None of the four National Football League Finals exactly set the world alight last weekend. In fact, most of it was pretty dire stuff.
Of all the winning outfits, only Offaly seemed to have enjoyed their victory. They won the Division 4 title when they beat Longford in a game that was typical Division 4 standard. Armagh followed with a victory over Fermanagh in the Division 3 final. I tipped Armagh as dark horses to won the Ulster Championship this summer. After watching them on Saturday evening, I would have to say that they are very dark horses.
On Sunday the day started with Down and Roscommon slogging in it out for Division 2 glory. It was patchy and mildly entertaining at times but again lacked any football of great technical fluency. Hopefully, Roscommon’s victory will add a bit of spice to the Connacht championship where Mayo haven’t faced serious opposition in recent times.
The main event of the weekend between Dublin and Cork was the biggest disappointment of all. Cork decided to let Dublin walk over them without putting up much of a fight. The soccer game between Arsenal and Chelsea was being broadcast simultaneously and I have to admit that I flicked between the two channels as Dublin went further and further ahead.
Dublin never had to extend themselves. It was as though Cork were saying “there’s the ball, you can play with it, we just came to Dublin for the weekend”.
So what did I learn from all the football that was played last weekend? For starters, the fun has gone out of the game. When was the last time you saw a player or manager laughing or even smiling? The entertainment value has diminished considerably.
As a Tyrone friend of mine quipped last Sunday evening, football now is like basketball. One team has the ball, everybody attacks, then the other team has the ball and they attack while the other defends. The majority of players just need to be good runners. Sprint to one end of the field and then sprint back.
How often do we see players stand toe to toe with each other where the art of defending used to be a craft in itself? Yes we will always need forwards who can score. The game has become robotic. Teams now play to systems and play in zones. Club teams even do it.
The other outstanding change is the tackle. The black card was introduced in order to curb cynical play. Repetitive fouling is punished with a black card. The contact has been reduced to a minimum. I probably wouldn’t survive in the modern game or maybe I would if I had two other defenders in front protecting me.
Players are afraid to commit to a tackle in case they are sent for an early shower. This is one of the reasons why teams play the blanket defence. Get behind the ball and crowd out your opponents. It’s a fail safe mechanism. Tyrone started it and Donegal perfected it. And yes both Tyrone and Donegal employed defensive systems before the black card was introduced. Now other teams have followed suit. Even the flamboyant Dublin team who pride themselves on attacking play has introduced an extra defender into their system. It works. We cannot blame managers for this development. The rules that are in place have dictated it so.
At the end of the day, teams will argue that they are not there to entertain, they are there to win. There’s a lot of talk recently about ‘burn-out’ and player disaffection within squads. The game is evolving rapidly. Teams are training longer and harder. Pressure to succeed increases year after year. Our ethos may be ‘amateur’ but the reality is that teams are becoming very professional in their approach.
There was an article in the Irish Independent’ last week with the heading ‘Inter-county GAA players suffering in college and family life’. Demands are such nowadays that players are being asked to choose between getting good grades and playing for your county. Those who are employed need to have very understanding colleagues and/or very generous managers.
The players and managers are merely pawns in this massive game of chess. As an ‘amateur’ game, the players cannot sustain this rate of evolvement. For the GAA out national games are tremendous commercial products. There’s an awful lot of money generated on the backs of our players. The day is not too far off when our inter-county players will ask for a wage.
Can we still pretend that we are living in an amateur era? The GAA is already a professional body where rights to televise games is in place at a cost, corporate boxes are leased out for a fee, ticket prices increase year on year and players are still expected to uphold the amateur ethos. I accept that it takes money to run any organisation and probably a lot to run the GAA. Still, it is the players who end up footing the bill with their commitments and sacrifices for the love of the game. There’s not too much love there currently and soon something will have to give!