As the All-Ireland final approaches again it is time to take a look at the state of Gaelic football in the year its imminent demise was forecast with a proposal which could reinvigorate a moribund and torpid championship.
Anyone who has read either of the excellent “Inverting the Pyramid” by Johnathan Wilson or “The Managers: the Tactics and Thinkers that Transformed Gaelic Football” by Daire Whelan, treatises on the history of the tactical development of soccer and Gaelic Football respectively, will realise that team sports are in a constant state of flux between competing tactical ideologies which mould the style of play du jour.
Indeed, just as styles make fights in boxing parlance, it is the clash of different schools of tactical thought which creates the indelible contests and rivalries of each generation. Just as the cautious pragmatism of Milan’s catennacio met with the free-flowing joy of Ajax’s totaalvoetbal, so too did the overlapping, inter-changing attack of Down in the 1960s with the seemingly impenetrable dominance of Kerry’s catch-and-kick dynasty.
Over the years, in both codes, tactical change has been rampant and unavoidable, as upstart teams challenge the conventional order of things with new ploys to gain dominance. Consequently, the modern variants of these two games are woven from the fabric of the ebb and flow of ideas of tacticians of yore who sought to improve their own station in the game with innovation and cunning.
As such, those who lament the defensive, counter-attacking approach of teams like Tyrone and Donegal, while pining for the “good old days” when Gaelic football was played the “right way” are missing the point. How can there ever be a right way to play a game? If there were, how would dominant teams, adept and comfortable in that approach, ever be challenged?
Gaelic football, for all the predictions of its impending doom, finds itself in a state of rude good health amongst its best exponents amidst the backdrop of a tactical revolution. The competing philosophies of the top teams serve to offer up some of the most absorbing and pulsating matches in recent history when they meet.
The “cut-your-cloth” approach of Kerry meets the tidal wave of irrepressible Dublin attack on Sunday in another All-Ireland final which promises a game of unparalleled speed, skill and athleticism. This is to say nothing of the swashbuckling Mayo side which shrugged off the challenge of an aging, but grimly determined Donegal, or the Tyrone of Mickey Harte whose fitness and physicality almost carried them to an unlikely victory over Kerry.
The proponents of rule changes, such as the banning of the short kick out, to return Gaelic football to a tactic free utopia, which existed, only fleetingtly, if ever, in the distant days of the early 20th century, are misguided in their concern. It is the relentless tactical innovation and improvement of the top teams which creates the conflict necessary for the game to thrive.
A case in point is the kick out. Once a cursory, automatic facet of the game requiring the ‘keeper to adopt a safety first approach, the kick out has become one of the main tactical weapons in any team’s arsenal. So much of the tactical analysis and discussion of Gaelic football in the media, both print and broadcast, now revolves around kick out strategies of opposing teams, that to impose a blanket ban on short restarts would be to rob the national discourse on the game of one of its most fascinating components.
More damagingly, however, would be the resultant imposition of tactical straitjackets on managers seeking to play the game on their own terms. Rule changes which impose such tactical rigidity, in a misguided quest for an unnecessary panacea, have the potential to kill the tactical development of the game. If this is lost, so too will be the thrill of the fight.
The GAA ought, instead, to look towards its competition structures to remedy what is its biggest malady – the lack of meaningful games between teams of similar quality. The month of August is manna for the Gaelic football fan as the wheat has been largely separated from the provincial chaff allowing for the types of closely matched encounters Championship football thrives on.
Indeed, it is not only when the top teams get together that the most enthralling of games occur, a fact ably demonstrated by Meath and Westmeath, two decidedly average teams, when they played out a back and forth thriller in the Leinster this season. The joy of that game, however, was obsolete when an overmatched Westmeath faced Dublin on Leinster final day. The fact remains that the GAA’s structures remain lopsided when it comes to provincial competitions.
It is a lucky quirk of the era that in any given year the four best teams in the country are likely to find themselves alone in their province as Kerry, Mayo, Dublin and Donegal/Tyrone/Monaghan, the designation of Ulster’s best is a moveable feast, make up the premier squads in the country.
Therefore, the All-Ireland semi-finals are likely to contain at least three of the country’s best teams in any given campaign, masking the failings of the provincial system. Under the current scenario the best team in the country is likely to make it to the last four in a purely knockout competition based on geographical location as much as footballing ability.
To arrive at this stage in the competition a host of meaningless, uninspiring games between the titans of Division 1 and their provincial serfs must be played out before the monotony of the qualifiers where small fry knock each other out for the privilege of a day out in Croke Park for another drubbing from big guns. The result is an on-pitch product which rarely delights.
The solution is simple and appealing. The game is currently organised into four divisions, with a marked difference in standard in each. The creation of a new two-tiered championship format of 16 teams each, with knockout seedings tied to regular season performance, would create a more level playing field for all by pitting teams of similar ability against one another.
Moreover, the removal of arbitrary provincial designations from the equation would mean that only the most deserving teams, in terms of quality, would hold the right to duke it out for Sam at the end of the season. The regular season followed by play-off format would allow for the best teams to earn an easier draw according to their level of dominance and would remove the distorting effect of one-off upsets, prevalent in purely knock-out competitions, from the awarding of the national title.
Recognising that any team from outside of the top two league divisions has little to no chance of winning the All-Ireland, and creating a second tier for such teams, with promotion and relegation between the tiers, would not only aid the development of the game in these counties by providing a full season of competitive matches but also enhance the product on the field by creating matches between teams of similar quality.
By adopting a forward-thinking attitude and removing the shackles of tradition the GAA can ensure the continued growth and health of its leading sport by simply restructuring its competitions to reflect the state of the game nationwide.
Offering teams reward for their performance and reasonable goals to strive toward can only benefit the game in the long run.
Brian Corcoran, Pundit Arena