review of the year | 

Pat Spillane: Why I’m not being the Grinch this Christmas

The high and not so lows of the Gaelic football year

David Clifford of Kerry emerged as the Lionel Messi of Gaelic football this year. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Shane Walsh of Galway was sensational in the All-Ireland final. Photo:Brendan Moran/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

The brilliant game of football between Armagh and Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final was marred by a fracas. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Pat SpillaneSunday World

My annual reflection on the GAA season used to be titled the Highs and the Lows.

Maybe I’m finally mellowing and won't be the Grinch this Christmas but describing the shortcomings of 2022 as ‘lows’ is a bit harsh.

It would be more accurate to describe them as issues which should been handled better.

Overall it was a decent year though maybe I’m blinded by Kerry’s first All-Ireland win since 2014.

But, genuinely, I believe the quality of the football has improved and the All-Ireland is now more competitive with little to separate the top half dozen teams.

THE HIGHS

DAVID CLIFFORD

The association’s first box-office megastar, he is our version of Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé. The best footballer in the game right now – and could ultimately be the greatest ever.

Of the 20-169 he scored in 2022, my favourite score was the clutch free he converted from an acute angle, near the Cusack Stand, at a crucial moment in the latter stages of the All-Ireland final.

As a footnote, he is the first player who consciously utilises the forward mark.

HIGH-QUALITY CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES

The high-profile picks are obvious: Kerry v Galway; Kerry v Dublin; Galway v Armagh. But three others: London v Leitrim and New York v Sligo in the Connacht championship, and the Tailteann Cup game between Leitrim and Sligo were top-notch as well.

SEAN O’SHEA’S FREE AGAINST DUBLIN IN the ALL-IRELAND SEMI-FINAL

A massive kick in every sense, because it effectively got the Dublin monkey off the Kerry backs. It was their first championship win over the Dubs for 13 years – and effectively was the score that won the All-Ireland.

O’Shea exhibited every quality you’d want in a leader, by taking the ball from goalkeeper Shane Ryan and accepting responsibly for the free. He had missed a first-half penalty and played poorly after the break, but he still stood up when needed.

Technically, the kick was a work of art. He planted his left foot alongside the ball, his head was over the ball, he followed through and kept his hands out for balance.

But the coup the grace was how he accurately judged what impact an anti-clockwise wind blowing into Hill 16 would have on the flight of the ball.

He aimed it ten to 15 metres wide of the right-hand post, and the wind carried it over the bar.

Had he aimed for the black spot, the kick would have sailed well wide of the far post.

CHAMPIONSHIP STATISTICS

With an average score of 36.9 points per game, 2022 was the third-highest scoring championship of all time.

The number of goals scored was the second highest on record. It was also one of the most competitive on record – the average winning margin was 7.9, compared to 9.4 in 2021. And there were less fouling than in previous year, with an average of 33 frees per game.

DERRY’S FIRST ULSTER CHAMPIONSHIP WIN SINCE 1998

It’s always refreshing to see a new face at the top table. I’m not a fan of their style of football, but their conditioning and work ethic were breathtaking.

TAILTEANN CUP

A roaring success. There was buy-in from all the competing counties. The majority of the games were very competitive, with an average winning margin of 5.6 – and the average score in each game was 37.1 points.

The Croke Park semi-final double bill was a big hit, and the best game was the Sligo v Leitrim clash which went to a penalty shoot-out.

The reception that the winners Westmeath received on their return to Mullingar illustrated how much it meant, not just to the players but the fans as well.

THE MINNOWS SHINE

The first weekend of the championship is usually a write-off. Not so in 2022, when the two games played on foreign soil – London v Leitrim in Ruislip and New York v Sligo in Gaelic Park – were cracking affairs.

Leitrim sealed victory with the last kick of the game, while New York were level with Sligo with just minutes of normal time left.

Aside from the games, there was a terrific atmosphere at both venues.

I was privileged to be in Gaelic Park, co-commenting for GAAGO, and witnessed my son Pat junior made his championship debut for Sligo. It was one of those special days.

Shane Walsh of Galway was sensational in the All-Ireland final. Photo:Brendan Moran/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

SHANE WALSH’S ALL-IRELAND FINAL PERFORMANCE

It might not have secured him the man-of-the-match award, but it was something special – as he kicked points with his left and right boot to bring his personal tally to 0-9. And he has been outstanding for Kilmacud Crokes in the club championship.

Like David Clifford, he is a special player who has the X factor – and his presence alone is enough to bring spectators through the turnstiles.

THE ULSTER CHAMPIONSHIP

Though there were three turkey shoots: Derry, Monaghan and Cavan beat Tyrone, Down and Antrim by 11, ten and 13 points respectively, the semi-finals and final were very competitive – at least in comparison to the other provinces.

