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Saturday 3 December 2016

Roche's Point: A glimpse into a scary football future

19 July 2015; Tommy Bowe, Ireland and Ulster rugby player, at the game. Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final, Donegal v Monaghan, St Tiernach's Park, Clones, Co. Monaghan. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE
19 July 2015; Tommy Bowe, Ireland and Ulster rugby player, at the game. Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final, Donegal v Monaghan, St Tiernach's Park, Clones, Co. Monaghan. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

Doubtess you've all tried (and failed) to read that column that begins with an opening paragraph detailing every columnist's worst nightmare - what to write about this week. So we're not about to bore you with more of the same ... except to proffer our eternal gratitude to the boss.

Because we were struggling with that aforementioned doomsday scenario until He Who Must Be Obeyed attached the accompanying photo of Tommy Bowe, resplendent in Farney Army attire, watching his beloved Monaghan on Sunday.

Eureka!

How about this for an opening premise? Just imagine if the Irish international winger had stuck to his Gaelic roots ... could Bowe be the X-factor that would transform Monaghan from Ulster kingpins into genuine All-Ireland contenders?

Marauding

We fancy Tommy as a marauding forward; we're pretty sure Conor McManus would appreciate sharing some of that scoring burden.

On second thoughts, scratch that idea and try this: Gaelic football is turning into rugby, and we don't mean that in a positive way either.

Rugby, at its thrilling best, engages the emotions like few others. Even in the solitude of your own sitting-room, you will involuntarily jump from your armchair, screaming out loud as that rolling maul grinds inexorably towards the line or as a certain Mr Bowe sweeps in on the end of a spectacular move to touch down in the corner.

Remember the last-day extravaganza of this year's Six Years Nations? It doesn't get much better than that. And yet, on another day, rugby circa 2015 can grind you down because it's all about 'the system' and not about the spontaneity.

Sound familiar?

Not every game of Gaelic football is going that way, but an increasing number are. Any team with serious All-Ireland pretensions must have a defensive game plan that goes beyond the outdated whimsy of going man-for-man.

And if you don't? Well, look what happened those poor innocent Sligo lambs to the slaughter on Sunday.

Having spent much of the past decade watching the evolution of Gaelic football's blanket defence, in all its forms, this column is sufficiently battle-hardened (or war-weary) to realise that going toe-for-toe is liable to eventually leave you with a bloodied nose, if you'll forgive us the mixed anatomical metaphors.

Even Jim Gavin's allegedly invincible version of the Harlem Globetrotters discovered this against Donegal last summer. Dublin have modified their defensive set-up in direct response; the initial results have been promising (far less goals conceded) although whether their attackers have yet figured out how to breach the most impermeable of blankets remains open to conjecture.

The night before that Donegal/Dublin semi-final, Kerry had emerged on the right side of a rollicking two-game saga with Mayo. Then Eamonn Fitzmaurice went to Croker and witnessed the fatal consequences of engaging with Jim McGuinness's defensive web . He looked and learned: Kerry's reputation as football's so-called aristocrats belies a hard-edged pragmatism.

Thus, Kerry 'out-Donegaled' Donegal and took home the cannister. As spectacles go, it was a pig of a final. Never mind: history is penned by the winners.

By the same token, Fitzmaurice learned from their recent escape-to-parity with Cork, reshuffled his (admittedly plentiful) resources and duly delivered another Munster title in Saturday night's replay.

Hideous

Played out in difficult conditions, the Kerry/Cork replay was absorbing enough without ever threatening to become a classic. A couple of hours earlier, Galway and Derry had met in a Salthill qualifier played in even worse conditions ... but even the hideous elements cannot excuse the dog of a game that ensued.

Here was a glimpse into the Dystopian future of what Gaelic football may become if more and more elite teams continue the trend towards 13-man defensive blankets, coupled with safety-first hand-passing moves that frequently go sideways, even 40 yards backward and (wonders will never cease) occasionally forward.

Corofin won an All-Ireland club title this year playing a traditional blend of 'Galway football' - ie, slick, lots of nifty foot-passing into sprightly forwards, and wonderfully attractive on the eye. But club football is a world removed from today's inter-county fare, and that style has done little for Galway's Sam Maguire aspirations in recent years. That helps to explain the, ahem, more 'pragmatic' approach adopted by Kevin Walsh this season.

Supporters are the ultimate in fickleness, and they will suck up the dearth of entertainment if it leads to success. Even Galway fans, who love their fancy football. But it's a hard watch for everyone else.

The following day's collision between Monaghan and Donegal was typical of what we've come to expect from Ulster football, where the system is king and it's all about making sure the opposition scores less than you, rather than you scoring more than them, if you follow the subtle difference. All very fascinating - in a grim sort of way.

This column watched it unfold on a small screen in the Hyde Park press box. Then we tuned into the Connacht final ... and it was like watching a different sport, not just a different game, as Aidan O'Shea ran amok in acres of space generously afforded by Sligo's paper-thin man-for-man resistance.

Where's a blanket when you need one?

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