Last weekend was not the greatest of weekends for Gaelic football. Dublin’s demolition of Longford by 4-25 to 0-10 was a game that effectively ended as a contest inside the opening five minutes when Diarmuid Connolly broke through to score the opening goal of the game for Dublin. Colm O’Rourke deemed the Leinster Championship an “absolute joke” at present, so when you add in Tipperary’s crushing of Waterford in their Munster quarter-final, is there really any point in provincial championship games any more?
It’s obviously not enjoyable for viewers to watch such one-sided games, so is it time for the GAA to step in and come up with a new approach to the Championship?
One solution proposed by Colm O’Rourke was that instead of playing mismatches like this, teams such as Longford would benefit a whole lot more by playing a Championship through the summer against teams of their own level. Teams are already afforded the opportunity during the League to play against opponents of their own level , and as was pointed out by Pat Spillane, competitions tailored for weaker teams such as the Tommy Murphy Cup have not worked out in the past.
Spillane suggested that a Champions League type format be tried out, in which weaker teams such as Longford would get to play at least three games against teams of a higher level to them, allowing for continued improvement of these teams, while also playing against teams of their own level, providing a competitive basis for them all through the summer.
Any potential solution will not arrive this season at least, so for now, how do weaker counties compete against their rivals for success? As was pointed out by Jim McGuiness this week, football is a game that is always evolving, and the real job managers have is adjusting their team’s system of play depending on what team they are playing.
Longford boss Jack Sheedy said before the game that his side would play Dublin man to man and would not bring players back behind the ball to defend. This tactic had its benefits, with Longford getting some fine scores from play, but ultimately, Sheedy’s men were simply unable to deal with Dublin’s attack and their ability to pass the ball off to another player running through on goal.
Sheedy didn’t really seek to deploy an extra player in defence at any stage of the game and while many commentators have criticised teams such as Cavan for applying such “ugly”defensive techniques, on the basis of last weekend, it seems that getting men behind the ball and suffocating the opposition’s attack is the only way for teams like Longford to avoid being hammered.
Sheedy himself said that one reason he didn’t use a sweeper was because the system takes years to implement and in order to do it, players would need to be trained over time and coached in how to use it. Bringing players behind the ball doesn’t always work and often takes a while for teams to perfect, such as Donegal under McGuiness.
However, other teams, such as Roscommon, Tipperary, Cavan, and to a certain extent, Galway have instilled various defensive systems upon their underage teams and have managed to get these young players to adapt to the gameplay required at senior level. Some may prefer the traditional method of playing the game, but for weaker teams at least, surely the game of football now requires these defensive strategies, or else teams risk being hammered by 27 points while playing the traditional man to man approach.
Now this writer isn’t saying that bringing players back behind the ball would have automatically reduced the deficit, or improved Longford’s chances. Longford were always up against it and even with an extra players back in defence, they still would have had to deal with one of the best attacking teams in the country at present.
While also reducing their own scoring capabilities. Longford are not a bad side, shown by defeats of Derry in the qualifiers in 2012 and again in 2014 and even if they were always up against it when facing the Dubs in Croke Park, they would fancy their chances in the Leinster Championship against teams such as Meath, Laois or Kildare.
Obviously, it didn’t help Longford’s cause that a lot of players that played for the county side over the last few years are now unavailable, most notably the retired Paul Barden, and although they had already defeated Offaly in their preliminary round tie, Longford were totally out of their depth in this one.
But Longford were damned if they played an extra man in defence and they were damned if they didn’t so is it time for a revamp of the provincial championships?If the GAA wants to improve the quality of football, surely some new approach must be taken to prevent these kind of maulings and the defensive strategies teams adopt when trying to avoid them.
Surely a format similar to the one proposed by Spillane must be followed, allowing weaker teams to play a mixture of games between stronger teams and teams of a similar level. Otherwise, these teams will continue to train all year and suffer heavy defeats such as this one.