15:45, 02 May 2012
“Just when you think it is in bother you get a great game of football, a great All Ireland final. That happens time and time again. However, the defensiveness of the game at the moment and the over-use of the hand pass is slowing it down and it’s boring. It’s not what our supporters want, we like physical contact and we like the game moving forward.”
New GAA President, Liam O’Neill
In the last few days Liam O’Neill has been defending that comment. He’s said it was misinterpreted. He’s said football needs to be nurtured. He’s said that he only meant the game was boring when teams played with certain tactics. No matter what way he put it though, you couldn’t help but feel uneasy at the new president having a go at the sport he now governs and trying to force the hand of teams to play the game with a certain style he finds appealing. What made it worse was he was covering his tracks at a press conference to announce a football review body that will look at the way the game is played and announce recommendations late in the year.
Had O’Neill been born to a different generation and taken charge of the GAA in that supposed golden era of the late 1970s and early 1980s, we might have been able to stomach his comment and his review group. Had he taken over the GAA in the early 1990s, after the many wars between Meath and Cork, we might have agreed with his wish to change the way the game is played. But now, when we’ve had two of the most entertaining championships ever in the three years prior to his election, his is a viewpoint that has little basis in reality.
The game has never been better or more competitive so we are not sure what era he’s comparing football with. On top of that, we still aren’t exactly clear what the point of his review group is. Even on the GAA’s own website it’s ambiguous. “There will be a lot of attention on the independent Gaelic football review body which will be established. What do you envisage as being the work of that group?” a question there asks. His response was is follows. “I’m looking for them to look at football independently and we’ve picked a hugely independent and widely respected figure in Eugene McGee to do that, and I’m really heartened that he said yes to me. When people see that he is in charge of it they’ll know that we’re taking it seriously and that it will be independent and that we’ll take on board whatever they come up with.”
Taking what seriously? And come up with recommendations in what areas? It's all very broad and even more vague.
Over the last few years, I’ve had several pops at analysts who talk about their own playing days as some sort of halcyon era. They base it purely on anecdotal evidence brought about by a bad and flawed memory. They romanticise about the past and judge the present by completely different and impossible standards. Indeed after the 2011 Ulster championship opener which was a drab and predictably brutal encounter between Armagh and Derry, I sat on a Newstalk panel and listened to McGee talk about the state of the modern game and how good it used to be. We wonder has O’Neill bought into some of this populist nonsense because let’s get empirical for a moment and look at the facts.
In 1982, McGee’s finest year as a manager when guiding Offaly to an All Ireland title and denying Kerry five on the bounce in a season often talked about as if something special, there were 34 championship games, and the average winning margin was 6.5 points per game. The average score a team got per game was 0.95 goals and 10.4 points, or 13.22 in total. That may have been the end of the greatest run in football but just because Kerry were that good and Offaly bettered them, that doesn’t mean football as a whole was in a healthy state. It most certainly was not.
Fast-forward a decade and again 34 games were played in the 1992 championship. The average winning margin was 5.85 points per game. Yet over the last three years, a time when O’Neill considered football ponderous and negative, the average score a team got per championship game was 13.41 and the average winning margin in that time was down to 5.7 points per game, despite the higher tallies being racked up. Add it all together and there has never been more top-level football games played - indeed there are close to twice as many as the 1980s and 1990s - they have never been higher scoring and they have never been closer.
We can’t prove it but we reckon the game is a whole lot faster as well. After another Newstalk panel recently, I got talking with Conor Deegan off air. He told me that on the Wednesday before Down played Armagh in their 1991 Ulster opener - a year they won an All Ireland - 12 players showed for training. There is simply no way they could have been as fit or fast as modern-day players who go on training weeks abroad and have sessions at 6am in January.
There’s more though. Thirty years ago there were three live games shown each year. Now there are three live games shown each weekend and yet early-season games are compared with past All Ireland finals. It’s the highest standards of a previous generation being used to ridicule the lowest standards of today. And even those past standards are wrong because those that yearn for yesteryear and less hand passing should take a look back at a full 70-minute game between Kerry and Dublin in the 1970s. It’s a rumour that has grown huge legs, so much so that many of the Dublin players from that era complain about it being shown so often because it makes them look bad. The endless long balls and wasted possession just to gain a few extra yards of territory really isn’t something to lust after or to belittle the modern game with. There was no contrast of styles or tactics or mindsets either. It was dull and predictable yet O'Neill considers today's football boring.
Take a glance at the last decade as well to see the improved standard of football. There were 13 counties in the semi-finals in the 2000s and an astonishing 20 teams have reached quarter-finals since the qualifiers began. There are still a limited number of elite teams capable of going all the way but look at Tyrone, one of the two dominant post-millennium forces in football. Since 2002 they’ve been beaten by Cork, Down, Meath, Derry, Laois, Mayo, Donegal and Dublin. The best teams in the supposed golden age never had so many counties capable of beating them nor were there the number of quality games.
In 2009, Dublin-Meath, Dublin-Kildare, Cork-Kerry, Cork-Limerick, Mayo-Galway, Tyrone-Armagh, Antrim-Donegal, Kerry-Longford, Kerry-Sligo, Wicklow-Down, Donegal-Derry, Kildare-Wicklow, Meath-Limerick, Meath-Mayo and Kildare-Tyrone all varied from good to compelling to brilliant for numerous reasons. In 2010, the same could be said of Sligo-Mayo, Sligo-Galway times two, Roscommon-Sligo, Louth-Kildare, Meath-Laois, Wexford-Dublin, Meath-Dublin, Meath-Louth, Kerry-Cork times two, Kerry-Limerick, Longford-Mayo, Wexford-Galway, Limerick-Cork, Down-Kerry, Dublin-Tyrone, Cork-Dublin and Kildare-Down. No previous era in football can compare with that.
Even 2011, which was disappointing in comparison with what went immediately before, had more high points than a lot of prior years. Kerry-Cork, Carlow-Louth, Dublin-Kildare, Dublin-Wexford, London-Mayo, Armagh-Down, Derry-Armagh, Clare-Down, Louth-Meath, London-Fermanagh, Armagh-Wicklow, Kildare-Meath, Limerick-Wexford, Mayo-Cork, Donegal-Kildare and Dublin-Kerry were all watchable, enjoyable and worthy of positive discussion. Just look at the counties covered in there too. It’s all well and good to talk of the elite of the past but when have the likes of Fermanagh and London, Carlow and Limerick, Wexford and Wicklow ever registered before on a list of good games. Those lists could have covered an entire decade’s worth of worthy viewing not so long ago.
In the ’70s, All Ireland semi-finals were decided by an average of eight points while finals were decided by 10. Over the last 10 finals that figure has dropped to four points. As well as a new-found competitiveness there is now a volume and a type of score not seen before. Between 1980 and 1990 the winning team in an All Ireland final was averaging 1-14. That would have won just five of the last 12 All Ireland finals.
It all shows O’Neill up in a bad light, and makes you worry about McGee and his committee. If, despite all the facts and evidence, they see football in the old days as better than the new days, what might they suggest and try to implement when this review is done with? Of course all sports could get better, but why review the way football is played when no era can compare with what we have now? What football does need is a review of how it works off the pitch, not on it, as O’Neill wishes. He has a product like never before yet a format that doesn’t maximise the number of top games we get and a marketing plan that has stadia empty for much of the year. That’s not boring, that’s just sad and such a waste.
We could have a committee changing formats and filling grounds so more people could get to see how good things are. Instead we’ve a committee trying to alter how good things are.
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