WHEN Con O’Callaghan dipped his shoulder and did that killer feint to the Tyrone defence before blasting to the net in the All-Ireland semi-final a few weeks ago, it felt like something of significance was happening.
Throughout the first half, as the Dubs sort of toyed with Mickey Harte’s team before opening them up over and over again with frightening pace and movement, the stadium made this collective noise of thousands of gaelic football fans coming to the same realisation at once. The last time I experienced that feeling was seeing Jim McGuinness’ Donegal side in full flow, against Cork and Dublin in 2012 and 2014, this sense of something shifting in the dynamic of the game itself, of something we hadn’t seen before about to become a gamechanger in many meanings of the word.
And now another era beckons.
The dawning truth a fortnight ago was basically that the Dubs were too good, too powerful, too quick, too intelligent, had too much individual ability to be stopped. It wasn’t Tyrone’s system that malfunctioned really. The players just weren’t anywhere near as good as Dublin’s in the basics of decision making and using the ball.
That seems to be the difference again now and it may be that after a few years now of perhaps slight over-emphasis from everybody on systems and styles that teams will again look to simply develop better footballers, to try and win games and titles by improving the players and getting them playing at their peak condition and form line.
In fairness it was a theme that All-Ireland semi-final weekend and in keeping with the way the year has gone in hurling too. Galway haven’t seemed a team overburdened with tactical manoeuvres, haven’t tried to be too clever with Joe Canning’s positioning and Micheál Donoghue generally seems to have found most everybody’s best form in a simple enough way.
As an aside, look at the Irish soccer team this past week. Some of the more hysterical reaction to the performance in Georgia suggested that an alternative system of play would allow Ireland play a more expansive style of football. And if there were certainly ways in which Ireland could have a more defined idea on how they wanted to play, it missed some facts about the technical deficiencies of the players, their basic inability to take and control and move the ball which couldn't really be rectified by any formation.
It’s been similar in the Gaelic football. It was Kerry attempting to cover up deficiencies in their defence in the replay against Mayo by bringing a man or two back but it didn’t really matter in the end.
Kerry’s younger rookies weren’t quite at the elite-challenging level they’d suggested from the league final and a batch of the mid-tier age haven’t perhaps lived up to expectations or kicked on from winning the 2014 All-Ireland title.
Mayo have been the second most obvious team in the country who’ve put a real focus and time into actively improving the players as footballers, working on their skill levels, improving their tackling, their weaker sides. The re-emergence of Andy Moran is a remarkable act of a player in his mid-30s actually becoming a better footballer through a different conditioning regime and a serious focus on how he played his position, what type of forward he was and that must come from having the kind of culture in the squad.
Cillian O’Connor has made himself into a scoring machine. Colm Boyle is having a year where he’s stepped his performance levels up another notch to big-game influencer. Keith Higgins seems to have one of those every summer. Mayo beat Kerry because they’ve developed as a better group of footballers overall.
Jim Gavin will get plenty credit for driving the process and they’ve clearly recalibrated after being eaten up by a defensive system in the past but Dublin haven’t so much improved their way of playing as improved the players playing it. Their basic kickpassing was always a strength but their use of the kickpass has improved. Almost every player on the team is now able to kick a point from a generous distance.
Their physicality broke tackles constantly the last time out and shocked Sean Cavanagh to the extent that he couldn’t understand how Tyrone could be so far behind in the strength and conditioning sector given the amount of time and resources they’d put into that area. Cork football management had already worked out at the end of last year that their middle third players were running a few kms less than Dublin’s in games.
It was startling to see some of Tyrone’s defenders and midfielders in that semi-final look so uncomfortable and lacking in knowledge of what to do on the ball in certain areas of the field, especially for a Mickey Harte team that ought to be so well-drilled and in possession of ball skills. Dublin have two midfielders who can contribute anything in any area of the pitch as needed. Look at all Dublin’s defenders (actually, all over the field) and how every single one of them has become a better footballer over the past five years or so.
It seems such an obvious thing but it’s not necessarily the case in inter-county squads across the country, where often players are still doing the same thing and making the same errors now as they were when they broke into the team four or five years ago. Kerry didn’t get through the Mayo game mainly because some of their basics broke down under pressure and they weren’t able to move the ball into the scoring areas of the pitch as fluently as Mayo were – The Sunday Game pointed out some very basic passes and decisions that went all wrong towards the end of the game.
When Darragh Ó Sé wrote an All-Ireland preview for the Donegal-Mayo final in 2012 he didn’t mention one single player in the entire column; we might call that time peak system as individuals seemed to exist only as part of a collective movement. Things have moved on again.
As inter-county managers make plans for the winter they might be moving back to coaching players and positions more than coaching systems. The game is evolving again to be more player-oriented and this opens up possibilities for the brighter managements out there.