SPECIALIST MAN-MARKERS

Specialist man-markers – such as Derry’s Chrissy McKaigue and Conor McCluskey, Galway’s Jack Glynn and Liam Silke, and up until the All-Ireland final Kerry’s Tom O’Sullivan – had outstanding championships.

SHOCK RESULTS

In the Munster championship Limerick beat Clare and Tipperary. Wicklow beat Laois, and Wexford accounted for Offaly in Leinster. In the qualifiers Armagh knocked out both Tyrone and Donegal, and Clare beat Meath and Roscommon.

MUST DO BETTER

PENALTIES

It was wrong, wrong, wrong that Clare (Munster championship), Armagh (All-Ireland quarter-final) and Leitrim (Tailteann Cup) were eliminated via penalty shoot-outs.

PÁIRC UÍ CHAOIMH

It was a disgrace that the venue was unable to host two scheduled championship games, including the provincial football semi-final between Cork and Kerry, because of a pop concert

The brilliant game of football between Armagh and Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final was marred by a fracas. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

ARMAGH v GALWAY FRACAS

This row left me seething, because up until it needlessly erupted it had been a thrilling game.

But, of course, we couldn’t talk about anything other than the fracas in the TV studio afterwards.

There were too many people on the sideline, members of the extended panels needlessly got involved – and the sight of the referee, his officials and GAA officials having a discussion on the field didn’t look great.

And the final farce was the referee’s decision to issue red cards at the start of extra time to Galway’s Sean Kelly and Armagh’s Aidan Nugent – the former had been acting a peacemaker and, thankfully, the card was rescinded for the semi-final.

ANOTHER INCREASE IN THE NUMBER OF HAND-PASSES

The average number of hand-passes per game i n 2022 was a record 413 – an increase from last year’s average of 391. The hand -to-foot pass ratio continues to go in the wrong direction.

In the championship, it was 3.4 hand-passes for every foot-pass. The average number of foot-passes per game has dropped to 127 – and 84 per cent of those foot-passes were uncontested.

There is also a noticeable increase in the number of short-kick-outs. In 2011, 85 per cent of all restarts went beyond the 45m line. Now just 50 per cent of kick-outs go long.

LEAGUE FINAL FARCE

The Division 1 and 2 finals turned into a farce because Galway and Mayo opted to focus instead on their Connacht championship quarter-final.

Mayo have won two Division 1 titles in the last 52 years, so their decision to effectively concede the game to Kerry was inexcusable. It backfired, because their season never truly recovered from the mauling they received that day.

FIXTURES SCHEDULE

I make no apologies for banging on this drum again. Forty per cent of all inter-county games finished at the end of February and 92 per cent of the inter-county games programme was completed by the end of May, with the All-Ireland finals completed before the end of July.

The fact that All-Ireland final football tickets were freely available, for anyone who wanted them, 24 hours before the game tells its own story. The pubic don’t like the new schedule.

THE LEINSTER AND MUNSTER FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIPS

Okay, there is a groundhog day issue here, but it cannot be ignored. The average winning margin in the Munster series was 17 points, and the final between Kerry and Limerick was a damp squib.

In six of the ten games played in Leinster, the average winning margin was more than ten points. The biggest margin was Dublin 23-point defeat of Wexford – and their winning margin in the final was 17 points, as they strolled to their tenth title on the trot.

TYRONE’S ABYSMAL DEFENCE OF THEIR ALL-IRELAND TITLE

Arguably the worst by any county since the start of the qualifiers in 2001. They were completely off the pace, and never generated the energy of tempo of the previous year.

A stuttering victory over Fermanagh in the Ulster championship was followed by an 11-point loss to Derry and a six-point defeat to Armagh in the qualifiers. Underwhelming doesn’t even begin to describe it.

ULSTER FINAL

It was tactical, intriguing and enthralling, but quality-wise it was pure dross. The reason was simple: the teams set up as a mirror image of each other – keeping possession, not taking the ball into contact and not conceding turnovers.

Worse still, Donegal had possession in the last minute of normal time – but instead of trying to engineer what would have been the winning score, they opted to keep possession and run down the clock. And they paid the penalty for their caution, as Derry overwhelmed them in extra time.

HAWK-EYE’S MALFUNCTION

Everybody in Croke Park, bar Hawk-Eye, knew that Shane Walsh’s 45 at the end of the first half in the Galway v Derry semi-final had sailed over the bar. At least, the mistake was rectified. But I still wonder has Hawk-Eye made other wrong decisions that we don’t know about?

Finally, on a personal note I want to wish everybody a very happy Christmas, and to again thank those who contacted me – I am still getting letters – to wish me well after I retired from working on The Sunday Game.


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