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gaa sos Just when we have got the inter-county game right, it may be time to save football at club level

There is something magical about county-final success in any grade. It lifts the spirit of the entire community.

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Pat Spillane Jnr has been welcomed into St Jude’s with open arms since making the move to Dublin three years ago

Pat Spillane Jnr has been welcomed into St Jude’s with open arms since making the move to Dublin three years ago

Pat Spillane Jnr has been welcomed into St Jude’s with open arms since making the move to Dublin three years ago

THIS is county final season in the GAA – a welcome opportunity to focus the spotlight on our lesser-known clubs and players.

Unlike the inter-county scene, there is still an element of romance in the club game. Fairy-tale wins still happen.

There is something magical about county-final success in any grade. It lifts the spirit of the entire community.

The spirit of Knocknagow still lives on in the 21st century. There is no better feeling than achieving something for the honour and glory of the little village.

And there have been some spectacular games in both codes. The Tipperary and Dublin hurling finals spring to mind immediately.

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Kieran Donaghy’s (left) not getting enough ball and was easily marked by Stefan Okunbor

Kieran Donaghy’s (left) not getting enough ball and was easily marked by Stefan Okunbor

Kieran Donaghy’s (left) not getting enough ball and was easily marked by Stefan Okunbor

St Finbarr’s and Castlehaven served up a classic in the Cork football semi-final. It was 3-16 each after extra time.

Essentially, it was a shoot-out between two top-class forwards. Stephen Sherlock scored 2-10 for the ’Barrs; Brian Hurley hit 2-9 for ’Haven.

St Finbarr’s prevailed in the penalty shoot-out when John Kerins Jnr, son of the late John Kerins, an All-Ireland medal winner with Cork, saved a penalty and then scored one.

But the best county football final I’ve seen so far was the Leitrim decider between Ballinamore’s Sean O’Heslin’s and Mohill.

Grudgingly, I have to admit there have been far more top-class club matches in hurling. Nonetheless, there have been plenty of romantic stories in football.

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The aforementioned Sean O’Heslin’s won their first title since 1990.

Watty Graham’s Glen won their first ever Derry title; Creggan Kickhams triumphed in Antrim after 67 years, while Lurgan-based Clann Eireann beat the famed Crossmaglen Rangers to win their first Armagh title since 1963.

Kilmacud Crokes won the double in Dublin and what about the heroics of Loughmore-Castleiney.

Today they are playing for the 17th weekend in succession. They face Thurles Sarsfields in the Tipp hurling final replay, having won the football title last weekend.

And let’s salute some of football’s senior citizens for their roles. At 38, Kieran Donaghy is still a class act for Austin Stacks in Kerry; Dessie Dolan came off the bench for Garrycastle in the drawn Westmeath final – he is 42.

Or what about former Galway star Derek Savage, who played for Cortoon Shamrocks in a relegation play-off at the age of 44?

I was in Parnell Park last Sunday for the Dublin football final. My son Pat was playing for St Jude’s. There is a prevailing narrative about Dublin football which I want to challenge today.

‘Dublin’s too big; it’s bad for the GAA with too much money being ploughed into it’. As Greta Thunberg might say ‘blah, blah, blah’.

One thing struck me about the attendance at the game. I have never seen so many families and young kids at any county final or, indeed, at any GAA match anywhere.

This illustrates the huge work being done by Dublin clubs to promote Gaelic games at grass-roots level.

In the run-up to the game it bothered me that a nasty narrative developed about St Jude’s use of players who weren’t born in Dublin. It was right out of order.

My own son’s case illustrates the actual situation.

Pat has been living and working in Dublin for over three years. He doesn’t drive; he wasn’t getting his game with his club Templenoe down at home and he wasn’t living too far from St Jude’s.

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Knockmore’s Kieran King (centre) with Belmullet’s Ryan O’Donoghue (left) and Marty Boylan

Knockmore’s Kieran King (centre) with Belmullet’s Ryan O’Donoghue (left) and Marty Boylan

Knockmore’s Kieran King (centre) with Belmullet’s Ryan O’Donoghue (left) and Marty Boylan

Actually, it was my daughter who introduced him to the club. She had a friend who was playing with them and he invited Pat along to training – where he was welcomed with open arms.

What can I say about St Jude’s? They gave Pat a chance.

The coaching he received was brilliant and they gave him the confidence and belief he needed to become a better player.

Their holistic approach is second to none. In St Jude’s it is all about the person, something which is often forgotten about in club football.

St Jude’s are now his family in Dublin. All his friends are in the club.

