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The misty-eyed and the enlightened

By RonanMcSherry

THERE are two types of followers in the GAA, or so some would have us believe.

They are the cloth capped misty-eyed who talk with reverence of the glory days of the 1960s, 70s, 80s… and the enlightened who always defend contemporary football and shake their heads in pity at those who do not understand the mechanics of the game.

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Not in my memory, which dates back to the late 1960s, have I heard the style of play in Gaelic football as vehemently debated as in the last few years.

While one camp derided the siege mindset of not losing, rather than mixing intense defence with attacking flair to win, the enlightened shook their heads in pity to patronise the critics, “The game is evolving, God love youse.” Patronise means to speak to or behave towards someone as if they are stupid.

Like most eras the seventies was a mix of the sublime, mediocre and ridiculous. Kerry and Dublin were a country and city mile ahead of the pack carving up every All Ireland title from 1974 to 1986 with the exception of 1982 when Offaly lifted Sam courtesy of Seamus Darby netting the most famous goal to grace Croke Park.

Some of the performances from the Dubs and the Kingdom were epic and all I know is we sat in the Central Hotel in Bundoran exhilarated when the sides met in the All Ireland semi-final in August 1977, the same week Elvis Presley died.
“Twenty-nine minutes still remaining in this game, hallelujah!” Micheál O’Hehir famously rejoiced.

Sure, looking back from hindsight street it was of its time with crude challenges and men drop-kicking and drawing their boot on the ball. It also has to be remembered the rules meant that every free and line-ball was kicked off the floor leading to many interruptions. Thankfully the GAA later moved to speed things up. I do recall the punters that day were enthralled by what they watched.

There were many awful games too, not unlike Dublin and Westmeath on Sunday as the gladiators had their opponents slain long before the referee blew the long whistle.

The 80s and 90s too, were the usual mix of classic and awful. Tyrone gave us great days in ’84 and ’86 while the Ulster glory years, the Meath -Dublin four game saga of ’91 and the sublime Maurice Fitzgerald lighting up September in ’97 were the highlights the following decade.

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And so to the noughties, as they are known, which was packed with scintillating games.

In this hack’s living memory the zenith is just over our shoulders and that Tyrone gave us the Glory Years was the special icing. Pat Spillane has a lot to answer for. He has since admitted being out of order describing the 2003 All Ireland semi-final performance as ‘Puke Football’ but the damage was done as undiluted Kerry begrugery set out to tarnish Tyrone’s achievement.

It was a supreme display of ferocious disciplined tackling that turned to swashbuckling attack with the outrageous natural ability of Canavan, Cavlan, McGuigan, Dooher, O’Neill and co.

It was a remarkable era with the Tyrone – Armagh rivalry and never to be forgotten great games involving the Dubs, Kerry, Mayo, Donegal and Sligo as well as the 2003 Ulster final draw against Down. Tens of thousands went down the hill back into Clones town buzzing that day.

Then Jimmy McGuinness threw a wet blanket over Gaelic football. It was when the game evolved, we’ve been told. In 2011 I sat in the upper Hogan Stand blinking in disbelief as Donegal put 15 players into their own half and the Dublin supporters bayed in anger.

“Are you here for a bleeding nil-nil draw” they screamed at the bemused Donegal folk. It was 4-2 at half-time although it held an ugly fascination like watching a boa constrictor slowly devour a baby deer. One viewing is enough though.

Ten minutes to go, the Jacks held a small lead and were reduced to 14 men. You’re thinking of the glory days of the 1970s, when Ali rope-a-doped and knocked out Foreman who had punched himself to a standstill.
But unbelievably Donegal stayed on the ropes, didn’t attempt to attack and lamely limped out of the championship.

Lesson learnt, and a year later they mixed it brilliantly with Murphy up front where he belongs – “keep Paddy at the mixer,” said McAlpine on his deathbed – and McGlynn, McHugh and friends bombing forward, Sam went to the Hills for the second time.

Then a plethora of teams played copycat but forgot the attacking part. It was awful.

Short kick-outs ala indoor soccer were conceded as naive managers told their charges to stay well back.
Games like last year’s Ulster final and the 2015 Kerry – Donegal All Ireland final  were abominations. Many of the paying public were furious.

Tempers rose as Jarlath Burns tweeted, “Gaelic football is dead.” It was an over-reaction. The game wasn’t dead, it was just very seriously ill.

Helped by the introduction of the ‘Mark’ and a return to foot-passing and pacey, rather than tedious movement upfield, we seem to have turned the corner. Buíochas le Dia! There have been excellent games in recent weeks.

Short-lived as it was, hopefully the worst era I can recall, is a thing of the past.

Whether the game was evolving or we were misty-eyed, it is the TG4 viewers who will watch those games in 30 years time that I pity.

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