accumulate’. 
In addition to the long-range shooting, I was also impressed by the scoring return of defenders and midfielders, who between them hit 1-17 from play – which represented nearly a quarter of all the scores. This illustrated how skilful modern-day defenders and midfielders are compared to their predecessors. It is also a by-product of the blanket defence, because when forwards retreat deep into their own half it invites their markers to pour forward and as Dublin’s Philly McMahon, for example, illustrated, they can score.
There were plenty of negatives as well. We witnessed how boringly repetitive the game has become. A lot of passages of play consist of a monotonous series of hand-passing movements. I wish I was watching these games on Sky+ were you can fast forward the action! It would eliminate about 70 per cent of the actual play.
I will leave you with the following statistics from the two matches which underline the slippery slope that Gaelic football is perched on. The four teams kicked the ball a total of 206 times with Donegal managing just 41 kicks in over 75 minutes of play.
The four teams hand passed the ball a grand total of 729 times, giving a ratio of nearly 3:1 between hand passes and foot passes. The ratio was 5:1 in the Cork v Donegal game, which featured 405 hand passes and just 90 football passes, with the Rebels registering 251 hand passes. 
It is time for the legislators to act and dust down that outdated rulebook.