So St Jude’s is no different to any GAA club dotted all over Ireland from Kilgarvan to Killybegs. They are about community and family.

But most of all they give young men and women an opportunity to play the game they love while they are working and living hundreds of miles away from home.

Long may that welcoming mat be rolled out. This spirit of inclusivity is what the GAA is all about.

Thank you Jude’s – keep up the good work.

Of course, all stories don’t have fairy-tale endings. For everybody involved in the club the result was heartbreaking.

St Jude’s were the better team for most of the game. But during the last 20 minutes I had a terrible sense of déjà vu.

I was transported back 39 years, and a few miles down the road to Croke Park, to the 1982 All-Ireland football final.

I kept thinking of what happened that day. Subconsciously, Kerry retreated into a defensive shell in the last 20 minutes and tried to protect our lead

It allowed Offaly to come back and we paid the price. In a flash the five in a row disappeared.

Like Kerry, St Jude’s paid the same price last Sunday and their search for a first Dublin title will continue.

Sport can be very cruel. But Jude’s will be back – because they are a resilient bunch.

But all the drama in the club games cannot disguise the fact that much of the football being played in the majority of county and provincial club matches this season has been mediocre.

Just look at the scorelines from last weekend.

Ulster Club: Watty Graham’s 0-8 St Eunan’s 1-4 (13 scores).

Mayo final: Knockmore 1-9 Belmullet 0-6 (16 scores).

Dublin Final: Kilmacud Crokes 1-7 St Jude’s 1-6 (15 scores).

Leinster Club: Blessington 1-7 Mullinalaghta 1-5 (14 scores).

In perfect conditions in Tralee last weekend, it was 0-3 each at half-time in the Kerry club semi-final between Austin Stacks and St Brendan’s.

Belmullet’s first point came in the 28th minute. Kilmacud scored one point in the first half, as did Blessington, though both still won. And though St Jude’s dominated the first quarter, they didn’t have a single shot on goal.

These statistics are a throwback to National League games in the 1960s, played in the depths of winter with the old leather football.

Yet elite club teams are now on a par with county sides in terms of their preparation. No stone is left unturned.

The players’ fitness levels, conditioning and skill levels are higher than at any time in the history of the GAA. So, what’s the problem?

The fear of losing, an abhorrence of risk-taking, and fretting about the opposition, dominates coaches and players’ thinking

The golden rule is don’t give away the ball. This coaching mantra has produced the awful spectacles we have had to endure in recent weeks.

It is about all about keeping possession, and constantly recycling the ball across the pitch.

Kicking is a rarity, unless it is directed backwards. As for long kicks into the forwards? You must be joking!

What we are witnessing is a kind of bastardised version of Gaelic basketball.

The team without the ball all retreat back into their own 45, while the team in possession brings it forward at a snail’s pace.

In basketball the attacking team are always looking to get their shooter into position, or probing for a chance to execute a defence-splitting pass. Not so in Gaelic football.

No one is looking to deliver the killer pass, come off the shoulder or even try and get their kicker into the scoring zone.

For long periods last Saturday night one of the best target men in the game, even at 38, Kieran Donaghy stood on the edge of the square and not a single ball was kicked into him.

At least another Kerry club, Kerins O’Rahilly’s, have had the good sense to not just position 6ft 5ins Tommy Walsh on the edge of the opposition parallelogram, they actually kicked the ball into him.

And guess what? Walsh has been the form forward in this year’s

Kerry’s county championship. It’s called common sense.

Sadly, in modern coaching parlance the KPI (Key Performance Indicators) are all about keeping possession and not taking risks.

The idea of speculating to accumulate, or taking a 50/50 chance is frowned upon.

The funny thing is the inter-county game has moved on from this barren thinking.

But, at club level, it appears that the majority of coaches have taken the Jimmy McGuinness manifesto as gospel.

So, they believe the key to success is to deploy a blanket defence and hit the opposition on the counter.

Of course, I get the idea of keeping possession.

But when teams attack now too much ball is played in front of defenders; no one is asking questions of the backline; no one is trying to get in behind the defence.

As for identification of space and getting a player into it? Well, it is all considered too risky.

Despite what many people say I’ve only ever used the term ‘puke’ football once.

However, if I’m forced to endure many more games featuring blanket defences, slow build-ups, ‘keep ball’ and low scoring, I might be forced to dust down that immortal phrase.

Just when we have got the inter-county game going in the right direction, it may soon be time to launch a campaign to save Gaelic football at club level.

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